Yesterday, for my wife Micki's birthday, my family and I went out to take the tour through Talking Rocks Cavern at Branson West, Missouri. While waiting for the tour to begin, we perused the gift shop and then went out to see the Speleo Box outside. The last time we had been there was about fourteen years ago, when our children had gone through the box and two had been traumatized by it.
The Speleo Box is about six feet wide, ten feet deep, and eight feet tall. It has an entrance and an exit, between which is a grueling, five-level tunnel over a hundred feet long to crawl through, to see how you might like the adventure of exploring natural caves, or spelunking. Here are the signs posted on the front of the Box.
Our two grandsons immediate climbed in and had fun going through it. So did our youngest daughter. But our older two daughters were still traumatized by it and would not go through it. Our oldest daughter did begin, but backed out before reaching the first turn. Our middle son was with us, and followed his sons in, but he exceeds the weight requirement and began having real difficulties after the first few turns, and ended up backing all the way out through the entrance. I kept looking at that little entranceway, and the more trouble my children had, the bigger the challenge became for me to try it.
When in elementary school, I contracted tracheobronchitis. It became so hard for me to breathe that finally a doctor was called to our house and I was then taken to a hospital. I remember that on the way to the hospital I slid off of the back seat and onto the floor of the car, thinking I was dying. I struggled hard to breathe and sounded terrible as I did.
After being put on oxygen in the hospital, which didn't seem to help, some doctors at the foot of my bed discussed my problem and an insane doctor was called in. I say "insane" because he was the one who finally came around and sat on my bed with a nice smile and said in a exaggeratedly pleasant voice, "It's all right. You have nothing to worry about. You're going to be fine. All we're going to do..." and he touched the front of my neck with his finger "...is put a little hole right here..." And before he could finish the sentence, they not only had a young patient struggling to breathe, but a hoarsely screaming kid having a violent panic attack. My mother did her best to try to calm me down, but couldn't.
Mom had remained faithfully by my side throughout my illness, and then came the time for surgery. They put me on a gurney and wheeled me out of the room and down the hall, with Mom following. They wheeled me into an elevator, and I called, "Mom?" No answer. "Mom?!" No answer. And I panicked again. They wheeled me into the operating room.
When I woke up, back in my hospital room, Mom was there with me. I was so terrified of finding a hole in my neck, but Mom smiled and said, "They didn't do it." It turned out that, after I had been sedated and unconscious, they noticed I breathed better. And they realized that besides my difficulty in breathing, my added problem was my fear of not being able to breathe. And so for the rest of my five-day hospital stay, they gave me horrible-tasting medicine and hypos in my butt every three hours to relax me. Except for these tortures, the stay wasn't so bad. Dad brought me the book, Danny Orlis and the Angle Inlet Mystery, by Bernard Palmer, and my family gave me the model of the Visible Man. But since then my greatest fear has been not being able to breathe.
Add to tracheobronchitis claustrophobia. In my early high school years, our Methodist Youth Fellowship group was going on a nighttime outing, and we all piled into one station wagon. I made the mistake of going in first, and was pushed further and further back as each person got in, until I was pressed against the rear door, and the glass of the rear window slanted over me. Suddenly I felt very closed-in and I couldn't move. Suffering a violent bout of claustrophobia for the first time, I was too embarrassed to scream and flail in the company of my classmates, so lay there sweating profusely and developing the lifetime, morbid fear of being closed in a confined space.
To this day, occasionally I will get bouts of claustrophobia and struggling to breathe while in bed at night. I will have to get up. I've gone and opened a window and put my face to the screen to breathe fresh air, but it wasn't enough. I've even stepped outside onto the front porch, and still felt like I had trouble breathing. I'm thinking that even in the middle of an open field, if I thought about it enough, I could experience a claustrophic struggle to breathe. And yesterday I thought of the challenge and stared at the entrance of the Speleo Box.
Throughout my growing-up years I had had an inordinate fear of insects and spiders, and so, to conquer my fear, I acquired a live tarantula for a pet while in my freshman year of high school. I went on to write the first published book on tarantula care, All About Tarantulas, and to found the original American Tarantula Society, and to keep pet tarantulas for most of the rest of my life. My phobia was conquered. Maybe this idea is what led me suddenly to take off my coat, hand my sandals to Micki, and crawl into the Speleo Box. My family watched, surprised, and my middle daughter, who had been traumatized by the Box fourteen years ago, was terribly worried for me.
