By: James Bates
The summer when I was eight years old a new highway began being built about a mile from our farm. My older brother Lewis and I were fascinated by the huge, noisy machines: road graders, dump trucks and bulldozers. When our chores were completed, we’d ride over to the creek, go for a swim and then head over to the construction site, sit on in the shade of an oak tree and watch the heavy equipment tear up the land. Back then we thought it was the coolest thing we’d ever seen.
One day in July we watched a bull dozer cut into the side of a hill, carving out a scar for fifty yards, exposing at one point a steep, fifteen-foot-high embankment of sand and dirt. Lewis turned to me and pointed, “You know, Arnie, over the weekend they don’t work. Where that cut is, we could dig a cave.”
I pictured us being Navajo Indians living in a cave dwelling in the southwest desert and said, “Sure!” Lewis was four years older than me and I looked up to him not only as my big brother but as my hero. I’d do just about anything he suggested. A cave sounded like a great idea.
He grinned. “You’re all right, little brother.” He punched me affectionately on my arm. “Let do it.”
So, we did.
That Saturday the sun came up white. We knew it was going to be a scorcher so we hurried through our chores before it got too hot and rode like maniacs to the site. Sweat was pouring off us when we got there.
We set our bikes down and scrambled up the side of the embankment. About three feet from the top Lewis marked out a spot. “I’ll dig,” he said. “You get rid of the dirt.”
So that’s what we did. He used a short-handled shovel we brought from home to do the digging, pushing the dirt out to me as he moved into the hillside. I grabbed armfuls and pushed it over the edge of the hole where it tumbled down ten feet or so to the bottom of the cut.
We were so excited we worked without a stop. The soil was mostly sand and by noon we had a four-foot-wide hole dug eight feet into the embankment. It was hard work and we were sweating and exhausted when we finished.
“Let me check it out,” I said, while Lewis sat on the edge, resting and looking out over the torn-up land that was becoming the new highway. “It feels cool in there.”
“It is.” He moved out of the way and let me crawl in. “Just be careful. The that one side is loose. We might have to prop it up.”
I crawled to the back of the cave, thinking how neat it was to have a place for just me and Lewis with no adults to bother us. We could play to our hearts content.
I was on my stomach, feeling the cool sand on my arms and legs. “The side seems strong,” I said, when, in the blink of an eye, the walls gave way and the whole thing collapsed, completely burying me.
I’d always been afraid of dark places. My biggest fear was being buried alive in a coffin and here I was buried alive in our cave. The first thing I noticed was the complete and utter silence. I couldn’t hear a thing, not even the beating of my own heart. Was I dead? No, I was very much alive.
Claustrophobia took hold. I tried to scream but dirt came into my mouth and nose and I started choking. I couldn’t move my arms or legs. I was trapped. Then I felt my heart. It was thudding like a bass drum, ready to explode in my chest.
I tried to control my rising terror by thinking about something pleasant like Grandma’s apple pie, but it didn’t work. The complete and darkness was scaring me to death, and I fought back tears. My breaths were coming in shorter and shorter bursts. It was getting hard to breathe due to lack of oxygen. I was suffocating. The dirt was crushing me from on top and the more I fought it, the more it held me captive.
I had the presence of mind to stop struggling to conserve air. There was so little of it, I started getting dizzy. The horrible thought came to me that I was going to die. I pictured my Mom back home hanging laundry on the line. I pictured Dad tinkering with the tractor. I’d never see them again. I gave in to my tears and starting crying.
I’m pretty sure I had passed out for a minute. I came to when I felt a strong hand grab my foot and start pulling. Then I heard Lewis’s voice, “I’ve got you, Arnie. Push. Push hard.”
I could still breathe, but just barely. Was my brother really saving me? His hand on my foot told me he was. I felt a surge of adrenaline and used my elbows to push against the sand while Lewis pulled on me. I wiggled and wiggled and wiggled some more, getting freer each time. Working together, he yanked me into the open.
I came out gasping for air. I could breathe!
We slid down to the bottom of the cut and Lewis checked me over and brushed a ton of dirt off me. “You’re safe,” he said.
I coughed and spit, sucking in huge gulps of air. “Yeah, I am,” was all I managed to say. I’d been saved by my big brother. I hugged him and started crying.
We stayed close to the farm for the rest of the summer. There would be no more cave digging for us. Ever again.
“One and done,” Lewis said to me when we rode our bikes back to the farm after the cave in, and I agreed.
And that’s the way it is to this day. “One and done,” we’ll say to each other whenever it comes up. Which, trust me, after what we’d gone through, was hardly ever.