Friday, April 17, 2009

Xortal-Times Turn (Chapter 1, part 1)

It was noon.  The sky was a bony cold gray and the air heavy.  An old outdoor thermometer hung on a fence post, its metallic base rusted and bent.

A good day to be in a cave, thought Tony as he stepped out of his vintage Volkswagen Beetle and slipped into his jacket.  He parked next to the fence and noted the long temperature gauge...52º F.  "Warm weather for January, eh bub?"  he said as his friend Vern stepped out of the car on the other side.

"Wait around awhile, it'll change," quipped Vern, tucking his head into his hunting cap, ear flaps still folded up inside.

Both friends turned toward the side of the clapboard frame house and Tony, reaching the outer basement access door, leaned down and swung the heavy, angled wooden door first up and then over to his right.   Vern snapped hold of the door with the metal clip on the ordinarily free hanging chain attached to the side of the house.  Strong winds were common enough to warrant this protection from premature closure.

The basement was part of an 1870's home and hence only undercut a quarter of the house now sitting above it.  Since it was only 14' by 14' wide, Tony was tempted to believe that it was the basement to the original pioneer home carved out from the forest in 1795 when his eastern ancestors traveled down Clear Creek from the point where Harrods Trace crossed on its way from the Kentucky River to the fort at the Falls.

He and Vern pulled the worn cardboard box of caving gear from atop the bare earthen wall of one side.  Vern pulled out the helmets as Tony supported the wet, weak bottom of the box.  The acrid smell of spent carbide permeated the gear and, mixed with the dank air of the basement, created a seemingly alien atmosphere.  Yet to the boys it was a pleasant smell, the smell of life and safety and hope in the power of men to advance into the hostile world below.  They climbed out of the basement with a sense of muted excitement, a sober eagerness that precedes physical exertion.  It would take great effort to dig into the karst window, without the certitude of finding a passable cavity below.  Even if found, it was likely that such a passage would be a belly crawl, pinching out in an unpassable convergence of stone.

At 26 (Vern, born on June 17, and Tony on August 6), both boys were strong with youth.  Tony was thicker in bone and muscle and wore a down-turning mustache across his face.  Vern was taller, but not by much, and sported a light beard.  His features were otherwise aquiline, if a little pudgy.  Tony's features were angular and his eyes were set far back below bony protruding eyebrows.  Vern had blue eyes, Tony hazel.  Vern was already losing his hair in a broad swath atop his head.  In this, he was like his father.

"Here you go, bub," said Tony, dropping the box on the blue table on the clapboard house porch.  "Start pulling out the about a cola?"

"Diet, man," said Vern.  He was a diabetic, although diet cola seemed to be his only conscious accommodation to the disease.  Cola and the shots, that is.  Vern loved to grin at Tony as he dropped his trouser-leg, brought out a needle and syringe, pierced the rubber seal on a vial of insulin, and literally smacked the needle into his thigh.  The thought raised goose bumps on Tony's arms, the sight just paralyzed him.  "Here man, give it a shot!"  taunted Vern, thrusting out the spent cartridge toward Tony.  It was a sliver thin needle and that made it even more frightening.

Out from the box came the caving gear.  The hats were ordered from a caving store and looked something like old Prussian helmets without a spike.  They were held firmly on the head by a four point strap.  Ground mud in numerous cuts and scrapes in the hard cap plastic testified as to the need for helmets and tight straps.  It also testified to the two years of experience both cavers now claimed.  Mounting brackets on the front of the helmets would accept the carbide lamps.

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