It happened again just the other night. I awoke and stared into the half dark room, trying to shake the uneasiness that gripped me. Beside me on the bed, her covers thrown off to the side, the Lovely Lady mumbled a half-distinguishable question and rolled back over into the embrace of a deep sleep.
“You okay?” I think those were the two words she put into the sentence.
“Fine,” I replied untruthfully.
I looked toward the bedside table, where the garish red light from the bright LEDs of the clock/radio let me know that it had only been half an hour since my head had hit the pillow. Thirty minutes of sleep.
It was earlier that same night that I wrote last, my memories of a day spent in the caves at a nearby state park leading me to some nearly-profound thoughts. Shortly after writing, I had headed to bed, with the rain falling and thunder gently rumbling above my head.
Exhaustion may have allowed me to drop off to sleep immediately, but my old memories couldn’t be quieted that easily. As I slept, the little imp of fear crept round and round in my head, looking for a piece of fertile soil into which he could plant his deadly seed. Seemingly, he had found an appropriate plot.
Within minutes, my slumber was troubled by visions of dark places, much darker than the bedroom in which I lay. I felt the space around me shrink as, in my dreams, I moved deeper into the darkness. It mattered little that I knew myself to be in a queen-size bed with only one other person; there was hardly enough space to move my arms.
I wouldn’t call it a nightmare. There were no unknown terrors in the darkness behind or before me. I had no fear of falling, or no worry about shadowy men with guns. No, it was just that the uneasiness grew as the darkness in my head increased. The spacious bedroom I knew myself to be in became a claustrophobia inducing tunnel that I had to either escape from or lie in until I died.
I stirred; she spoke. Still, I couldn’t shake the all too real dream from my mind.
The rest of the night went by in half-sleep and half-dreams of long dark tunnels that must be traversed. I had no idea what the penalty for failure might be. I only knew the task must be completed or a price would be paid.
I knew it was only a dream. I knew it. That didn’t lessen its reality in my mind.
After my alarm clock went off, I spent most of the morning, only half-awake but functioning, in thought about the darkness and the tunnel. In reality, it didn’t take long for the filing system in my head, chaotic though it may be, to pinpoint the memory.
It would take longer to understand the lesson I needed to learn.
I told a friend at church the other day that it’s not always fun living inside my head. I said it jokingly but, as has been said, many a truth is spoken in jest. It is a strange place to be. Inside my head, I mean.
Well? How else to describe a dream induced by a nearly half-century old memory? I was only seven or eight.
My brothers and I, along with a couple of neighborhood boys, had spent the morning fishing at the local fishing hole. In that hot, dry southern Texas town, the countryside was crisscrossed by drainage ditches and irrigation canals. One of those drainage ditches was where we always threw our hooks into the murky water, hoping for a perch or two to take the bait we offered.
We had our fill of fishing for the day, but not being ready to head for home and chores, were playing in an orange grove nearby. The groves utilized a different method for watering than did most of the local vegetable fields. They had standpipes every couple hundred feet along the outside boundary of the groves, connected together by concrete pipes underground. When the water was flowing, it would rush along the underground pipeline, bubbling up out of the standpipes to flood the parched ground around the feet of the citrus trees, lending them the life-giving moisture that was so rare in that hot, arid land.
One could climb down into the standpipe and see through the underground tunnel to the next pipe. There was a long, dark stretch, but clearly the bright light on up ahead indicated the place where the sun illuminated the bottom of the standpipe intersecting with the underground irrigation system.
On most days, these pipes stood bone dry. That day was just such a day. I stuck my head down into the pipe, about two feet in diameter, and shouted down to a brother, whose head appeared in my line of sight at the next standpipe.
“Hey! I could go from here to there underground, couldn’t I?”
It wasn’t meant to be a serious idea–just an observation. It got serious very quickly.
Three words. No more.
How was I to know that those three words would cause me a sleepless night nearly fifty years hence?
“I dare you!”
The neighborhood boys stood in disbelief as I nearly jumped into the standpipe. I hollered out to my brother, unseen in the darkness ahead of me.
“You make sure to watch and warn me if anyone comes! I don’t want them turning on the water while I’m down here!”
He kept talking to me through the pipe. For a little while. It was comforting, especially since, after leaving the bright circle of sunlight below the pipe through which I had descended, it was growing steadily darker.
I hadn’t considered that. It got really dark. Darker even than most nights I had been outside. Was it really supposed to be this dark?
I tried to look ahead to where the disembodied voice of my brother droned on. Another brother was there too, along with the other boys now. I could hear them, but couldn’t see any sign of them.
The darkness was complete.
My attempt to look ahead was a flop. My body filled the pipe. I had opted to lie on my back, since I knew there would be no room to crawl and I would have to slide using my elbows and heels to shove me along. I tried turning my head sideways, but only succeeded in banging the back of my skull against the concrete pipe.
It seemed to take an eternity to move through the deep darkness that surrounded me. It got a lot worse when my brother and his cronies fell silent. No sound came from the space ahead of me at all.
“Hey! Anybody there?” I screamed the words and regretted it immediately as the sound echoed and hurt my eardrums.
No answer. I was on my own.
I shoved ahead as quickly as I could. The eternity stretched out and I stopped more often to rest. Every muscle in my body hurt. Boys weren’t made to slither through irrigation pipes underground.
Memory, perhaps, makes the journey longer than it was on that day. It may also be that unpleasant dreams of the event make the way darker over the years. I do know that I survived. No water was released to rush down the pipe and suffocate me. I didn’t get stuck mid-trip and have to be rescued by firemen and paramedics.
The eternity in the darkness ended, much as it had begun, as by degrees, the air around me became lighter and lighter until I was looking directly up into the sunny blue sky. My view of the sky was framed by the grinning faces of four or five boys, all of whom I thought I hated at that moment. The hatred passed quickly, as relief and joy took its place.
Is there any feeling better than that of sudden freedom? Does any joy rival that of breathing fresh air and seeing the light of day when one despaired of ever doing either again?
I remember it as if it were last night.
But, alas, I still remember the darkness, too.
I’m sitting at my desk and remembering the foolishness of a boy who was stupid enough to clamber out of the light of day into a dark, dangerous tunnel in which he might have died.
On a dare.
My thoughts drift for a moment and I hear young voices singing the words. It was the favorite song of one of my Sunday School teachers. Mrs. Olsen had taught us about a young man named Daniel who refused to to be moved from his purpose, who refused to give in and who was thrown into the underground darkness of a lions cave–alone–because he dared.
Dare to be a Daniel.
Dare to stand alone.
Dare to have a purpose firm.
Dare to make it known.
There are some dares worth taking. There are some dark tunnels we need to traverse.
Some dangers must be braved.
I’m still learning lessons I should have learned fifty years ago.
I hope some who read this will be quicker on the uptake than I have been.
I wonder. Are you ready to face the test?
Think you can take the plunge underground?
I dare you!
“The king said to Daniel, ‘May your God, whom you serve continually, rescue you!'”
(Daniel 6:16b ~ NIV)
“It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare; it is because we do not dare that things are difficult.”
(Seneca the Younger ~ Roman philosopher ~ 4BC-65AD)
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2014. All Rights Reserved.