From Bill Bryson's new book "The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid," a memoir of his childhood in middle-America in the 1950s:
"This was an age, don't forget, in which it was still widely believed that there might be civilizations on Mars or Venus. Almost anything was possible."
One day, shortly after moving in here at the house, I noticed a manhole in our front yard. A large round iron disc, a couple feet across, its perimeter overgrown with grass and its surface faded to a dull reddish brown that's really very easy to overlook.
The first time I saw it I was mowing the lawn. Just a fleeting glance as I walked by, looking down, pushing the sputtering Toro up the slight incline toward the house. The second time I saw it was the second time I mowed, and this time I looked a little harder, thinking it was strange that it was so big, and official-looking, and right there instead of in a street or by an Official Facility or something. I decided to try and open it.
It was easy to pull the grass away from the rim, exposing the full width of the disc, and I kicked away the years of clippings that had accumulated in the lid's grid of divots and crannies. None of these indentations were suitable as a handle, though, and I tried not to look too puzzled there, in my front yard on a sunny Saturday, as neighbors came and went and waved and smiled.
I remembered reading why manhole covers are round. The circular shape, like that of a 150-lb Yahtzee chip, nests neatly in its recess and is larger than the opening in its only critical dimension -- diameter. I pictured a square cover, which had seemed like the obvious choice, tilting diagonally and falling down in the hole.
At the time I read it I'd felt such pride in our civilization, the ingenuity of humans to rest on such simple solutions, and I felt such security in knowing -- or not knowing, rather -- how many other quietly brilliant ideas we're all trampling underfoot each day, like bridges and curbs and invisible sensors that make the stoplight turn green. "The world was built by people who knew what they were doing," I recall concluding with a happy sigh.
So later that day, when I browsed the racks of discarded household items at a charity store, I took special interest in the design of each object -- how it fit together, conserved materials, how it accomplished a task that someone must have needed, at least for a while. An old brown plastic hair straightener lay tangled in a cardboard box on the table, its cord intertwined with that of a VHS tape rewinder, and a household air deionizer, and a mostly missing set of hot rollers.
I picked up each item and examined it, wondering where it was built, why it was chosen, where it sat for years in a cabinet before finally being discarded sometime recently. I wished I had a use for any of the items -- any use at all -- but instead had to study briefly and move along, pass them over just like everyone else. I did end up getting an old motorcycle helmet with metallic orange-flake paint, and a laminated map of the city, and a small box of photo slides documenting The Holy Land.
Before I left I noticed one more item on a low metal shelf, and this one intrigued me most of all. A tool of some kind, with a red rubberized handle and a severe-looking bend at the tip. A small bevel on this working end seemed precisely angled for a specific purpose, and I couldn't imagine what that purpose could be.
I turned it over and over in my hands until another purpose, a new purpose, revealed itself. I saw that the sharp bend of hardened steel at one end and the reinforced handle at the other would be the perfect combination for applying a lot of force in a small place -- for prying the lid off a manhole.
I bought the tool for a dollar and brought my discoveries home. Penny was pretty skeptical about the purchases, groaning something about enough junk in our house already, but I loved the mystery object, and the orange helmet and the oversized wall map and the Jordanian acetate scenes. I couldn't wait to get home and see what was down beneath the manhole cover.
The lid was even heavier than I thought. I strained in the afternoon sun and managed to get it slid over only about a quarter of an inch, at first. But already I was pleased to see a narrow crescent of daylight streaming into the tunnel, illuminating the swirls of dust and dirt I had just dislodged. Surely, I thought, this was the first time light had shone in this place for years, if not decades. And I was the one who threw the switch.
Also, no slimy hand shot forth from the gap and started clawing at my tennis shoes, which was a mild relief I concealed from any observing neighbors. With the prying tool I managed to slide the lid over several more inches into the grass, and I peered down into the darkness to see what the tunnel might look like.
It went down maybe 6 or 8 feet, and was easily large enough for a person (hence, manhole). Then it seemed to dead-end, and this confused me, because there were no meters or gauges in there, at least not that I could see, and surely there had to be some reason for a vertical crypt to be just embedded right there in my yard.
I poked my head closer to the opening and squinted harder in the darkness. Down at the bottom, I could faintly make out a shadow, and it seemed to be another circle. As my eyes adjusted a little, I saw that it was another circle -- a tunnel, adjoining this one! It looked like it ran straight out, under the yard, and underneath... the street! If that goes clear over there, then there's a chance that a person really could climb down and walk around. Who knows how long the tunnel could run, how many chambers there could be in the network? How long had it been -- surely since the neighborhood was built -- since anyone laid eyes on whatever is down there? And how lucky was I, in particular, to not only have an access point right here in my front yard, but to have discovered and procured the proper tool for accessing it?
I will say that I went back up to the house to tell Penny, but it would be more accurate to say that I ran.
"Oh, really?" she said, folding some laundry as she pulled it out of the dryer. "That's cool."
"It's AWESOME," I corrected her, and wondered if she was somehow missing the essence of the situation. "I'm gonna get a flashlight, and maybe a helmet, and put on some old clothes... where did we put the boxes of old clothes?"
"-You're not going down there, are you?" she interrupted. "Colin. You're going to crawl down into some tube you found in the yard today. Why on earth would you do that?"
"How can I not?" I said, still clutching my red-handled manhole key. "Do you want to go too?"
She did not. And I ended up waiting through the afternoon, weighing my options and anticipating the adventure. I puttered around the garage, picked through the Holy Land slides and tried to tidy up some shelves. I had a little lunch, reasoning that I'd need some sustenance for exploring the caverns beneath Brookdale South. I decided that, if any of the tunnels terminated in, say, someone's basement, that I would leave them unopened, or perhaps go visit them later, topside, and leave a note asking if I could investigate. I found my old bicycle helmet, still in good shape, which seemed like it would provide good protection from bumping my head on unfamiliar pipes and protrusions, and would still afford good peripheral vision. I got out the flashlight, and an extra set of batteries, just in case. I wondered if I should maybe take a camera.
There was no limit to what I might find down in those tunnels.
to be continued