Tunnel ahead

To a group of junior high kids landlocked in a Midwest suburb, a gaping storm sewer culvert looks like an invitation to adventure.

The tall concrete tunnel emptied into a wooded area where we built forts in the brush on the edge of the neighborhood. On a normal day, only a trickle flowed from the culvert’s mouth into a creek that wound through the weeds.

My friends and I sized up the risks. We could easily walk in without getting our sneakers wet, and it was tall enough that we could stand fairly straight with only a little crouching. It was a storm sewer, so there was no bodily waste, just rain runoff likely mixed with a healthy dose of automotive fluids from suburbia’s station wagons. Besides, if it was dangerous, they’d put a gate up, right?

Having been schooled in expeditions by the latest TSR products, we decided torches would provide the best illumination. We wrapped dried leaves and paper around the ends of twigs. Someone had matches. I’m sure each of us had a flashlight or two back at home, but where’s the fun in that. There was a larger stick to fend off any rodents we might encounter in the underdark.

Properly equipped, we headed into the yawning entrance, our feet part way up the rounded walls to straddle the trickle below us. By the time we needed torches, we realized how overrated they were. But what they lacked in light, they made up for in hacking and burning away the spider webs that adorned our path. Soon the torches burned out, and we began to navigate by match light.

Traveling in the dark without landmarks, it’s easy to lose track of time and distance. None of us had thought to count paces, and soon our quest imparted another truth: Subterranean suburbia isn’t any more exciting than surface suburbia. This wasn’t the underpinnings of some ancient city. This was a forest that was leveled to plant a cornfield that was leveled to build a housing addition. There were no forgotten catacombs or salt mines. No blast-proof bunkers waiting for World War III. Just spider webs and strange smells.

There weren’t even any rats.

The original question about where the tunnel lead was eclipsed by a more practical question: Turn back or keep going?

There was a light ahead, a faint glow.

After glancing at the darkness behind us, we continued forward to a rusty ladder that headed up to a manhole. We scrambled into the daylight, scraped the heavy iron lid back into place and looked around. We were about a block into the neighborhood in the middle of a street.

A man watering his lawn with a garden hose looked on as we nonchalantly walked away.