It was the summer after my eleventh birthday and I was growing. I stood 4'9” and weighed 120 pounds which, by far, made me the biggest kid in the group. This made it easier to climb the trees, leap over the top of ravines and climb the crumbling walls up to the top of whatever cliff was in our way. Anybody who lived near the quarry had explored it but I doubt few ever entered the "Bat Cave!" The Bat Cave was actually an exit of the storm drain system for the city of Villa Park. It was a flat-faced slab of concrete with a 6 foot round hole in it 10 feet up. It also had a date stamped in it with a year in the 1930's. Fortunately, for us, there was a rope that some daring adventurer had left for future expeditions to utilize. For our first foray into the cave we brought flashlights with us. We entered cautiously because the floor was, though flat, very slick with moss. Natural light from the entrance only made it in about fifty feet before the flashlights were needed. Around this time the floor became rounded as we entered the pipe section. We made it about fifty more feet when we saw them, live bats slumbering the day away in the small cracks between the pipes every five or so feet (hence the cave’s nickname). The pipes were about five feet inside diameter so I was having to duck a little and once we got to the bats I was done for the day. We all retreated back to the entrance full of boyish excitement from our dangerous trek, already making plans for the next day’s expedition. I don't recall every trip into that cave that summer but I remember the first two and the last one.
For the second attempt, we came better prepared with flashlights, water, food, empty coffee cans, and nets for catching bats. This was a scientific mission to retrieve some bats to study and release later that night. So we re-entered the cave and proceeded to the bats and caught five of them. We put them into coffee cans (holes poked in the lid for air) and left them there as we explored onward. Soon we came to the first grate at the Lincoln and Center intersection. The grates in this area are about 4' by 4' heavy grade steel grids built for cars and big trucks to drive over. We could climb up the ladder and see Villa Park Elementary on the corner. So, having determined where we were, about 400' from the entrance, we started moving to the next grate which was located in the middle of the elementary school driveway. I don’t recall which time it was that summer but I actually spoke to two girls I knew from the school through that grate. They thought we were crazy but we considered it adventure. That is not to say that we weren’t scared, which we were, but discoveries had to be made! Eleven year olds and their imaginations! Am I right? I would say, to this point, the most terrifying moments were when a car would drive directly above us, the rumble would make you think the pipe would cave in, the pipes were in the middle of the lane. The grates were worse because the sharp clapping of the steel on the cement was startling and deafening! The pipe was about four feet tall at this point so I was ducking the whole time which was taking its toll on my back. We were about 400 feet from Villa Park Road so we headed to the next grate. This was the busiest intersection on Center Drive and we could hear the rumbling as we approached it. The rumbling was much louder here than anywhere else, due to the volume of traffic. That was it! We had enough and turned back. We collected our bat specimens on the way out. Later that night we released them in the elementary school playing field with all their buddies. We went back for more bats several times that summer, pushing farther each time. We had gone about two thousand feet by the second to last trip but it was the last expedition that was epic!
First, I need to go over just how dangerous this was from the perspective of a man with over twenty years of underground construction experience. We could have been bit by bats, rats, or other animals trapped in there. The place was slippery and one of us could have been seriously injured by slipping. The air was humid and smelled of rot and mold. The infectious properties are disgusting to ponder (though much cleaner than a sewer pipe). The water level was two to three inches of flowing water mostly from sprinkler runoff and the chance of drowning was minimal since it was summer and we only went on bright, sunny days. On occasion there would be a gush of water from a small feeder pipe, but we would manage to get by it. When I was a few years older, on a very rainy day, I went down to the first grid to check how high the water was. It was full to the brim and splashing up to the grid. The most dangerous aspect of these treks was the chance that we would wander into a gas pocket with no oxygen. We would have suffocated right there. Our bodies never to be found since the next heavy rain would wash us away. We never told anyone we were going to the quarry let alone the bat cave. But what eleven year old would think of these things? Why should they?
