Damn! I must be getting tired. Thank goodness for word-processing software. Delete. Start again.
This doesn't seem to be going anywhere. Knock off now? The night is still young. How about a ten-minute break with "Flight Simulator"? Maybe a quick game of "Adventure"? Why not? Fifty thousand hackers can't be wrong. It may be the first, but it's still one of the best. Besides -- I never do have enough time to play. And it always reminds me of my caving days.
I am rooting through my mother's basement, trying to ignore the smell of roasting turkey. My water bottle is thick with dried mud. My heavy brass carbide lamp is muddy outside; disassembled, it proves full of still-moist, pungent, spent carbide.
Get bag. Empty lamp. Drop bag.
I'm getting my caving stuff together. I wire-brush the worst of the caked mud off my helmet, trying to contain the fist-sized chunks on spread newspaper. I hose out the inside of the helmet with hot water -- no point in starting the trip with mud in my hair.
Fill bottle. Fill lamp. Roll sleeping bag. Roll coveralls.
It seems like twenty-three scruffy people pile out of the van. A thin woman in denim with a red kerchief holding her hair back introduces herself as Patty Crowther. I've never met her before -- only read about how she found the long-sought passage between Mammoth Cave and Flint Ridge, corresponded with her, and talked to her on the phone. She introduces her husband, Willie, as he steps out of the bathroom, shakes the water out of his beard, and finishes zipping his fly. Totally unembarrassed, he shakes my mother's hand as the next wayfarer closes the bathroom door.
There are actually only five of us in the van. Not too uncomfortable -- the back is covered with foam pads and sleeping bags. It's going to be a long night's drive to West Virginia.
Alan is driving through heavy traffic on Roosevelt Boulevard. He swerves to avoid a station wagon. Willie, riding shotgun, turns to tell him, "There are two rules for the driver: don't scare the passengers, and you pay your own tickets." Then he turns all the way around to the rest of us. "Passengers: try not to scare easily." We chew on leftover turkey and coffeecake pressed on us by my mother.
Everyone on the trip, it turns out, works with computers. Willie and Patty are at B B & N, working on a government-funded project called the ArpaNet; Alan studies physics at Harvard; Peter is with a defense contractor on Route 128. I have half a million pictures of elementary-particle collisions to process for my physics thesis at Brown. We talk about computers, then folk music, then sing for a while.
"Musha ringum durum da
On the open highway we finally settle down in our sleeping bags.
We are driving through open forest, with a deep valley to one side. Willie is driving now, mostly with one hand. He drives with his knees as he adjusts his seat belt. We drive into and out of the dawn as we make our way through the mountains.
At an overlook nearly out of the mountains, Patty takes over the driving and I the navigation. We breakfast on bologna sandwiches -- a Crowther trademark, and the source of some consternation. I am less than charitable on the subject, while Peter and Alan, who've been through his before, are amused.
"Yummmm. Protein," says Patty brightly. I eat my bologna.
We pile into the Court Restaurant. I get the West Virginia Cave Survey logbook from the counter, and we check the last few days' entries and then sign in ourselves. WVACS stalwarts Jim Hixon and Roger Baroody are in town -- good news: we'll get to do some useful mapping and have a decent place to sleep.
We gorge on eggs, steak, juice, toast, and hash browns. Yankees all, we pass up the grits. By the time we're downing our second cups of coffee, Jim Hixon comes in. We agree to meet at a nearly unexplored cave called Ash Hole in an hour's time. On our way out, Hixon's black Lab barks at us from a pickup.
Willie has no trouble following Hixon's directions. We find the Ash family farm and see the typical signs of a nearby cave: flowing streams and limestone outcroppings.
By the time Hixon arrives, we've changed into our caving gear and tested our lamps. Alan favors a wetsuit under overalls. Peter sports wool longjohns covered with denim. The Crowthers use four layers: string underwear, then woolies, then knit cotton, then denim. I wear waffle-weave thermal underwear, denim clothes, and nylon airman's coveralls. Vibram-soled boots and mining helmets with lamps accessorize our ensemble. Peter and Hixon and I use brass Justrite carbide headlamps; Alan and the Crowthers electric headlamps with belt-borne battery packs. Willie carries a climbing rope slung across his chest and, from the sound of it, has pitons, bolts, and carabiners in his pack.
Our preparations are methodical, soldierly. At the same time we joke among ourselves.
Hixon brings a large canvas bag full of survey equipment -- tapes, compasses, and hand-held transits -- in addition to his caving gear. We fall in, single file, behind Hixon and his dog.
We have to cross the stream several times. At one crossing there is a cow that has been dead at least three days. The Labrador worries at and rolls in the remains. Jim tries to get the dog to wash off in the stream, but the animal is having none of it.
