In middle school, birthday parties were a measurement of social worth. My family was poor growing up, and we moved around a lot: a vicious double-whammy. By 6th grade I’d attended 5 schools in 3 towns in two states. Other kids had huge, memorable affairs that became playground lore. It had been years since I had friends, let alone enough to make for a memorable birthday party.
But 6th grade was the year it all changed: when my birthday rolled around, I had five good friends invited to my party: Andy, Alphons, Kevin, Brad, and Dan.
Everyone arrived at my house early, with lots of daylight before dinner, so we set out to explore.
My house was next to a giant, dirt field/abandoned construction site bordering on a creek. They had started working on a shopping center years ago and never gotten further than prepping for drainage. We came across a large concrete drainage pipe – four feet in diameter– protruding from the side of the hillside above the creek.
“I think it starts in the middle of the field,” I said – which was about 150-yards away. We managed to locate the other end of the pipe and decided that what we needed, was to crawl through that pipe. We went back to my house for light sources – we weren’t stupid, after all – where we found 8 spare birthday candles and a pack of matches.
We walked back out to the creek-side end of the pipe, and began making our way in. We could all pretty easily bend over and shuffle along – except for Brad and Dan, who were taller. Our voices echoed through the pipe, the eagerness of those in the lead drowning out the doubts from the back of the pack as we shuffled away from the light, into the deepening darkness.
We couldn’t see any light up ahead, but figured it was simply because it was just too far to the other end for the light to travel (I know, 6th grade physicists). We marched in, some jovial others hesitant. Brad was normally our dungeon master, and to ease his tension he asked for a roll call of characters. I lit a match and declared, “I am Lord Callahan, behold my +5 vorpal weapon!”
We laughed, and kept pushing in, hoping not to meet any orcs or trolls.
Now, at the creek end, where we entered the pipe, there was a little bit of dried mud, evidence that water had at one point flowed through the pipe, and brought sediment with it. The further in we got, the more dried mud there was. 15 yards in, the dust was 12 inches across and an inch deep. Then 18 inches across and four inches deep. Finally, 75 yards in, it was a good two feet across, more than four inches deep, and not so dry any more.
“Hold up!” Andy called from the front of the line. “It’s getting muddy.”
“How muddy?” we all asked.
“Not too bad, but it’s wet,” Andy said.
Brad, at the back of the pack, asked if we should turn around and go back. We were arranged by desire to actually march through the pipe. Andy and Alphons, at the front of the pack, were the most gung-ho. Brad and Dan, at the back, had needed convincing. Me and Kevin made up the middle.
So when Brad asked, “Should we turn around and head back?” it wasn’t just a question of safety, it was a referendum on our collective courage.
We all turned around and looked back at the opening of the pipe, some 75 yards behind us. The opening was small, distant. A beacon of defeat.
“No,” Andy said, “let’s just go a little further until we can see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
And from that point forward, with each and every step, the mud got wetter, deeper, and the tunnel got darker. It got to the point where we couldn’t really see very well. At all. We lit the candles, and quickly discovered that birthday candles burn quickly, drop lots of wax, and do little to provide illumination.
We took to stepping in each other’s footprints as the mud slowly became ankle, then calf deep.
“Gross!” Andy yelled back, “I just stepped on a dead rat in the mud!”
“Where!?!” we asked.
“Eww, me too!” said Alphons. And then each of us in turn got to hurriedly step on the “rat” and move on. Finally Andy announced, “I can see light! There’s a bend in the tunnel, we’re more than half way there.”
“Does it look like it keeps getting deeper?” we asked. At this point our 4-foot tunnel was over a foot deep in mud. Each step was its own little ordeal.
“No, it looks like this is pretty much it,” Andy sent back. So we pushed on, making the turn and working towards the light. The mud got to be knee deep at the end, and we practically crawled out into the waning sunlight, covered from head to toe.
When we got back to my house, my mother made us all hose off on the front lawn. Then everyone borrowed my clothes and we went across the street to the laundry mat where we had a blast doing our own laundry.
At the pizza parlor, all of us wearing freshly washed and dried clothes, my mom’s boyfriend gave me $20 in quarters – a fortune! – and told us to have a good time in the arcade.
That night, as we lay around the floor of my room, with the lights out, we told stories and tried to slyly learn as much we could from each other about puberty. And by the time we all got back to school on Monday, the tunnel got longer, the mud deeper, the rat larger and more alive. And my friends all agreed: Best. Birthday. Ever. And I learned it doesn’t take money to have a good time, just good friends. And maybe a little imagination.