It was my turn to crawl.
The school store was in the basement of the administration building. In addition to containing much of the administration, the building also housed the library and a male dormitory. It was my dorm, in fact; my room made for a convenient staging place.
The store had very limited hours; it was open forty-five minutes or so after dinner several nights a week. The store sold various things; text books, toiletries, candy, batteries, typewriter ribbons. Overall, it offered a meager selection.
The store was run on a volunteer basis by students with a faculty advisor overseeing things. It was cashless; one’s parents sent a check to the school and the balance was applied to the account on a scheduled basis.
A warren of corridors and stair cases separated my second-floor room from the basement store. Part of the route went through dorm spaces; part went through common areas of the school.
In a foyer between the administration offices, the dorm stairwell, and a building entrance door was a solid wood door. This door lead down a flight of stairs to the basement. This door was always kept locked except when the store was open.
When the store was open, the door would be unlocked. I’d go through the door and down the stairs, following the curve to the left. The staircase opened into the basement. The basement had been a recreation hall and a fallout shelter at some point in the distant past; now, much of the large open basement was sealed off with solid plywood walls. The space remaining was a twelve-foot-wide room running to the left and the right for the length of the building. To the left was another door, leading to the store. The store was located in a chamber with cinderblock walls; the deepest part of the fallout shelter, apparently. This door was separately locked when the store was closed.
Down the basement to the right were a soda machine and two doors. One door lead to the outside; the other lead to a windowless utility room. The utility room was kept locked and housed cases of sodas for the machine.
On the other side of the plywood partitions blocking the basement could be found an old pool table, lots of boxes of ancient school records, and some really old yearbooks. Dust was everywhere; the room beyond the partition hadn’t been opened in years. In fact, the administration had no key to the sturdy partition door. This partitioned room contained the only windows in the basement; two twenty-four by twelve inch glass panels set about six feet up the basement wall that opened just at ground level on the back of the building.
Frankie had the only key to this room. When Frankie was a freshman, he’d become friends with a bunch of seniors. When they graduated, they’d given Frankie an incredibly valuable artifact; an item so exclusive that it wasn’t even hinted at in school tradition even though it had been handed down for decades. I mean, even freshmen knew of the existence of the senior fort; a sophomore might know the general area. But no one knew about the Answers.
The Answers were a set of keys to the school. The set was incomplete; most buildings were represented although there were no keys to new locks. The set was apparently a full set of keys to the school at the time it was originally swiped. There were some oddball extras; a key to the town hall, for example. The details of how and when the Answers came into student hands were lost to time.
The Answers were so sensitive that we would not consider referring to them as ‘keys’. Only by name; the Answers. Only three people knew about the Answers during my three years there; only Frankie and myself for the first two years.
One of the Answers fit the door to the basement partition; this was apparently the only existing key. Frankie and I had explored the room beyond the partition during several of our nocturnal excursions. We relished the fact that only we had access and the school staff did not.
We did not have the Answer for the door to the school store in the basement. We did have Answers for the door at the top of the stairs and for the door to the utility room.
A full set of keys was kept in the dean of student’s office. If we really needed a particular key, we’d let ourselves into the dean’s office and get the key, returning it later. We tried to avoid this, though; getting into the dean’s office was a risky proposition given that it was located in a high-traffic area and that the dean had a propensity for being out and about at all hours of the day and night. We avoided this on all but the most desperate of occasions.
We had the Answer for the utility room, though. This was valuable to us in and of itself; we had access to the stores of soda. The room’s true importance was found in the back of the windowless room; a two-foot plywood square affixed to the concrete wall. Pulling back the plywood revealed a hole in the concrete wall leading to a utility tunnel. This small tunnel was filled with conduit, water and steam pipes, decades of trash, and darkness. The tunnel lead about thirty feet to another opening, this one uncovered and behind a bookshelf in the school store.
During the day, one of us would wait outside the door at the top of the stairs as a lookout; the other would crawl. We’d use the Answer inside the door to lock the lookout out of the basement in the hallway. At night, the lookout would come into the basement; one could not be seen after curfew. Depending on the time of day, one or both of us would go down to the basement; the crawler would go into the utility room and go in, locking the door behind him. The crawler would pull back the plywood and go into the hole feet-first to avoid having to turn around in the tunnel. Then he’d crawl.
Crawling was the worst part. Even with a flashlight, the confined space was scary. The crawler would try not to think about rats.
At the end of the tunnel, he’d have to negotiate the bookshelf. This meant slipping between shelves, between stacks of supplies, and out onto the floor without making a huge mess.
