This story begins with an introduction and is preceded by part 1 and 2. Even though this part of the story is fairly complete, much description of our neighborhood and early quests are in previous parts. Thanks in advance for reading.
When I was twenty-eight, I was cutting wood that had fallen, and was taking down branches that had snapped but had not fallen during a storm. I was cutting and carelessly throwing the cut wood out of my way while wielding a chainsaw in the other hand. The combination of reaching, cutting, kicking pieces of wood either out of the way, or into position to cut, and throwing the cut pieces one-handed, was not smart. When I bent to pick up and throw a piece I had just cut, there was a pop in my back and a slight pain. I was smart enough to know I needed to take a break, but clearly not smart enough! Instead of going in and lying down and taking some Advil, I switched chores.
My wife and I were up at my family’s summer home in Pine Plains, New York. I spent six years as an adult, living in and around this town, while I learned how to become an adult and be a productive member of society. My parents were getting ready to close the house up for the winter and there were a lot of things that needed to be done. My dad would be able to turn off the water and put the outside things away on his next trip up, but he was not able to do any heavy work because of his back. I wanted to get a few more things done to help out, before we left for the close to four-hour ride home.
Cheryl had an important work meeting the next day and we wanted to get home in time to go over things and be prepared. We also wanted to make sure we missed the majority of the traffic heading in and out of New York city. The last chore I wanted to finish was stabilizing the back steps.
The back steps to the house were dangerous and I wanted to fix them so that my mother and father would not fall. The growth of roots and the freeze and thaw over the past few winters had shifted the stones and they needed to be re-set. I lifted off the top two layers of cinder blocks and took a sledgehammer to the flat bottom stones that had risen up, causing the steps to wobble.
I ended up having to remove the bottom stones in order to clear away the lumps causing the unevenness. After scraping away some of the dirt, cutting away some of the root, and leveling it out a bit, I took a couple swings onto a plank of wood that I was using to flatten the ground,
I took another big swing with the sledgehammer and as the head of the hammer met the surface of the wood plank, the impact caused a disk in my back to blow out. It just popped. The combination of the sound and the intensity of the pain made me think I was shot, and I immediately went to the ground.
I have never felt such excruciating pain as I did that day. The pain flared through my brain and radiated from my back in lightning bolts. I was on my knees and I could not move. I could not stand up and I could not lay down. I was stuck on all fours while the spasms went through me. I was spasming so much that I could barely breathe. It was a good thing my wife heard my initial scream of pain because it took me a couple of minutes to be able to speak. After about fifteen minutes I tried to move. No go!
Cheryl didn’t know how to help, and the only thing I could think of was that I must have damaged my spine and if I moved I was going to be paralyzed. I had seen my father go through severe back injuries and now I knew what he went through. Eventually, after trying not to move, trying not to even breath, the spasms subsided enough for me to stand up and try to get into the house.
I could not straighten up, not even a little, but I made around to the front of the house where there were three steps up to the living room. Just reaching forward for the handrail almost took me back to my knees. All I could see were the explosions of nerve endings firing, the pain setting off fireworks in my mind and making my eyes almost useless. There was no way I could sit and I could not even think of laying down. If I did, I don’t think I would have been able to get back up.
After considering the couch, thinking through the options of the chair and the bed, I eventually settled on the ottoman. I got back into the all fours position with the ottoman supporting my weight. As long as I remained in that position the pain was bearable. Without the pain shooting through my body and only being able to see white flashes before me, I was able to converse and plan.
My wife had to get home for her meeting. The biggest problem was my car was a stick and my wife could not drive it. The thought of four hours laying in the back seat was bad enough, but trying to sit in my low bucket seats for four hours while having to use both feet and both hands was unthinkable. But it was still early; we didn’t have to do anything yet.
I took four Advil and remained on all fours across the ottoman with ice on my back for an hour. I tried stretching my legs, kicking them out straight and flexing them. My left leg was not working right. It was like there was a burr or something, and once I got to a certain spot, the pain and spasms would rack me. I got my wife to help me stand up and tried to walk through the pain.
Again, my right leg seemed to have free motion, but I could not move my left leg forward without severe pain. As I walked a numbness began to climb my leg. I tried sitting and paid a terrible price for that attempt. With the use of pillows, I found a compromise between sitting and lying across the chair. The problem was, I couldn’t bend at the waist at all.
