Risks were a part of everyday life for kids in our kind of environment; but we learned early how to assess them, and most of us got through the early part of our childhood with nothing more than a few scars and broken bones. These injuries you could wear like badges of honour: a long scar along a forefinger from a broken insulator you were trying to toss onto a neighbourhood roof, a small indentation in your forehead where you tripped and fell onto a rock; a couple of ridges on kneecaps from a sports injury. But for all the close calls like these, I believe I was only once in real danger of losing my life, although it didn’t seem that way at the time.
My older brother, the youngest of my three senior siblings, was something of (and later became) an engineer. Like our father, he had a penchant for anything mechanical, electrical or structural. On the basis of the same kind of inventive reasoning that had inspired his numerous other oddball ventures – an electric Billy cart, a trailer to fit same, a side-by-side tandem bike, to name a few – he decided to dig a structurally supported well in the backyard. This wasn’t an altogether unrealistic aim, since the water table lay only a metre and a half beneath the surface of our sandy yard.
I can place this event definitively in the school holidays, because it was the only time we kids were likely to be around home for days at a time without our parents, both of whom were working. We began digging early, about ten in the morning. As we descended, my brother, his friend and I took shifts in the hole, bucketing soil to the surface via an impressive block and tackle my brother had rigged up over the aperture. The soil was easy to shift. The sand beneath our yard wasn’t the kind you’d find on the beach; the house had been built on cleared and drained estuarine wetland, compressed silt that was firm enough to stay in place unless it got wet. Cutting into it was like cutting into chalk.
Once we got a metre or so down, my brother started setting palings into place, hammering them in place so they formed a self-supporting frame. He also produced an old wooden painter’s ladder, which when anchored against the wall provided easy access to the pit. True to expectation, when we’d dug down a metre and a half, the bottom of the hole began to fill with water. The puddle spread, until it was about ankle deep, at which point it stopped rising. But the water continued eating into the adjoining walls, which slumped into the mud once they became sodden. My brother solved these problems in one fell swoop, quickly conjuring up a wooden platform to sit above the puddle. More slats were added to the lower walls to reinforce them. The end result looked more like a mineshaft than hole, a boxed cavity about sixty centimetres square, replete with a wooden ladder and a plastic bucket suspended on a rope from a tripod above.
That should have been it, the conclusion of the project. I’d gone along with digging the hole because I was essentially the junior partner in an interesting venture, and when the hole was finished I shared the exhilaration of success with my brother and his mate; but once or twice when I’d been down the hole I’d hear the whisper of sand moving behind the walls of the shaft, and I was secretly relieved that I wouldn’t have to go back down.
So I don’t know what possessed me, when my brother suggested running a tunnel off the main shaft, to agree that it was a good idea. Perhaps it was his preparations: he’d made up a series of electric globes, connected to one another by a long extension cord, that could be fed into the tunnel as the excavation progressed, and he’d already assembled an extra stock of pre-cut slats and braces that could be used to shore up the walls and ceiling every thirty centimetres or so. He’d even made up a rigid metal tube that could be hammered down from the surface at intervals to provide ventilation.
With dusk coming on, we concealed the hole with a suitably inconspicuous cover of planks and old canvas. My brother maintained his fierce enthusiasm for the project across the narrow strip of carpet between our beds, and by morning had somehow persuaded me to do the first shift in the tunnel.
“Will you do it?”
“I’ll do a little bit – the first bit – but after that someone else’ll have to do it.”
What I failed to ask him, and what he neglected to tell me, was how long the ‘first bit’ was going to be.
Having secured my concurrence, he filled me in a few more details. He reckoned it would be good idea if we worked towards the house – a distance of some twelve metres – and came up under our older brothers’ bedroom. He made a point of telling me not to tell our parents about it.
We took our time getting organised next morning. We didn’t want to get active until Mum and Dad had gone to work, so we spent some time holding a strategy meeting in the back shed, which also served as Dad’s home workshop. My brother assembled the necessary tools: a truncated hoe, a trowel, a torch and the bucket, attached to an extended rope that would reach from the work-face to the surface. These were on hand when we lifted the covering and gathered around the hole. My brother and his mate reconstructed the derrick and escorted me to the ladder. The idea, my brother said, was to start the tunnel at my waist height about half a metre above the platform in base of the shaft and make it about the same dimensions, in the direction of the house.
