Tunneling for Education’s Sake

We started tunneling through our Elementary School in the Fifth Grade – Mr. Adams’ class. Everyone at school knew there were rectangular holes in the top of the classroom coat closets. But it wasn’t until Fifth Grade that David and Lyle and I decided it was time to climb up through one and have a look around. We were slow learners, I guess. We horse-traded with fellow pupils for desks adjacent to the closet. Then, when Mr. Adams wasn’t looking, one-by-one each of us snuck in there. It was a tight fit among all the coats and an even tighter fit to squeeze, one-by-one, up through the hole. We rendezvoused up there in the darkness. We could make out pipes and conduits, and feel air move through the semi-confined spaces. It also looked like we could travel. Quite a long way, in fact. We began to travel.

When it looked like we’d reached the other end of the school, we descended into a closet among the coats. These coats were a lot smaller than our coats and a peek out the door revealed the Kindergarten room. Since we’d done what we’d gone up to do, the three of us emerged from the closet right in the middle of class-time, walked across the room, and out the door into the hallway. The kids got quite a kick out of that and a little more than chortled in their joy. I guess the teacher was so shocked she forgot to report anything unusual (this was after the H-Bomb “Duck and Cover” drills but before we all learned the importance of increased vigilance for odd events in these modern times). We congratulated each other as we strolled down the hallway toward Mr. Adams’ classroom. We opened the door a bit for a peek inside and when the coast was clear, reoccupied our seats. Pretty smart little ferrets we were, we were. We were.

The more we got to know Mr. Adams, the more we learned that his method of discipline involved paying out plenty of strong rope for the guilty to hang themselves. And he was experienced; or, maybe more to the point, our older brothers had experienced him and forgot to tell us. At recess, a while after our little foray that day, Mr. Adams peppered us with questions he already knew the answers to – loaded questions, targeting how we’d been in class, managed to disappear for a while, and then re-appear. We talked around the subject using homemade codes and vague vernaculars but they brought very little satisfaction and utterly failed to charm him. It turned out that the Kindergarten teacher hadn’t been quite as shocked as we’d thought and no face was unknown in our quiet little neighborhood school. Mr. Adams ferreted the entire story out of us.

Mr. Adams had a paddle. A big one with big holes drilled in it so he could swing it harder – less coefficient of drag against air pressure. He was kind of evil that way…. In those days it must have either been OK for him to use it or he could not have cared less if it wasn’t. He lined us up in front of the class and wailed away – right in front of the likes of Susan Zolman and Nancy Ridge. Then he wrote our names on the paddle. Lyle’s first; then David’s and mine. I don’t think there ever was a fourth. Even the kid who dropped the bottle with the tarantula in it and caused a riotous stampede was not memorialized on the paddle. But with greater stealth and wisdom, and less observant Sixth Grade teachers, we’d found an interesting way to lighten the burdens of our championship year of Elementary School.

Junior High. Our Junior High School was a lot bigger and we soon had a good idea of the layout for clandestine operations in the tunnel systems there. The “hoods” would go in the ventilation system to smoke but they got caught when the custodian figured out why the classrooms smelled like cigarettes. As for us, we were always on the prowl for bigger adventures.

The BYU Campus. There was a canal right by Lyle’s house. It ran down past BYU. We could float a few miles downstream on inner tubes from Lyle’s house to where Lyle’s Dad ran BYU’s Greenhouse and Grounds Department. We’d throw the tubes in the back of Lyle’s Dad’s truck and go see what mischief we could muster amid the many things to do on campus. There was the Gymnastics facility and when it was locked and darkened, we could drop into it from the observation deck and play on all the equipment. There was this massive pendulum in the Science building because, by law, all colleges and seventeen museums across the country must prove that the earth spins. But with a stick or a golf club or something, we could push the heavy ball around and alternatively prove that every action has an equal and opposite reaction (Hey … as long as it’s science). And there was always the thrill of the getaway when someone in authority and enamored with the thrill of the chase saw us doing stuff like that. We had the run of the whole campus.

The tunnel systems at BYU were simply sublime – extensive, complex, and thrilling. I have no idea why hordes of our neighborhood peers were never in there exploring these labyrinths. What did these kids do for fun?? The best systems were in the Fine Arts Building. They staged elaborate events in there so they had cable systems that flew Peter Pan around, elevators of various sizes and shapes so the Wicked Witch of the West could melt – all kinds of neat stuff. And they all functioned from overhead, underneath, or inside the things most people were familiar with as they went about their studies and business, or pursued artistic pleasure in that engineering marvel of an edifice. We developed and fostered an early interest in the BYU Arts programs.