The last epic trip was actually a quest! We were going for it - the other end of the storm drain, however far that was. It couldn’t be that much farther. Funny thing, looking back now, we had no idea if there was an end at all! We left all of our scientific bat gear behind and only brought water and some food and headed in. The sounds of the cars above was not scary anymore, nor the bats for that matter. The dark, the unknown and the ever smaller pipes were the scary part but we were determined to make it unless we pussed out like usual. Within an hour we had made it to Taft Ave, our farthest point so far. We came upon a chamber with a manhole above us. There were multiple pipes in it heading in four directions. We turned up Taft because we could see light and it was slanted upward. Since the start, we had been moving uphill, against the flow of the water, looking for its source, and we always followed light hoping for an end to the tunnel. Once we turned up Taft, it felt like we crawled forever before we hit another intersection. I would later learn it was Lemon. We could see more light up Lemon so we went that way. None of us had a watch but it must have been three to four hours since we entered the bat cave. We were soaked, stunk, and were on the verge of panic! A couple of us even cried, we thought we might die at this point. The air was heavy and we were exhausted! It was decided that we would exit at the next light source. We pushed to the next light but the pipe was too tight for me. The kid in front of me could barely fit but he wasn’t strong enough to push the grate up so we could get out. That was my job. Two of the kids didn’t care and crawled up and made it to the catch basin but they couldn’t lift the grate. The three of us pushed on as we heard the other kids yelling for help. As we crawled (more like slithering on our bellies by now) the sound of traffic grew louder and the pipe grew brighter as we moved closer. It must be the end! We thought. We could barely hear our friends yelling as we pushed forward (they would be rescued soon enough). About fifty feet ahead of us was our goal and freedom from these tight, dark and miserable conditions. We had to turn again and we entered a small chamber and we saw them! Four or five pipes leading out of this terrifying place. It was one of dozens of storm water inlets scattered throughout Villa Park.
The next few moments changed me forever! The pipes to freedom were tight but I could barely squeeze through them. The boy in front made it through his pipe easily but encountered a grate covering its entrance which he squeezed by and he was out. He yelled back about the grates on each pipe and I thought I was dead. There was no way I could make it back to the entrance being as fatigued as I was. Meanwhile, the kid that was behind me went up the same pipe as the kid in front and also got out. They were looking for a loose grate they could pull out enough for me to get through. Eventually, they discovered the unlocked lever that lifted the grates away from the pipes. While they searched, I was alone in there wondering why I had done this. Adventure? Yes. To die? No. I was going to finish this! Once, the grate was open all I had to do was squeeze through the pipe! Though I wouldn’t realize it for decades, this moment resulted in my fears of MRI units, crawl spaces, being restrained, trapped (Ironic) and a few more for the rest of my life. So, I lay on my side and put one arm out in front of me and the other down my other side. I had to curve my shoulders to fit and my hips barely had enough clearance. I had to push along only with my toes gliding on the slimy bottom. That didn’t bother me and I never had a fear of water or other moist places. For, what seemed like forever, two minutes roughly, I pushed. Finally I was able to get my hand out and they pulled me the rest of the way out. I was free!
I spoke about the fears I had developed at that moment but what I learned about myself was even more beneficial to my life. ALS has left me "trapped" but the fear is not there. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s the subtle but steady transformation to paralysis which has allowed me to adapt. I don’t know. I’m just happy that fear isn’t my companion.
The one great thing I learned that day was perseverance! If you really want something, you will have to push through the hard stuff to reach your goal! I did it with school, marriage, fatherhood, and life in general. That doesn’t mean I didn’t quit on things, but those were trivial compared to the above.
So now, as I near the end of another tunnel, I sit here recalling the dangerous things I did as a kid and what I learned from them. I never returned to the Bat Cave again, though the others did. I stuck to safer stuff like going to construction sites and jumping off second story roofs into sand piles. Good times!