Time passed and the pain fluctuated from a steak knife in the spine, to slam your thumb with a hammer level of pain. As long as I didn’t bend or move my left leg, I was able to tolerate the agony. Instead of shooting through the brain and up and down the spine, it became a throbbing with every breath, kind of pain. I tried walking again and it was much better as long as I didn’t extend my left leg more than a couple of inches in front of the right. I developed a gait that worked. The thought of driving like this was changing from ‘not a shot in hell’ to ‘I don’t think so, but maybe’. We had to get home and there was no way Cheryl could drive. I had to find a way to do it.
My car at the time was a 1986 Honda Accord hatchback sport model. It had nice bucket seats and was my first new car, my first car with the complete power package, and the first car I had ever driven with an adjustable steering wheel. Maybe I could find a way to adjust the height of the wheel and tilt back the seat so that I would not need to bend at the waist.
We took our pillows and put them on my seat, tilted the seat back and pushed it back all the way, and I tried to get in. It was mid afternoon by now and I really wanted to get past New York City before the rush hour traffic. The only thing that could make the situation worse would be to get stuck in traffic.
I took another four Advil even though it was only a couple of hours since the last dose and made my way into the car seat. Cheryl packed all our stuff and loaded the back, and we made our attempt to get home. I can only imagine how I looked sitting in the car. I had three pillows under me, the seat tilted way back, and me, ramrod straight, steering and switching gears, determined to make it 200 miles like this.
It was an exhausting ride that tested my will and made me realize that we find out how to accomplish what needs to be done, if we just make up our minds to do it! Pain is exhausting though.
But we made it! We only made one stop on the way. Once up and walking, the thought of getting back into the car was painful. But we did it. My pain tolerance for physical pain has always been high. I suffered with herniated disks for about a year and a half before finally deciding to have surgery. I had been recently diagnosed with diabetes, and the pain was playing havoc with my sugars. My sugars were also hampering the healing of my back. Surgery was highly recommended.
At times, I felt like a sixty-five year old cripple. It was an awful period for me. It may not have been as bad if I was not so stupid and stubborn.
At the start of bowling season, I went to a chiropractor hoping he could rid me of the constant pain and had my back adjusted. I asked if he thought it would be ok for me to bowl. He told me, “if you’re able to, then go for it!” So I double dosed the Advil and went for it. Double herniated the L4 and L5 disk in the lower back.
Stupid and stubborn!
But this brings me to the point of this side story. Prior to having surgery, the orthopedist sent me for an MRI. I really had no concerns about having one done. The doctor asked me if I was ok with confined spaces and I said it was not an issue. I had never been claustrophobic in the past. He gave me the referral and I scheduled the appointment.
In the meantime, every time I mentioned the MRI, people kept asking whether I was claustrophobic and I always answered the same without any thought or doubt. I received many responses with stories of their experiences that explained why it was good that I wasn’t because these people had a really tough time getting through the procedure and a few had to get an open MRI due to their panic. Little by little it must have been getting in my head.
When the day came, I was a bit nervous, but was looking forward to getting it over with so the surgery could be scheduled. The technician explained the process and asked if I had any issues with confined spaces, and all of a sudden I wasn’t so sure. He told me it was a twenty-two minutes process and all I had to do was lay on the table, remain still, and just relax.
The technician told me that the machine would do lots of clanging, but it was nothing to worry about. I just had to lay down on the platform and the platform would slide into the center of the machine. He pointed and told me he would be in the adjoining room behind a glass panel, but that he would be able to communicate through speakers.
My biggest concern was still the idea of lying flat and keeping still for twenty minutes. Staying in any position for too long caused my back to spasm, and lying flat was always the worst position for me. I always kept a pillow under my knees to relieve the pressure on my back
But, it wasn’t the worst position that I could be required to remain! We were ready to begin. The technician told me to lay down on the table, put my arms over my head, and relax. It was only a few minutes before he had the table start its slide into the tube and already the position was getting uncomfortable. I tried to relax and just let my muscles loosen up and tried to get my mind to be blank.
I tried to breathe in through my nose and out my mouth, focused on relaxing my muscles starting with my feet, then my ankles, then my calves, and knees, and so on. I had learned these relaxation techniques in a seminar while working at a residential facility for youths with emotional problems in Rhinebeck, New York. It was very helpful in reducing stress, and I was glad to have something to think about as the machine went through its clanking and humming.
