Tunnels of My Childhood, Chapter 3
By, Felice Scrittore
Photo by Twisted Root Studios
My cousins and I were playing in the basement but because there was not much to do, we quickly became bored. I went to the doorway that led into the cellar storing all of the canned harvest from the summer past. When my grandfather was alive, he had used this as a workspace. Once inside, there was another portal to the immediate right that had been closed long ago. A heavy board and small workbench lay across and in front of the door to prevent us from entering the passageway, and keep others from wandering in.
This was the entrance into the little known tunnels that traverse the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. On this day, the untreated boards would not stop us from exploring what adventures lay on the other side – into a past that none of us understood at the time. We decided to take a peek inside, taking with a flashlight we found on the bottom shelf of the workbench; we removed all the makeshift barriers and stepped through the dark and small opening into the musty and pungent smell of damp earth. Batting at spider webs and walking carefully, just in case we found something to poke and examine. We continued as we imagined finding a skeleton of some poor soul who had the misfortune of crossing the gangsters of a past era, or maybe an old Tommy gun or bottles of gin.
The only thing we found for the first few steps were more spiders and webs. As we progressed we found that the tunnel was becoming larger before there was a split: a path to the right and one to the left. We made a choice to go right, being two of us were right handed we voted and the righties won. We continued for a while, losing track of time. We were becoming hungry as we still hadn’t had lunch, but at least the heat was gone while being filtered by the cool damp earth of the tunnel. Finally I had to use the bathroom, being a girl I didn’t want to go there in front of my boy cousins and begged to go back. Tony told me to go back by myself, as expected, but Mark said he would take me back and Tony could wait for us. All at once his taunts of calling me baby ended with the thought of sitting in the darkness of this tunnel by himself. Now it was his turn to be teased, “Baby” I called, “scaredy cat” Mark called.
We traced our steps back to the entrance. By this time my grandmother was calling us for lunch with a sound of impatience laced in her voice. We had to sneak upstairs, out the back door and run around to the front. We were not in trouble since all of us were together. When she asked where we had been Tony pinched my arm from behind thinking I was going tell. As grandma turned her back to lead us into the house Mark punched Tony in the arm, so off we followed, bruised and dirty we headed in for lunch.
We ate our lunch in almost near silence as we contemplated our discovery. An occasional question from grandma would break into our thoughts along with a reminder to eat everything on our plate, “there are starving children in china” she would always say. We knew that as soon as we could, we would be back in that tunnel, eager to continue the journey we had begun.
After lunch we left the house with a thank you and a kiss for grandma’s cheek. We were never asked where we would be only because the whole neighborhood was our family and a parent never had to worry about the welfare of their children in that time and place. Watching for grandma to return to her friends, we crept back into the house. Making our way down to the basement again, we decided to bring more necessities; we only had one flashlight so we found candles and matches, a kite string to tie up at the door in case we found more passages and a few apples for later when we became hungry. There was time until the evening meal so we rushed in after tying off the string.
Once we came to the first break in the tunnel, it was decided to explore in the other direction, to the left. The tunnel dipped lower with a slight decline. We could smell a more intense mustiness and another scent not readily recognized, almost a fishy odor. Suddenly there were stairs carved into the limestone leading down to the sound of water. As we descended we could see a faint light creeping into the darkness of the tunnel as the light became brighter we had found we were in one of the cave openings that connected to the Mississippi river. It was there that a small landing with large rings had been deeply embedded in a limestone platform. These must have been used for tying up small boats; the area was not much larger to allow more than a small boat to enter. We had to see how deep the water was but had nothing to test the depth. We searched and found a loose rock that we tied the remaining kite string onto and lowered into the tiny pool. The slip was deep, about 20 feet; the water was dark and murky with algae forming along the natural formed edge. This made the rock we were stepping on somewhat slick.
Two torch holders were screwed into the wall on either side of a small alcove that almost looked like a built in desk. We felt around inside the recess of this alcove and found it had a depression in the back. Mark hoisted me up and pushed me further into the cramped space, since I was the smallest it was to my delight I was the first to peer in and have a look. Upon closer examination I found that a flat stone had been fitted almost perfectly into the depression. It was heavy as I tried to move it. My fingertips hurt as I grabbed and clawed at the stone. It moved a little so I knew it could come out. Mark took his shirt off and made a hammock of sorts by tying the ends up. This I used to wrap as best I could around the rock and held tight with clasped fists as Mark and Tony pulled me back out by my ankles, straining my scrawny legs.
The cloth shifted then slipped and I lost the stone but as children who are very determined we continued to tug and pull and push that stone around. Finally we were able to shift its weight enough to balance it on its side. I was shoved back into the alcove and looked again into that depression. What I found this time was a small tin box, rusted and grimy but a treasure from our hunt just the same. Again I worked the shirt to fit around the box and this time success was accomplished on the third try to release it from its hiding place. As the box came loose, Mark and Tony had been tugging so hard at my legs that we all fell in a heap on the wet slimy ledge, scrambling quickly so we wouldn’t fall into the dirty abyss of dark, murky, stinky water. I always had a fear of water, not so much the water itself, but what lay below the surface in the unseen depths of the water; too many creatures from the black lagoon movies.
The box fell to the ground with a large echoing clang sliding and hitting the edge of the wall. As it hit the latch broke open. In the box we found a ledger of sorts; a bill of lading that contained a detailed list of deliveries spanning three years from 1927 to 1930. What surprised us was that not only liquor passed through this cave and into the tunnel but jewelry and art such as paintings and sculptures. Included were names of the people who delivered and the names of those persons who received the goods, along with dollar amounts and details of the articles. We closed the box and set it aside. We wanted to see exactly where the cave led out to the banks of the Mississippi River.
Since it was summer, the trees obstructed part of our view, but we knew where we were once we stepped around the ledge and recognized the old brownstone brick building of the Salvation Army across the river from where we stood. The Pillsbury Mill was just upstream north of the arches of the 3rd Avenue Bridge.
The Salvation Army was very familiar to us as we shopped there along with the rest of the neighborhood. It had an old Coca-Cola cooler machine on the main floor, and you were on your honor for payment in a little box on the side. There were 3 floors in the building, not including the basement level. Each section was packed with donated and discarded items ranging from toys to furniture. It was always akin to a safari hunt going there and always we would manage to sneak out to the river’s edge to toss stones or watch the baby ducks swim along the shoreline.
We walked along the bank for a little while before going back into the cave, the air outside had become much warmer if that was possible, almost a suffocating heat. The coolness of the cave was a welcomed reprieve. It was getting late and we turned around to head back to the basement. It took a little longer because now we were climbing up hill. What felt like a gradual decline coming in became a steep climb back out. A couple of times I tripped and slid on the wetness of the ground. Finally we found ourselves back to the entrance in the cellar, all three of us muddy and dirty faced. I had suffered a scrapped knee, nothing new; I always had a scab somewhere on my legs or arms. Once we came out we had to close the door and latch it again. The door had swelled slightly from being opened in the heat. We pushed and shoved and managed to close it as best we could but we could not latch it. The workbench was pushed back in place in front of the door, but as the door wouldn’t shut all the way it didn’t lay against the wall as it should.
Apprehensive of being caught and have our new adventure taken away we found a few things to pile on top of the bench so it was not evident at first glance that the door was ajar. Since this was a side room and not used too often, we could only hope that no one would need anything soon from this room.