I started digging enthusiastically, dropping the sand into the bucket and tugging on the rope, re-filling it as quickly as my brother and his accomplice upstairs could return it. But when, having dug about a metre in from the shaft, I had the makings of a tunnel and began crawling into it to collect my payload of dirt, the job started to get tedious. The air was dusty and close, clogging my nostrils; small pellets of debris kept flicking up from the hoe into my eyes as I chipped away at the soil a couple of hands’ lengths in front of my face. The awkward reverse shuffle, belly down along the tunnel to the shaft dragging the bucket, became increasingly laborious as the dig extended.
I jacked up, and said it was too hot down below, I’d done enough. And I reckoned it might be dangerous. My brother considered my complaints and offered irresistible solutions: he’d put the lights in, hammer in a couple of ventilation vents and shore up the walls with more paling supports. I remained skeptical, but had to admit that the improvements seemed impressive.
It wasn’t until I got back down to the tunnel and resumed digging, that I discovered the shortcomings of the modifications. The air quality and dust remained the same; the string of swinging lights were hot and strung a few centimetres overhead, delivering several stinging burns as I reversed with the laden bucket. The supports looked okay, but the sand continued to sag and drop around them, a problem that grew worse as the tunnel’s length extended.
By the end of a two hour shift, I’d dug about two and a half metres. It was time for someone else to take over. My brother’s mate, a big kid, reckoned he was claustrophobic and balked at going into the tunnel, which left my brother with no choice but to take a shift himself. He took a long-handled shovel and rake down with him and worked at a fair distance from the face, chipping at the soil with the tip of the shovel then scraping it back down the tunnel to the shaft. He only lasted an hour or so, and extended the tunnel by less than a metre, a fact I only became aware of when I reluctantly agreed to do the day’s final shift. After five minutes ‘down the hole’, I was filthy, hot and dehydrated, and a good candidate for carbon monoxide poisoning. Nevertheless, I was determined to make good progress; an energizing mix of fear and resentment spurred me on, so that by mid-afternoon, when I finally emerged, the tunnel was over five metres long.
Dad came around the corner of the house just as I reached the surface – he’d come home early; I still don’t know why – and summed up the situation immediately, his eyes flicking quickly from his filthy offspring to the derrick to the layer of dark sand we’d spread across the lawn. This silent analysis went on for about thirty seconds, with the three of us kids frozen to the spot.
There are many ways of demonstrating anger, and Dad’s style was the ‘steely determination’ kind: he came over, looked down the shaft, then descended the ladder and peered into the tunnel. When he climbed back out, he brushed the dirt off his hands, shook his head for a moment then delivered a sharp, perfunctory lecture about what happens to anyone entombed when such a tunnel collapses, which he reckoned in our case, digging in sand, was on the cards. It wasn’t a time for saying anything in response, so we just stood there and waited for it to be over.
Our punishment was severe. My brother got a harder time than me. Being three years older, he was apparently “old enough to know better.” We were ordered to remove the entire infrastructure immediately – the derrick, the lights, the paling walls – and fill in the excavation, or at least as much of it as we could do safely. He ordered us not to go back into the tunnel, just to fill in what we could from the entrance and leave it.
We set to work immediately, shoveling and raking as much dirt as we could from the lawn back into the hole. It started raining, which turned the sand into a muddy slush, making the job especially difficult. The work continued till well after dark under the light from the shed, with Dad regularly checking on progress. Mum stayed away There was no mention of the lamb roast we were missing out on.
We were black with soil, soaked to the skin and completely exhausted by the time we finished. We waited in the rain until Dad came out to inspect the result. He took his time doing it, then ordered us to mound the remaining soil – there seemed to be a lot of it left over – on top of the shaft entrance. He reckoned the soil would drop once it compacted. His final word on the matter was that we were never to do it again; it was too dangerous.
He proved right in this. It rained steadily the next day. The soil above the shaft subsided substantially, as did the lawn above the tunnel when the unfilled section of the roof collapsed. And he didn’t have to nag us about the dangers: a few weeks later, a couple of neighborhood kids suffocated when a shelter they were digging in the nearby sand-hills caved in and entombed them.
Categories: My Story