Tunneling

We dug a hole so deep that it wrecked a tractor, and that’s all that most people remember about it. We dug it using only a red, chipped spade, a dented hoe and our hands, which we protected with my mother’s spare pairs of gardening gloves. The idea came to us while my two brothers and I were gathered in the guestroom of our country house, a house that we visited every weekend and for longer periods during the summer. It was early in the morning, and we were listening to a scratchy audiotape of science songs. All of us were lying side by side on our backs, hanging over the edge of the large, quilt covered bed. The walls were green then. Only the cabinet light was turned on, and everything but the tape player was silent inside the house. It was the end of August and the morning was still dark; all we could see out the windows was blackness and our puffy eyed reflections. A song came on about the planets. Throughout my childhood, I had always found the thought of the universe overwhelming and tried to avoid thinking deeply about that “beyond” I had heard mentioned. I was mostly interested in rocks then, and I kept my collection on the windowsill in the kitchen. I had written labels for each kind, drafted in my brand new second grade cursive. My older brother started throwing out facts he remembered from a book he had read once about Pluto and I was paying only marginal attention.

When he ran out of things to say he abruptly stopped. My head was beginning to pound from being upside down so I sat up, just as the man on the tape sang jauntily, “The world is like a great big grape fruit, 25,000 miles around! You could dig from here to China, if you could dig through the ground—”a woman’s voice matter-of-factly cut in, “But you can’t. Here’s why…” and she went on to talk about the earth’s asthenosphere and it’s core, using big words I didn’t understand. I wanted to see China, I wanted to find gold, I wanted to break a world record and for all of these reasons my brothers and I, in that room, on that early morning in late summer, decided to dig a tunnel through the center of the earth.

We started immediately, clad in goggles for eye protection and baseball helmets my parents had bought for us at a yard sale. It was slow going at first. We hadn’t anticipated the rocks. The spot we picked was on the far side of a large field—just on the border where the mowed grass met the wild flowers. My parents sat on the porch eating berries and watched us work. We took turns digging, sharing the tools and going in shifts to the kitchen to refill our plastic cups with powdered lemonade. We took few rests and continued like this all through the day, and then all through the next. Eventually the rocks began getting bigger, and as we dug down we also had to dig outwards to get at their edges. The handle of our spade grew loose, our hands were blistered and we were frustrated. The initial excitement of a new project was gradually evaporating with the sweat on our necks. Nothing was as we had expected. According to our initial estimates, we were supposed to have hit the earth’s mantle by that point, but when I stood in our hole, it was barely as deep as the rim of my rain boots. September started and we went back to school. In the fall we often went to visit the hole, and in the winter we’d come by occasionally to scoop the snow out—there was something comforting about seeing the hole when you looked out the kitchen window, surrounded by a field of white. We also found that it served as a good place to stash snowballs.

Each summer we’d spend another day or two working on the hole, on days when the local pool was closed, or when we were tired of climbing trees or catching frogs. However we lacked our initial fervor and our additions were relatively unsubstantial. It was reassuring though, to have something to do, even if we didn’t know why we were doing it. As we grew bigger we began using the larger shovels, and were able to move some of the heavier rocks. It was a while before we realized that after it rained, the hole could function as mud bath or a pond for a single person. Water skimmers and toads shared the water with us. When the goldenrod came out we could sit in our hole surrounded by a curtain of mustard-colored yellow flowers and watch the butterflies and yellow jackets.

As the hole began to become useful, our interest in its expansion was once again stimulated. We drafted plans for a pond, which then transformed into a hypothetical swimming pool. We designed deck chairs and an umbrella for the lifeguard to sit under and our parents smiled and nodded and told us to keep digging.

Then, that too wore off. Years passed and we became aware of ourselves. We were left with a house and a yard and a hole. Our time in the country was often spent reading, shucking corn for dinner, or sitting around the fire talking. The only time I’d visit the hole was when I was mowing the lawn, and even then I regarded it primarily as a nuisance that I had to steer around.

It was years later that we got the call about the tractor and its almost catastrophic encounter with our hole. As our lives became filled with lessons, friends and schoolwork our precious trips to the country grew less frequent. My older brother left for college and took his quilt with him. The labels of my rock collection had been blown away by drafts from the open windows and swept up with the rest of the trash. The tape of science songs was in basement somewhere, with the Easter baskets and the puppet theater. The only time we made the three and a half hour drive to our house in the country was on a few of the long weekends and for that last week in the summer before school started.

We were sitting around the dinner table one night in the city when the phone rang. The contractor we had hired to install a septic tank under our old baseball field, had been backing up in his tractor when a wheel had rolled into the hole. The contractor wasn’t hurt, but confused and not knowing what the hole was, borrowed some dirt from the work site and filled it up. What had taken us seven years to dig, a bulldozer filled in with one shovel. Now, the land is level, and the fresh dirt has disappeared under grass and stalks of milkweed. But there was a hole there once—on the edge of the field where the short grass met the long grass and it served its purpose.

Elodie Freymann, Age 16, Grade 11, Trinity School, Silver Key

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s