After a few minutes (that seemed like hours), the technician spoke to me through a speaker in the tube, asking if I was ok. He said that I was moving too much and asked me to keep still so that he could get better quality pictures. He broke my concentration and immediately my shoulders began to quiver and my back began to spasm and I was in trouble.
He told me there were only fifteen minutes left and how important it was to try to relax; any movement would blur the pictures. Damn! What seemed like forever already, was only seven minutes, and I had twice as long as that to go.
I tried to relax! Really, I tried!
All of a sudden it wasn’t just being uncomfortable. It wasn’t the pain in my back or the pain in my shoulders. My mind took over and I went into full panic mode. I couldn’t move! I was stuck in this tunnel and I couldn’t move! Trapped!
It didn’t matter that there was someone on the other end of the speaker, just outside the room behind a glass window. I felt like I was six feet underground, buried alive, and running out of air. My arms were trapped over my head. There was no way to get them down to my side. Without them at my side, there was no way out! The panic was overwhelming.
The technician must have realized I was becoming very agitated. He began to talk to me in a relaxing voice and asked if I wanted music piped in. Yes, please! Now there were only twelve minutes left. He asked me again to try to remain calm and try not to moved so that the next few pictures would be better quality. The way he said that, I knew that I was going to have to have the procedure redone and that fought against my ability to reach calm.
I know my whole body was quivering, spasming from my shoulders down to my spine. I tried to calm myself down, again going through the breathing exercises and muscle relaxation techniques and once I stopped hyperventilating, I got myself under control. The music gave my mind something to concentrate on other than the fact that I was in a tube and unable to move.
My God! Where did this panic come from? I had never had these irrational fears before. As a kid, we used to look for tight spaces and cool places to explore. We used to crawl through small drain pipes that ran under the train tracks just so we could say we were run over by a train, or take water drains under Roslyn Park fields because it seemed fun and exciting. It never bothered me then! When did I ever have claustrophobic fears before?
Constriction used to make me frustrated and react, but I never considered that to be claustrophobia. I used to really freak out, and sometimes still do, when I would try to put on or take off a sweater and get my hands caught over my head and not be able to get the shirt either on or off. The material caught on my head, was not about to give the extra inch needed to get it off. Struggling just seemed to make the fabric constrict further.
And so many times, even though I knew it was a waste of time to try, I would try taking my pants off without removing my shoes. I clearly remember the freak outs I had when I would be rushing to get out to see my friends and get my pants stuck over my shoes and not be able to get them on or off. Hopping on one foot over to the bed or sofa, flopping onto my back, yanking the pant on, then yanking the shoe off, and neither moving. Struggling to pull the pant hem out of the way to reach the laces to untie the shoe, but finding them blocked by the tightly stretched, unmovable pants. The more I struggled, the more stuck I became and the worse the frustration and anger at the situation. But come on! That was just frustration and anger, not fear!
And then it hit me!
Over the course of a couple months, we had our fort decked out exactly the way we wanted. It was our definition of the ultimate boy’s cave. Never had we been more content with a fort. We were cautious about who we brought there and who we told. It was so perfect, we had to show it to people even if only to brag. Even with that, it was still an exclusive club. A couple kids were too scared to go in and Albert was so barrel chested that he could not fit.
We thought about trying to dig a side entrance but knew as soon as we did that we would give the fort away. So we had restrictions and limits. With six of us, the fort was perfect and comfortable for all. With seven or eight, it was close. Over eight was uncomfortable, but a couple times we had ten. Ten was way too many!
We worked on the outside segment and followed the original digging out and concealing plan. Sometimes some of us would hang out outside and converse through the opening. We had to be careful because we could talk full voiced inside, but had to be quieter outside. No one wanted to be outside but sometimes it was necessary. The group of us that first discovered the fort felt like charter members, but we took our turns as the outsiders; not as much as some of our friends.
One of the problems with having a fort like this when you are a kid, is that we were growing every day. Our parents complaints that “you are growing out of your clothes before you could even get them dirty”, was more noise. The parent talk in Peanuts was so accurate! But what they were saying was true. I was having trouble getting in and out of the fort by myself. Someone would enter in front of me and they would pull and those behind me would push, and in I would go.
Being a stupid kid, I never thought about the “what ifs?”. I wanted in. I didn’t want to be excluded. The thought of not being able to go into the fort was not a thought I was willing to have. What was I supposed to do, sit outside the fort and look in through the opening at all my friends having fun and relaxing in our perfect fort?
