The day started out just like every other summer afternoon in Turlock, one of central California’s most boring towns. Doug’s father, now remarried to one of his colleagues, had moved into a three bedroom track house at the end of Lyle Court. It was near the fairgrounds, not really in town but not really outside it either. As a result, it wasn’t an easy bike ride to anywhere interesting nor was it remote enough where activities like riding quads or setting off illegal firework displays were the norm.
So, with nothing else to occupy his time, Doug decided to spend the summer digging a hole in the empty lot next to his father’s house.
As it turned out, digging a hole was hard work, particularly in the 110 degree days of a Central Californian summer. Doug was fully aware of this. Grown men would demand as much as five dollars an hour to even pick up a shovel in such oppressive heat. Doug was aware of this also. However, he wasn’t going at it alone. Before any ground was broken, he would assemble a crew of kids to assist.
His first recruit was an obvious choice: his new stepsister Jaime. She wasn’t excited about the prospect of spending the summer digging a hole in the ground but, being a few years younger, looked up to Doug so much she would do just about anything to get on his good side.
Next up were the two sisters at the end of the street, Mindy and Melanie. They had just enough tomboy in them to not flinch at getting their hands dirty and just enough girly-girl to have not-so-secret crushes on Doug. This worked quite well to his advantage. The resulting grit and motivation suited them particularly well for the task ahead.
Finally, there was Matthew, the obnoxiously hyperactive boy a few doors down. He was roughly Doug’s age and was more than willing to do anything that got him out of the house and his heart pumping. Doug didn’t even have to ask him. He insisted.
With his crew on hand, Doug had them all promise to stick with it until the hole was complete. To seal the deal, he had them all spit in their palms and shake on it. Such a solemn oath could not be broken. Only then could work finally commence.
From the beginning, though, progress was slow. For one thing, Doug had only the weekends to dig; during the week he stayed with his mother on the other side of town. For another, despite the spit oath they all took, it wasn’t always easy to get everyone to show up. And even when they did, it was difficult to get them to really put their back into the work. But Doug wasn’t too worried. He had all summer.
The initial goal was vague. Doug instructed his crew to simply dig as deep as possible. This was all well and good until they got roughly four feet down. Beyond this depth, the structural integrity was compromised and the walls would frequently collapse. The problem, it turned out, was that the diameter of the hole was too small. Once this was realized, they began to dig outward, with some kids working on the edges while others continued going deep.
There seemed to be some sort of mathematical relationship between the depth and width that was, intellectually speaking, far beyond the reach of every last one of them. If the hole deepened too much faster than it widened, cave-ins would become annoyingly frequent, undoing much of their labor. So Doug had them slow the pace, keeping an eye out for any potential weak spots as they proceeded.
And so it went. The scorching summer wore on and the kids, Doug first and foremost, began to look at the hole less as a fun distraction and more of a stubborn and arduous task that each and every one of them were determined to see to the end, whenever that may be. When the heat became too unbearable they would take breaks and splash around in the Doughboy pool Doug’s father had set up in his backyard. Refreshing as it was, though, they never lingered long in the water. As soon as the danger of heat exhaustion had passed, they were right back at it, digging away.
By mid-August, with the start of the school year rapidly approaching, the question of how deep they should dig began to arise. This was a question nobody had an answer to, at least not one everyone agreed upon. Already they were deep enough to require a ladder to get in and out. Mindy and Melanie reported that their father was growing alarmed at the prospect of a potential cave-in and had threatened to pull the girls from the project altogether.
Doug gave the matter some serious thought. If the girls’ dad put the brakes on their participation, his work force would be cut by almost half. Matthew, who lived with his mom, wasn’t a problem. She was always either at work or drunk. As for himself and Jaime, there didn’t seem to be any undue concern by either Doug’s father or his stepmother. If anything, they seemed mildly amused about the entire thing.
Determined to go ever deeper, yet not willing to risk the loss of his workforce, Doug came up with a plan. He set the sisters on a separate task. They were to dig a second hole adjacent to the first. This way they would be far enough above ground to be clearly visible to their annoying father, while he, Jaime, and Matthew would remain beneath the surface, slowly but surely increasing the depth of the original hole, not stopping until they had blotted out most of the sky.
Doug’s ambition did not stop there. Eventually, perhaps as soon as Halloween, the adjacent hole the sisters were working on could be connected to the original by a tunnel, supported by a frame of two by fours his father had stacked in the garage. If it rained, they could protect the entire site with a patchwork of tarps and strategically dug irrigation canals. When complete, his double hole tunnel complex would be the talk of the town. He would have to set up a secure perimeter, of course, to ward off the inevitable trespassers, maybe even rotate his crew on guard duty shifts. As a gesture of goodwill, he considered letting a few select kids from school gain admittance, for a modest fee, of course. Not a lot to ask for the privilege of experiencing first hand what would soon be such a marvelous feat of engineering.
Autumn arrived and, with it, the school year. Doug and the rest of the kids swore they would keep at it, keep digging away, making time around their homework. They would see their project through to the end, as they had vowed to do.
It wasn’t long before hole began to collapse in on itself. At first, it was just a slow but steady trickle of dirt no larger than the crumbs of a sandwich. These crumbs gave way to clods that could fit in the palm of your hand. By Halloween, when the rains came, their hole became a muddy lake.
By Thanksgiving, a small pool.
By Christmas, a puddle.
Sometime the following spring, a bunch of trucks filled with lumber and tools rumbled into Lyle Court. Men with hard hats emerged and immediately set to work. By midsummer, a new track home occupied the lot.
Weeks later, a man and woman moved in, unaware of the underground fortress, built by the sweat and determination of a handful of ragtag children, that had once existed beneath their feet.