This is how all caves seem to start: a hands-and-knees crawl leading to a belly crawl. I am excited, hesitant, and uncomfortable, all at the same time. Each wiggle and squirm into uncharted cave adds another bruise or scrape to an elbow or knee.
Hixon's dog, smelling abominable, runs back and forth among us. The passage is so tight in spots that I have to take my helmet off and push it in front of me, and crawl with my head turned sideways. I contemplate albino saprophagous insects at close range.
Soon the cave turns downward. The air is heavy, wet. Narrow passages open up into small rooms, then continue steeply downward. This whole area of Greenbrier County is drained by underground streams, leaching their way through the limestone. Ash Hole will take us to the water table.
After a room that looks like the vortex made when a bathtub drains, we find ourselves ankle deep in freezing water. Hixon draws a bull's-eye near the top of a large rock with the carbon deposit from the end of his carbide lamp's acetylene flame. Below this, he writes, "A1" in large letters.
The Crowthers, experienced mappers, set about surveying their way back to the entrance from the water table: the level will be useful to the local farmers as well as to WVACS. The rest of us continue exploring in ever deepening water. Hixon and a draftee will back-survey to A1 when we finish exploring.
The stalactites here evoke the lower chambers of Mont St. Michel, but the stalagmites are soon invisible under the reflection of our lamps on the water. We separate to explore diverging passages and discover that they rejoin in a larger, vaulted room.
The cold water brings new agony at each joint: ankles, knees, hips. By the time the water level reaches my chest, I am shivering uncontrollably. I want to continue exploring, but realize I must turn back. Alan volunteers to go with me, despite my protestations.
Ash Hole is relatively easy to get out of. The only place where we get confused is the vortex room, which has several identical-looking holes leading in different directions. Despite the exertion of climbing out, my teeth are chattering, hard. I panic momentarily, but after ruling out several passages we find survey marks and push upward.
Seeing the fading daylight at the end of the passage brings a physical sense of relief. I count each wiggle and squirm. I get to 240 before I am able to stand up and climb awkwardly out of the cave.
At the van, Patty gives me a concerned look and orders me to strip off my wet clothes and get in to my sleeping bag. My teeth are chattering too hard for me to argue. Hours later I awaken with the shivering and chattering stopped, and gratefully feel body warmth from both sides.
The last explorers have returned and are changing by carbide lamplight. In a few minutes we are driving to the WVACS field house.
Someone has built up a fire in the potbelly stove downstairs in the "field house" -- a small, rundown, uninsulated two-story wooden farmhouse. Still a bit chilled, I sit upstairs nearly above the stove. Willie has his guitar out and is singing, softly, with Patty and others harmonizing.
Hixon's dog has eaten our hamburger as it sat thawing. Nobody really misses it at this point. I wonder how anyone could have let the dog into the house smelling of dead cow.
Another survey team donates hot soup to our cause. They are all from the applied math department at VPI. Willie and one of the Blacksburgers talk about communications protocols as I drift off to sleep.
Except for Willie, none of our party will listen to Roger's enticements of virgin caves and glorious surveys the next day: we're just too tired and sore. We pick one of the prettiest caves in the area for a sightseeing trip. No exploring. No surveying. No long crawls. No really difficult climbing. Pure joy.
The winter in Providence is bitter, and my preparations for the Ph.D. qualifying exams are deadening. By April I am literally climbing the walls of my room -- warming up for a rock-climbing trip with the Crowthers.
The Crowther's living room seems a rustic haven in suburban Arlington. I rest my mandolin carefully on the floor and myself clumsily on the couch. I stay on the edges of several conversations as cavers and other friends of the Crowthers come and go.
When the Crowther children are sleeping soundly and only Alan and I and the Crowthers remain, I take out my mandolin and Patty her banjo. We play standards: "Old Joe Clark," "Soldier's Joy," "Careless Love."
Willie calls Patty to bed. We play "Dueling Banjos," "Cripple Creek," "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" -- faster and faster, enjoying the interplay of the instruments. Willie returns and glares at us. We put our instruments away reluctantly, sheepishly. Patty disappears into the bedroom, and I lay out my sleeping bag on the rug.
Willie is driving the van with his knees, but there is little traffic on the turnpike. He and Alan are playing chess: Willie mental, Alan using the board. Willie has already trounced me soundly with a pawn-knight attack kingside. Patty has decided to stay home with the girls.
I have already climbed once with Willie and Alan, at Quincy Quarry. After I bought the Climber's Guide to Quincy Quarry and saw that it was by one Willie Crowther, MIT Outing Club, and that half the climbs had been put in by the same W. Crowther, I thoughtfully neglected to take it with me to the quarry.
Today we are tackling the "Gunks" -- the Shawangunk escarpment, perhaps the finest rock climbing area in the east. Willie is the picture of a lead climber carrying his climbing rope, wearing a Chouinard seat and chest harness, the array of chocks and carabiners on his equipment sling clinking as he moves. Climbers don't compete outright, but they certainly compete: climbs are numerically graded by difficulty. Equipment collections are a sideshow.