We watched all kinds of plays, productions, concerts, and things for free from the rafters, the ventilation systems, the many access tunnels – any place that would give us a unique perspective on the Arts. We made secretive visits to the band and orchestra rooms, listened to classroom lectures from above and below, watched students play their instruments in the private practice rooms – those kinds of things. Professors and students never knew — did they really did hear those muted voices speaking to them from inside the walls?

Our Magnum Opus had to be the day we actually participated in a play. We were climbing around underneath the stage systems in the Fine Arts Building. We vaguely knew where we were and curiosity killed the cat. No. Curiosity led us ever higher into the structures. We emerged into a rather darkened, cave-like affair in what seemed like a setting of hollow boulders. Props. For a play. The play was in progress. The formal theatre was packed with formal-looking people, and aspiring thespians danced and fenced and recited and did their best to please the crowd. And there we were, center-stage in these rocks, just a few feet from the performers under the spotlights. There were times we could have reached out and touched them. They could see us. And they had a tough time staying “in-character” when they did — three Jr. High School types watching their play from right smack in the middle of their play.

Apparently, double and triple-takes at the boulders weren’t in the script. The play director was head-and-shoulders inside one of those half-clamshell booths at the front of the stage. We could see her but she couldn’t see us. We knew this because she never directed us to do anything. And only a real dud of a director would not flip something like the bird at the kids in the rocks who had infiltrated her play. Her bewildered look was truly no act when her students suddenly took an intense interest in the rocks in the middle of the stage – “We didn’t brief this!!” Her kids simply could not help glancing at us; and hardly furtively, even though we were quietly clapping, mouthing out “great job” and giving them big smiles and “thumbs up” when they looked at us in our lair. Obviously, we were just there to support and encourage them….

Watching the collegiates, we observed that not all the actors were on stage all the time. One or a few of them would run off sometimes. And they were probably as anxious to tell someone about us in the rocks in their play as the ‘49ers were happy to hear about gold in the rocks in California. Folks here would be in a rush to do something about … us. But hey, if they didn’t want thirteen-year-olds climbing up into their play, they should’a plugged up the hole in the stage.

On the other hand, adults, especially those with police powers, would probably say that Jr. High kids really hadn’t ought’a be climbing around the inner workings of the Fine Arts Building in the first place. They’d prob’ly try to intimidate us with big words like “trespassing” and “one-phone-call” and such. We decided our defense was kinda flimsy and we had two choices: Linger there in our stony den, enjoy the play and get busted, or fade away into the supporting structure and flee.

We should also act rather quickly but I figured we did have a little time. What were they going to do – march out on stage and drag us out of the rocks; flog us and ‘cuff us in front of everybody? The Gestapo didn’t even do that to the Von Trapp Family Singers. And how fast could they find a stagehand handy enough to stage an attack from below? Anyone coming for us would probably come through a door of all things. Doors were for sissies. We knew that much. And we knew the layout; we had the advantage. But why tempt fate? We bid the collegiates good luck and good-day and melted away down the hole in their play.

Our covert routing took us a decent distance away from more conventional approaches to the stage structures but at last and alas, we had to emerge into more aesthetically pleasing parts of the building – the real world. We had to go down. We had to go down and pass among the people. Vulnerability depended on how widespread the alarm had been sounded. David’s Dad was an Artist. His office was right upstairs. But we made it: Out a main entrance, a quick right turn, and a run for the hills.

We usually ran for the hills when we were in a pinch. You’re never far from them around BYU. They’re also not really hills. They go pretty nearly straight up – over 11,000 feet. And like the tunnels, we knew them better than they did.

The Frog Swamps down by the river offered a lot of hideout options too, but they were farther away.

ALL: (resolutely) “We went up onto the stage. We would go up onto the mountain.”