It was getting colder and we were dressing heavier. I should have known that when I was having to take off my jacket and heavier shirts to get in that I should begin to worry. The writing was on the wall and I refused to read it, like it was some more history homework. But, like not doing your homework, at some point it was time to face the consequences, and the time was getting close.
There was nothing different this day than any other, but it was the beginning of the end for our ultimate fort. We got home from school and did our homework or chores and then met up at the church wall. Jeff and Chris were there when I arrived. Mike, who had come over to my house and was playing with my dog when I got out, walked down with me. George and Gabe showed up and we sat and talked shit for a while. George’s little brother was riding his bike and we were waiting for him to leave so we could head down to the fort. We really didn’t want him finding the fort.
The fort would be ruined if Eric discovered where we went when we disappeared. He had been trying to figure out where we went for a while now. George would send him to get something and we would vanish. He would walk around calling George’s name and sometimes he would be right outside the fort looking for us and we would be quiet until he moved on.
This was one of the primary reason why we needed a fort to begin with; to get away from little brothers and sisters.
This time Eric caught us. He must have watched us round the apartment building and head under the sidewalk. He came running up as we were going from the outside area and entering the inside area. He saw someone sliding through the entrance and could hear those already inside.
George grabbed Eric and started punching him, telling him to beat it. Predictably, Eric cried that was going to tell his mom if we didn’t let him in. So… we let him in. What option did we have?
So, the rest of us piled in and took our seats and did what boys do while wasting time. Eric was amazed, so it gave us a chance to show off a bit of our stuff. Boys are going to be boys, and we were so proud of our amazing fort that we sort of forgot that Eric was an ass and part of the enemy team. At least we were smart enough to keep most of our stuff secret. We didn’t want Eric to steal stuff or bring his friends there to show off like we were doing.
We tried to make it very clear to Eric, that if we lost the fort because of him we would all take turns kicking his ass. Of course he promised not to come here unless we were with him. He promised he would not tell his mom or any of his friends.
We promised that we would include him more if he treated our fortress with the same respect that we did. We made it clear that no one else could know about our fort. And reinforced that we would all take great pleasure in putting a serious hurting on him if he did not abide by our rules.
Of course, Eric didn’t waste any time violating our citadel. It wasn’t too many days before we went to the fort and Eric was already there with the little girl from apartment fifteen. George flipped out on him, dragged him out the opening and down to the tracks and proceeded to whip him with forsythia branches until Eric, covered in welts, sat in a puddle of tears.
When this happened, we knew our days were numbered. We should have abided by our own rules. Once anyone finds out about a fort it is no longer our stronghold and it was time to find a new fort. But this one was so awesome we couldn’t give it up
Eric went home and told his mom that George beat him but didn’t tell her why. I guess he knew that being in the fort with the little girl would get him in trouble too. Now we had to worry about the the girl telling her mom or telling friends and we would be exposed. A bit of time passed and everything was as it was. Sometimes we would let Eric in and sometime we would abuse him as appropriate for younger brothers to be treated.
We were hanging out one day, and knew it was getting close to dinner time. This being before cell phones and before any of us cared about watches, we had to rely on our guesses of time or watch for the street lights going on or the fire whistles blowing. It was getting toward mid Fall so the days were getting shorter. We decided to get out and see what time it was. If we got home late and dinner was late because of us, we couldn’t go out after dinner. These were the rules and it was easier to abide by the parent’s rules than miss a night out.
We lined up to leave. Chris went out first and I was next. I put my head and shoulders through and started to shimmy forward. Chris grabbed my arms and pulled and whoever was behind me started pushing. I slid forward a bit like every other day, and then I couldn’t move. Something was wrong!
There were times lately when it was almost painful on my chest dragging across the concrete, but this was new. This time, for whatever reason, I was stuck.
Chris was pulling on my arms and Jeff, Gabe, Mike or George were pushing and I didn’t budge. My arms were over my head, my head and shoulders on one side of the wall, my torso stuck between two solid planes of concrete, and my legs extended behind me. I could feel when two people began pushing; one on each foot. It felt like my pants were in the way. I started to panic and so did everyone behind me. They tried pulling me back and I didn’t move that way either. I was starting to hyperventilate. My lungs were constricting, my chest expanding and I couldn’t calm down.
I was stuck in the opening of the only way in, or out!