A plain summer day when I was seven stretched out for my girlfriends and me. We were walking along Dorian Road in Metuchen, looking for adventure. Suddenly, there it was, like the mythical gold on American streets. I’m talking about storm sewers with a grating set in the asphalt and a broad opening cut into the curb.
My revelation was that a skinny kid like me could slither down into the underground tunnel. My friends were a year older and bigger (maybe wiser?) and we quickly parsed the roles. I’d be the Columbus, the Magellan. Linda and Holly would guide me with their voices from grate to grate.
I squeezed myself down into the closest I’d ever come to a new dimension, a parallel world beneath the crayon-green lawns, newly planted trees, and alternating split-levels and ranches of our post-war development. The cement tunnel was about a yard high with a rivulet of water languidly moving along, too narrow to be troublesome. Duck-walking, I followed Holly and Linda’s voices and a faint light to the next grating. Once there, ambition bloomed, and I started the longer passage up to Duncan’s house.
Nothing in my life had been so thrilling. Why use sidewalks and streets when a secret maze was so close at hand? I could go to school this way, surprise friends, and hide from my parents. It was, however, a solitary adventure and much duck-walking was tiring. Once I’d doubled back to Kathy’s house, I pulled myself out.
“You’re so brave,” Linda said. I thought that odd. “Brave” was for danger and sewer-walking was thrilling, just a bit hard on the leg muscles. I wished only that my friends could have come. “We’re too big,” Holly reminded me, “but tell us about it.”
I did. Flushed with my friends’ admiration, I couldn’t wait to relate my adventure at dinner. This didn’t go well. Just after relating the inspiration that I could fit through the opening to the storm sewer and the heady confirmation that I didfit I felt my father’s chill blue gaze and heard the clink of his fork on the plate.
“You’re saying you went into the storm sewer?”
Didn’t he listen? “Yes, it was amazing. You can go everywhere . . .”
Subterranean navigation was clearly not the issue. I must never, never, never do this again. I must never even think about doing something so dangerous and foolhardy. And now that unanswerable question so favored by adults—“What were you thinking?” Before I could answer, my father told me what I should have been thinking. “There are rats in sewers.”
“I didn’t see any.”
There were always rats in sewers, I was informed. Patently false, but I said nothing. Not to mention flash floods, sudden and potentially deadly. Did I understand this?
“The sky was blue. There wasn’t any rain.”
“Flash floods are unpredictable, hence the name.” He had me there. My father was a meteorologist during the war. All I could say, now nearly muttering, was that the sky was blue before and after my adventure.
“And there could be someone down there.”
This much was insane. Linda and Holly were too big so how could a grownup fit in the sewer? I wasn’t old enough to realize that my father must have had Les Misérables in mind and confused 18thC Paris with 20thC Metuchen, New Jersey.
Back to the never.I must never, never do this again, not near the house, not anywhere, not ever. Did I understand? Did I promise? In the end I promised, not because I feared rats, flash floods or bad midget people. Adult reasoning was sometimes so opaque that all a child can do is bow to their greater power.
Much later, having become a parent and then grandparent, I see the pity and the terror that adults can only warn—even assuming the warning is heeded—against dangers we can imagine. There is no way to predict or protect a child from the unimaginable.
“What were you thinking?” the adult demands.
But the child wasn’t thinking, only experiencing, searching out the portals to the marvelous other worlds that could be right thereon the other side of a sewer grating.