Back in the day, when I got my schooling in Bloomington, I used to go caving. It may be different now, but in the 1960′s people that went into “easy” caves with flashlights were spelunkers. Those who explored caves with many different passages, who crawled flat out for long distances, climbed rock piles, waded through underground streams and wore helmets with carbide lanterns attached were cavers. I was a caver, though not a particularly good one.
I used to go with a friend named Gary Powell who was a good caver. He would map the caves, take the temperature of the air and water (always about 52 F), list the animals we found underground and do other researchy kinds of things. Caving was a bit scary, but my only real fear was getting lost and Gary always knew the way out. One time, though, I got myself in a situation that even Gary couldn’t fix.
We were exploring a new cave, and we took a few spelunkers with us. Gary had me take the lead, partly because I was experienced, but mostly because I was skinny. His reasoning being that if I couldn’t get through a tight opening, nobody else could either. After about an hour, we came to a small hole that went down about 8 feet and then widened and looked to continue horizontally. I went in head first, curving my body around a rock that jutted out. Once at the bottom, it was apparent that the passage continued so I yelled up for the second guy to come down, but no matter how he hard tried, he could not get past the jutting rock. Gary saw that it was no use and told me to come back up. However, though I pushed and squeezed , squirmed and wiggled, sucked in my stomach and contorted my limbs, I could not get out of that hole. After about 30 minutes of trying, in a last desperate effort, I removed most of my clothes and tried to squeeze through in my underpants. It remained impossible.
I have to admit I was in a state of panic. Gary tried to reassure me with the promise that the Bloomington Caving Club would get me out by using dynamite to blast the offending rock to bits. “It won’t take more than two days, tops.” While it did cheer me up to learn that I was not doomed to spend the rest of my life imprisoned in a cave, I was hoping for a faster solution.
Finally, I had a flash of inspiration (and believe me I have very few of those). Since it was possible to contort my body in a way that let me curve around the evil rock when I was going down into the hole, it should be possible to come up in the same body position i.e. with my head down and feet up.
I did a handstand, snaked my body around the rock and pushed my feet up as high as I could. Gary reached down and grabbed onto my boots. He pulled me the rest of the way out, and I was finally free. Needless to say, I was greatly relieved!
I hadn’t heard from Gary in over forty years so when I finally signed up for Facebook, last month, I checked to see if he was on Facebook, and he was. I asked him to be my friend but never heard from him. His Facebook page said that he was a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, so I went to their site and found Gary in the biology department. A little more fishing brought me to an article about him, but it wasn’t one I wanted to see. Gary Powell passed away in March of this year. I was too late.
Gary Powell was a great guy. Here are some books about other great people:
Night by Elie Wiesel: *
One of the most acclaimed, popular autobiographies of all time follows the author’s survival at Auschwitz and subsequent trauma of losing everyone and everything he held dear.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot:*
Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer in 1951, and a literally undying culture made from her cells eventually led to hundreds of astounding medical discoveries — including the polio virus. She never knew, nor did her family ever receive any financial compensation, and her startling legacy remained largely unknown until recently.
First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers by Loung Ung:
Loung Ung lived a charmed life thanks to her father’s political clout, but the rise of the despotic Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge dismantled and destroyed everything when she was only five. Her family split, with the children forced into excruciating manual labor.
Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History: by S.C. Gwynne:
Witness the downfall of the Comanche peoples through the eyes of their courageous, dedicated chief who just couldn’t stand up to the raw power of firearms.
Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali:*
After a fundamentalist terrorist threatened the author with murder, she fled oppression in order to speak out about women’s rights under theocratic regimes — specifically Muslim — around the world.
Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela:
South Africa’s first democratically elected president formed one of the cornerstones of the anti-apartheid movement, eventually freeing indigenous peoples from the tyranny of European subjugation.
The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey by Ernesto “Che” Guevara
Before his rise to power as a Marxist guerilla in Argentina, this history-making medical student toured South America with a friend, an experience that eventually forged his political ideologies.
The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank:*
During her family’s stint hiding from Nazis in a cramped, Netherlands-based attic, 13-year-old (15 at the time of capture) Anne Frank kept a journal meant to bolster her spirits and attempt to make sense of a rapidly crumbling world.
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin *
When Abraham Lincoln became president he wanted his cabinet to be composed of the very best men the North had to offer. Some of these men had done everything they could to keep Lincoln from becoming president. All of them thought they were smarter than Lincoln – at first.
The Last Lion, Volume I: Winston Spencer Churchill: Visions of Glory, 1874-1932 by William Manchester *
What was it about Churchill’s early life that molded him into a block of granite able to convince his countryman that England could hold off the Nazi juggernaut when no other nation could. You may be surprised to know that little boy Winston begged piteously for his mother to visit him at his boarding school. In World War I Churchill made a major miscalculation that cost the lives of tens of thousands of Brits. Nobody saw any glory in Churchill’s future at that point.
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed
After her mother’s death and the break-up of her marriage, Cheryl Strayed was in a perilous mental state. Then she made an impulsive decision. Despite having no experience or training, she decided to make a solo hike of the 1000 mile Pacific Crest Trail.
* I have read and enjoyed these books.