Crawling through enclosed tight places seemed to be a major fascination with me and those I hung out with as we grew up. We explored the tunnels in many churches and schools and natural caves. This was demonstrated as we went to Orem junior High school. I am not sure what the fascination was in crawling through the air vents and tunnels, maybe it was exploration — going where no man has gone before — or just an excuse to get away and crawl through a hole.
We had taken off the vent in the junior high gym and were attempting to access these tunnels. The hole that we had to go through was one of the smallest I had ever been through, scraping skin off around the waist area. Mentally when you go through somewhere tight you know in the back of your mind that you will have to go back through to get out. This feeling stays with you throughout the whole time you are exploring. It’s almost like there is a clock ticking on your time in this confined space. With the scrawny body of a junior high kid we could fit into some surprisingly small spaces. Some of these vents were filled with dust and cobwebs and a lot of other things. I think of them every time I watch late night TV and I hear the pitch about mesothelioma. I hear “ if you have ever worked in the naval yards or crawled around in the tunnels of your junior high school in the 60’s you might be eligible for a cash award.” Unfortunately the vent we had laboriously crawled through only went straight up the wall. We did our best to scale up the confined space almost to the top of the gym before turning back and out without anyone seeing 3-4 guys crawl out of a small hole in the gym wall.
One time we staged a rebellion against a substitute teacher and would not come out of our hiding spot we had discovered. We found that if you got a running start and jumped with all your height you could barely reach and hang on to a wire cage that covered the large clock that was in the gym. Once you were hanging from the clock it was just a matter of swinging your feet up and hooking the edge of the upper room in the gym. Then you had to climb up the railing and you were in the room that housed the wrestling mat and the climbing rope suspended from the ceiling. We had discovered that if you climbed up the climbing rope you could climb past where it was attached and into the upper rafters. This space allowed you to move through the whole building. I am not sure if we did not like the teacher or we were just having one of those days in the 60’s that everyone had back then, of going against the grain. This day almost all of us that could climb went up the rope, leaving behind the nerdy wimpy kids (I think one of them works where I work). When the sub came back and almost all of his class was absent he knew something was up. He suspected that we must be hiding because he would have seen us all as we passed his office. I guess that he might have heard some of those hiding whispering or snickering. He decided that is was a fine joke and all would be forgiven if we came down. Those in the group with a well-developed sense of right and wrong saw the out and proceeded to climb down the rope. Those of us that were not quite as smart, a small group, decided to stay up and enjoy our freedom. No amount of pleading or threats could convince us to come down. It was then we heard the bell for the end of class. We had not factored this small detail in our escape, not thinking past the hour we had in gym class. We still just sat and would not come down. After a couple minutes everyone left the room and we figured that the sub had gone for reinforcements so we climbed down and exited out the one way doors into the hall. We were free and I think the substitute teacher down played it to the regular teacher because we never got in trouble.
One of the tunnels we discovered led out of the wood shop. Now, junior high woodshop was a great experience, there was great opportunity for mischief, like gluing everyone’s projects to the floor or hiding them all in the trap door of the storage room and having everyone think they all got stolen. This was a place that had many machines, that could cut your thumbs and fingers off and I think this sparked in us a primeval urge to act out, like we needed a reason to act out. I guess that is my excuse anyway.
It was pure pleasure to watch a small hand broom get sucked into the exhaust system as you were cleaning and you could hear it bang, bang, bang all the way across the room. We discovered that is was fun to stand across the room and throw the hand broom and see if you could score a direct hit in the exhaust suck hole. One time they cleaned out the exhaust system, it was not working too well, and they found 8-10 hand brooms stuck in various spots. One of the favorite things that we would do was to push down the hold down button on the belt sander and then un plug it so that when the next unsuspecting guy plugged it in, it would race across the table and down on the floor until it became unplugged. Great fun.
The tunnel in the woodshop was way in the back where a stock of wood was piled up on a rack. To explore this tunnel you had to duck walk occasionally having to look out for any overhead obstruction that barred the way. We were pretty adventurous this day and explored pretty far into this part of the junior high and we realized that we had been gone too long and needed to get back before we were missed. In our haste to exit Lyle hit his head on one of the obstructions that were always in these tunnels. He was bleeding. Now blood to a junior high kid was just something that occasionally happened and was not of any real concern. Blood from cuts or scrapes were just to be endured so long as they did not go clear to the bone. Cuts to the head were a different matter and were considered serious. We exited the tunnel and came up with some story of how a board had come off the top of the wood rack and hit Lyle in the head. For some reason the teacher bought our story and we survived another tunnel adventure without getting caught.