Inside the Box, after the first turn, I realized I had made a mistake. Claustrophobia set in. Not only are the tunnels small, but here and there pieces of wood stick out in the way. At one point I even had to suck in my stomach to make it through. The worst parts, though, are the corners, which not only turn but often go up or down, and are so tight that before entering them one must stop and figure which way to turn his body to avoid becoming stuck.
As fat as I am, I did more sliding than crawling, and fortunately the tunnel floors are smooth. The more claustrophobic I became, the more intent I was on getting through it, and I tried to think of other things, but it didn't work. I was too big. It was too small. But about a third of the way through, another fear hit me. I'm out of shape! I haven't done much at all since retiring 3 1/2 years ago. And with a cholesterol count of 336 and triglyceride count of 440, a heart attack is a very real possibility and likely the way I'll die. Besides being in a tight space, I was becoming short of breath and very exhausted. But I pressed on.
There are some doors on the sides of the Speleo Box that, in case of trouble, the management can come out and unlock. Micki saw that I was getting really tired, and began asking me if she should call them to open a door and get me out. By then I was so exhausted that I ignored her and kept on moving. At times I would stop and lie there and rest, but then the claustrophobia would get worse so I'd soon begin moving again. It dawned on me, hey, I'm 65! Sixty-five-year-olds don't do this! Finally it was just too much, I felt incredibly weak, and so when Micki asked me again I said, "Yes, have them open it up." And I lay there, as I once lay in the back of that station wagon, only this time the sweat wouldn't come.
Soon I heard a man's voice, who said, "Oh, he's there? I can't reach him there." And that's when my worst bout of claustrophobia set in.
Once again I pressed on. My throat was dry, my chest was tight, and I thought to myself, "What a horrible place to have a heart attack!" Meanwhile my family was cheering me on, saying, "It's not far now, Dad," "You're almost there."
The last corner seemed like the worst, but finally I came to the last straight passage and saw the exit, with my kids peering in. It didn't take me long to reach them. It seemed as though I was being born all over again. I reached out and my two youngest daughters grabbed hold of my arms and pulled. It had been drizzling rain and the ground was wet and I didn't want to get my socks wet, so grasping onto my daughters I had them pull me out of the Box and onto my knees on the ground. I asked Micki to put my sandals back on my feet, as I knelt there utterly exhausted. I was so disoriented that I walked several yards before realizing that she had put my sandals on the wrong feet.
The cave tour was then about to start and we all went in to be seated for the introductory talk. It was all I could do just to sit there like a normal human being, and I wondered if I'd be able to get through the tour and all the many stair steps along the way. Fortunately I was hit with having to spend some time in the restroom when the tour began, so excused myself. As my family went happily on their way into the earth, I sat and emptied myself in the restroom, then gazed in the mirror at how pale I was. I went and lay down across several chairs where we had listened to the introductory speech, then decided to go out and recline in the car instead. As I walked out the door, my butt felt cooler than usual and I felt and realized my wallet was gone! In hopes, I checked the restroom and the chairs, but nope, it wasn't there, and so yep, it's in the Box. I hadn't noticed that on one of the signs it had said not to take your wallet into the Box.
A young employee there and I went out to check, and sure enough, he shined a flashlight on it right away from the rear of the Speleo Box. My wallet lay propped up against the side of a tunnel in the very middle of the maze. After trying unsuccessfully to reach it through the cracks with sticks, he unlocked an upper door, crawled in and somehow reached it from above.
So, with wallet again, I went and reclined in the car, finding that whenever I lay back I would choke on phlegm and keep coughing. Finally I got out of the car, gagging, and almost threw up. All in all, this is the closest I've felt to death in a long time, and although accomplishing the feat, I'm sorry I did it. I didn't overcome any phobias and probably increased them, even having another claustrophobic, hard-to-breathe episode in bed last night while thinking about what I'd write in this post today.
Speaking of today, during which I'm miserably sore all over by the way, some of us went back out to Talking Rocks Cavern to take pictures of the Speleo Box signs for this post, and, while there, my wife Micki crawled through the whole Box. She had fun.
For the complete contents of the Butter Rum Cartoon, click here.