The door to the store had a latch on the inside so the crawler would unlock the door if it were nighttime. At night, the lookout would be waiting outside the door in the basement; together we’d secure the booty; two Snickers bars. The crawler would then lock the lookout out of the store and the process would be reversed; back into the hole, this time head-first, out into the utility room and into the basement, then up the stairs. We’d listen closely at the door; it opened into a heavily used corridor between the offices and the outside.
If it was daytime, the crawler would directly grab the goods and reverse the process, going back through the hole and up to the top of the stairs by himself. This was a lonely business; from the time the lookout was locked out at the top of the stairs until the crawler’s safe return to the hallway, the crawler was alone. The crawler would insert the Answer and signal the lookout; the lookout would then wait until the coast was clear, then knock. The crawler would unlock the door from the inside, step out, relock the door from the outside, then pocket the Answers. During the day, we were safe. At night, we’d have to silently return to my room through the building, avoiding any faculty members that might be patrolling or strolling.
Of course, if we’d been caught at our game, we’d likely have been expelled. A lot of unexplainable nonsense went on courtesy of the Answers. Many things would become clear if the existence of the Answers became known to the faculty. The student or students caught with the Answers would have a lot to answer for.
The hole was the scariest part, day or night.
Frankie and I had returned from skiing one winter afternoon on a Friday. It was snowing; a heavy, wet blanket. We had recreational things to do after dinner; we decided a Snickers would be the right thing to get us started.
Frankie and I were about the same age though he was a junior and I was a sophomore. I was on the five-year plan having flunked my first freshman year at some other school downstate. Frankie and I didn’t always get along but we held similar values in many respects. We’d met early the previous year; my first year at the school, his second. All in all, we spent a lot of time together.
We left my room and headed downstairs. It was my turn to crawl so I locked Frankie out and headed down to the hole. I crawled through, grabbed the candy, and crawled back. I got to the door at the top of the stairs and was just getting ready to insert the Answer into the lock when I heard voices outside. I heard Frankie talking to the student that ran the store and the faculty advisor. In a flash, it became clear that they had decided to go to the store before dinner for some reason.
I was in big trouble. I had already landed myself in some silly disciplinary situation this semester over drinking beer on a public bus from New York to school; I had narrowly avoided suspension. If I got caught in the basement with the Answers, I was gone. Gone.
My parents had handled my flunking out of that other school with a certain stoicism. My parents had dealt with my near-suspension calmly. If I got kicked out, though, my parents would be quite upset with me.
I knew the advisor; it was a small school. Anyway, he had been my dorm master in a small dorm the previous year. If he caught a glance of me, I was done for.
I turned and fled down the stairs. I suppose I was hasty; I made a lot of noise. I heard the faculty advisor shout and the jangling of keys. I got to the bottom of the stairs and took stock. The door leading to the outside from the basement opened into a very public courtyard; there was sure to be people coming and going in the late afternoon. Going that way was not an option.
I ran to the partition door and found the Answer I needed; as it turned in the lock I could hear the key turning at the top of the stairs. I ran inside and closed the door behind me; the lock couldn’t be secured from my side.
I could hear running feet on the stairs. I leapt across the room and threw a dirty overstuffed chair up against the wall under one of the windows. Jumping up on the chair, I opened the window and hurled myself up and out through the opening. In my terror, I managed to wriggle through and out into the snow and darkness in a trifle. Once clear, I rolled to the side away from the window through the snow-covered pachysandra leaving me sprawled on my back in the wet plants and dirt outside the building. I was covered head to toe in snow and mud but I was outside and safe for the moment.
I got up and moved stealthily around the corner of the building and through the dorm’s smoking porch. Surprisingly there was no one outside enjoying the legal vice so I was able to sneak unnoticed up the back stairs and down the hall to my room. I quickly hid the candy and shed my filthy clothes, burying them in my laundry bag. I put the Answers in my most secret place.
I grabbed my towel and soap, ran down to the bathroom, and got in the shower. Once under the spray, I started to relax; I hadn’t seen anyone since leaving the basement so I thought I might be okay.
I got back to my room and Frankie was there. He congratulated me on my escape; he thought I was a goner. Frankie had played helpful student and had gone downstairs with the advisor and the student in charge of the store to ‘help’ them catch me. The advisor hadn’t suspected, of course; we were deep underground in those early years.
The administration now had access to the room beyond the partition but it had taken the advisor crucial moments to discover the unlocked door. It was a fine trade.
I happily returned the Answers to Frankie. We enjoyed our Snickers bars and looked forward to the rest of the evening’s entertainments.