We had always heard of the mines and caves that existed up around Rock Canyon and one day as we were exploring the sand caves we decided to go look for one mine in particular. This was the mine that was supposed to have monkey bones in the end. Why there was supposed to have been monkey bones in a mine in Utah I will never know but that was the story, in view that the closest monkeys were in a zoo or clear down in Central America. Stories such as these have their way of going around when you are young. I remember one story about this old abandoned house down on lover’s lane that was supposed to have a skeleton in a bathtub. There was a story of violence and mayhem that was supposed to have occurred at the house and like all good stories you could only see the skeleton on dark and dreary nights. We would spook ourselves by going down and sneaking up on the old house just to get a glimpse of what we thought was something in the bathtub. In later years this would give us a lot of satisfaction to take the unwary down to this house looking for the skeleton in the bathtub.
I don’t think there was really a story behind the monkey bones just that they were at the very end of this mine. We eventually found the entrance to the mine after poking around for a couple hours. The opening was pretty big, 10’ high and 8-9’ wide. The opening led down about 20’ before it kind of leveled off. In the first part of the mine you had to wade through water that was not too deep and someone had laid down some wooded boards end to end in an attempt to cross the water. As we thought about going in we realized that no one had remembered to bring a flash light. At this stage in life this did not deter us. We had seen countless Hollywood movies where the exploring groups would enter the mine, cave, old house, monsters lair with a torch that they just happened to make out of things laying around. The Hollywood prop guys were good at their craft because, try as we might we were never able to come close to the billowing flame that you see in these movies. We got together some sticks and dry grass and old rags and made a couple of torches. We had a hard time keeping the torches lit as we progressed into the mine having to stop a couple times to relight the guiding torches, all of us starring at the glowing coals hoping for flame. We eventually made it back so far that we could no longer see any light from the opening and kept going for a while longer and came to the end. We were disappointed to not find any monkey bones anywhere which we all probably suspected anyway. We grinned at each other as the flame from the torch illuminated our faces and the pull to return overcame us and we started back. We had not gone too far when the torch went out again and this time is was completely out, no coals no light at all, completely dark. There is dark and then there is dark. This was not some half moon night dark where you could see shapes and almost get around. This was, cannot see the hand in front of your face, dark. This was panic time dark, which we did. We did not attempt to relight the torch, cutting our losses and trying for the surface by memory. At first we stayed together with arms outstretched with a shuffling walk. We would check on each other occasionally just to hear our voices and to prove that we were not alone. As we proceeded down the tunnel.” How’s it going” and “You still with us” were bantered back and forth for comfort. It was at a time that we were still trying to prove our man hood and how to be macho so there was no hand holding. The problem was that with arms outstretched we were able to keep in contact with the side of the tunnel but there was nothing to protect us from the rocks and boulders that littered the bottom. As you went along you would hear some first bump their shin on a rock and then mutter something to himself and then proclaim “I’m ok.” We proceeded like this in the complete dark what seemed like hours but was probably just minutes. We came to the water and the board so I knew we were making progress. The first speck of light I saw I thought it was just a piece of dirt on my eyelid that would not go away. I had become disoriented and the light was way lower than I expected it to be. We had contained our panic up until this time with a large amount of self-control but when we saw the light animal instinct kicked in and we all started to run towards the light. I remember thinking that this was not exactly the smartest thing to do, to run in a mine in the complete dark. As we neared the entrance we only ran into a couple boulders and no one went down. We climbed the small talus slope near the opening and broke out into the blessed sunlight. We were squinting our eyes and looking at each other kind of sheepishly because of our panic, making sure everyone made it out in one piece. As we started to walk away from the entrance we started to gain back some confidence. We had gone in all the way to the end with just torches we had made and we made it out with no ill effects. After a minute or two our swagger was starting to return and before we were half way home we were laughing and joking about the mine with the monkey bones. In the telling and the retelling of this experience I was never quite sure if we really had not seen some monkey bones at the end of this mine. The older I get the more I have a memory of some bones there. I went back a couple years ago to see if I could locate the mine. The whole area was covered by brand new houses and I could not see anything of the old mine. I thought it was interesting to think of some unsuspecting 12 year old that lived in a house that was built over the mine and having nightmares about monkey bones.

2 Responses

  • Mr. Adams kept a couple of girls skirts in his classroom closet which, come winter, he threatened to dress any of us boys in if we returned from recess with snow-soaked pants. It was an effective deterrent. During my fifth grade year only one of my classmates passed the afternoon at his desk in petticoat and gingham.
    Unimaginable today.
    Mark J

    • Yeah, it’s a good thing Mr. Adams is dead. Shannon said he used to creep his hand up the girls’ dresses when they’d go up to his desk to ask questions or whatever.

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