In a pocket Willie has a shiny new Climbers Guide to the Shawangunks, a present from Patty. She has highlighted the routes with first ascents by W. Crowther. Willie does not volunteer such things.
Willie leads on extremely hard routes rated 5.10, 5.11, and beyond. I am lucky to follow on 5.5 routes. I have climbed in the Alps, in the English Midlands. Experience I have -- it is size and strength I lack.
We set up at Horseman, a highly exposed 5.4 climb done in three pitches. Willie leads casually, putting in chocks and clipping into fixed pitons with little apparent effort. He has done this climb many times -- it is a favorite training route from his MIT Outing Club days. Alan and I watch in wonder, trying to guess which way the route will go without consulting the Guide. As Willie traverses out a ledge that overhangs our position, we look at each other nervously.
I am belaying Willie loosely, but attentively. I don't expect him to fall, but I wouldn't put it past him to jump off the rock to see if I can catch him. Within five minutes he has clipped himself into a fixed piton at a one-inch ledge four feet across, eight yards up, under a three-foot overhang. He calls "off belay"-- the first call he's made since starting the climb.
I clip into Willie's rope, call "en belay," and start to climb slowly. What were convenient handholds and footholds for Willie turn out to be finger-cracks, tiny ledges, places where lichens cling. Willie keeps a few inches of slack in the rope, no more. I'm not going to fall very far. Nevertheless my adrenaline soars as I cling to an exposed position, pick my next handhold and foothold, concentrate, shift my weight, lunge, commit myself to the move. Life shrinks to rock, wind, cold: one hand, one foot, pull, lift. Muscles ache and cramp, sweat soaks my shirt.
I manage to reach the belay ledge in ten or twelve minutes, slowly but honorably. All of Willie's protection pieces are on my sling, and I have not called for tension or fallen. Once I'm clipped in at the belay ledge, though, my fingers cramp and my legs do a bad imitation of a sewing machine.
As he belays Alan, Willie tells me he's had twenty-four MIT freshmen on this ledge at once. I'm somewhat surprised it can hold more than two. He explains that most were simply hanging on slings clipped into the fixed pitons. Somehow the chitchat calms me down, and I let the rusty piton hold more of my weight. Gradually my fingers and legs straighten and my breathing slows down to near normal. Finally I am centered enough to admire the view. Eventually Alan reaches us, I set up to belay Willie, and Willie disappears behind the overhang.
Alan is driving the van home. Willie, in the back, is marking up assembly listings and posing puzzles for us to solve. Alan eats this up. I am less enthusiastic. Sore muscles make me cranky.
After ignoring ten or twelve brainteasers, I am caught by the problem, "Prove that a grasshopper can jump as high as a person." Alan has no clue for this one. I venture, "Let's consider scaling theory."
"Umm… The density of flesh, to first order, is the density of water."
"OK. Now what?"
"If the density is constant, then the weight and mass go as the volume, which scales roughly as L, the length of the animal, cubed. Assuming that proportions are roughly constant…"
"Accepted. What else?"
"Hmmm… All that's left is the impulse delivered to jump. Let's see… that depends on the length, cross section, and contraction strength of the jumping muscle. Oh! Assuming all muscle tissue has roughly equal contraction strength, then the length scales as L, and the cross section as L squared, giving an impulse that scales as L cubed. So the impulse scales the same as the mass, and to first order all animals can jump the same height."
"Here's another problem…"
Several years later.
My thesis is lying on my adviser's desk. I have discovered that there are plenty of RA -- research associate -- positions open in high-energy experimental physics, but no tenure-track positions. I'm not interested in a dead-end, low-paying post-doc job: I'm married now, hoping to have a family to support.
I am at the Harvard Business School, interviewing for a staff position in the computer department. The department head is not concerned that my Ph.D. in physics makes me overqualified: he has a Ph.D. in chemistry. Across the river in Harvard Square, you can find cab drivers with Ph.D.s in English literature.
We talk for a while an general terms: about the B-school, what the computer facility does, how it fits into the curriculum, how he has to maintain the professors' patched-together programs. He tests my programming knowledge by having me read and explain some Fortran. This bores us both.
"Enough. Say -- have you seen 'Adventure'?"
I have not.
He takes me to a VT-52 terminal next to the PDP-10. "Log in -- no, wait, I'll have to do it."
"The cave is closed from 9 to 5 on weekdays," appears on the screen. "Are you a wizard?"
"Don't tell anyone the password," he says to me. "We had a problem with the students tying up the machine all day playing the game." I sit down at the terminal.
Copyright © Martin E. Heller, 1990, 1998, 2006. All rights reserved.
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