1972: Subterranean Spring Break

There are very few times when the words “Alaska” and “spring break” appear in the same sentence, but the University of Alaska does indeed have a spring break. At least it did when I was a student at The University of Alaska (This was when there was only one university and several community colleges). We got two days off in March, which coupled with the regular weekend gave us a four day spring break. The problem was there was no place to go and as it was a holiday there was no food service. You’d think that we’d have been starved into docile inactivity during that week but as you will see it was one of the most exciting weeks I spent on campus that year.

There was another major drawback to spring break: as a high school student my Best Friend still had to go to school – and keep weekday evening study hours so I was left with my dorm buddies for evening company and entertainment during the break. By this time differences in the value of certain herbal remedies had been resolved so I was getting along well with my room-mate Scott as well as Bernie, Marty, Jeff and other members of the Lathrop Hall basement group. Not that there weren’t still some important differences of opinion: I had absolutely no interest in researching the flammable qualities of flatulence so I had to come up with another activity to pass the time (heaven forbid studying) and as luck (literally) would have it I was presented with one the first night of the break.

I took a slightly different route home from my Best Friend’s house that night as few times during the previous week I had the unnerving experience of being trailed home by a lynx. It’s a common thing and the cats never attack but it still creeped me out to see a pair of shining eyes following me at a fixed distance as I made my way along the shortcut through the woods – that’s  what had me following the sidewalks back to Lathrop Hall. The change in route also took me to the front door instead of the back and as I neared the entrance I noticed that the padlock on the metal door securing the entry to the campus utilidors was missing. The door was located on a low metal box about ten feet square and after a quick scan around I pulled up on the handle – which opened with a slight creak!

I was in!

(For those of you who don’t know what utilidors are– it’s a tunnel system usually found on large spread-out installations like a college campus or military base. The tunnels house electrical lines, steam-heat pipes, water and sewer lines that run from the main physical plant complex out to all the other buildings, eliminating duplication of  heating systems in each building and providing all-weather access to maintenance of all the lines. I had explored the utilidors under my high-school the year before but they were very limited – nothing  like what we discovered under the university.)

I didn’t stay long, quickly climbing back out and bolting inside the dorm to my room where I told the guys about the situation. We immediately geared up, though unfortunately we were short on any sort of light-producing devices ( I think we had two candles) I put on one of my dad’s old flight suits and  filled the pockets with “stuff” like a pocket knife, matches, string, hard candy etc.  I don’t know what I was thinking but for some reason survival equipment seemed appropriate at the time. Once we were all equipped we made our way to the entrance, darting from the front door to the open hatch one at a time like escaping POWs heading for the wire in “The Great Escape”

It was dark. As our eyes adjusted we found that was a little bit of light filtering from the glass windows in the doors that connected the tunnels with each one of the building – just enough light to allow some rough navigation through the passages.  That was one of our first discoveries – that the glass-windowed door in the bottom of the stairwell connected with the utilidors. All of the buildings were connected in that fashion – but unfortunately they were just about all locked as well so there would be a limit to our travels.

The first night’s expedition was limited. . We followed the tunnel down the slope (the tunnels followed the general lay of the land over them) to the athletics building where our big achievement for the night was getting into the observation room adjacent to the pool. The room had a window looking out in the water which was used for filming and critique of the swim teams. It was an eerie sight – there were low-level security lights above the water but all we saw was a silvery undulating “ceiling” as we looked into the pool.

These limitations might seem as though they would be very discouraging but you have to remember that this was 1972 and heroic fantasy (Lord of the Rings, Conan and the like) was very popular. Running through those tunnels was like living out a Robert Howard short story and I half expected bejeweled skeletons swinging swords to come lurching out of a niche in the wall.

We went back into the tunnels and headed up the hill, past our entry point and beyond. We stopped at several buildings, hoping to find an unlocked door but found them all secured. Disappointment was keenest at the basement of Chandalar Hall, one of two residence halls on campus that were girls-only. As the male-to-female ratio on campus ran a little worse than 3 to 2 I was the only guy in the bunch with a steady girlfriend so the others went through every conceivable contortion at the locked door window trying to catch a glimpse – or even just a reflected glimpse of the bare boobs and pillow fights that Playboy would have us believe prevailed amongst coeds behind locked doors.

We decided to explore just another 50 feet and leave the rest of the tunnels for another night. We passed by a very promising air-lock-like door to find the bottom of a flight of stairs at the next break in the tunnel wall. This time there was no locked door and we started up the staircase only to be surprised that it kept going up past where we assumed ground level would be. We kept going on, assuming that  we’d become disoriented by the slight up-slope we’d being climbing as the tunnel followed the contour of the terrain of the campus above – but when I spied a small window to one side I quickly figured out what was going on.

We were 20-30 feet above the sidewalk. Somehow we’d gotten into the old clock tower and the aforementioned terrain disorientation had kept us from realizing where we were. It was all quite funny until we remembered that a) the carillon bells were housed just above us in the tower and B) it was about five minutes before the hour. Not wishing to be anywhere around when all that noise started we ran down the steps to the tunnel and were piling out of the entrance behind Lathrop Hall when the bells actually did start to peal.

I slept most of the next day, and then spent part of the evening visiting with my Best Friend before our next foray underground. Because she was my best friend  I’d end up telling her everything going on in my life…but she wasn’t very happy my current antics.  Her father was on University staff and in the past there had been some dinner table dialog about students caught in the utilidors and subsequently disciplined severely when they were found to have “lifted” camera equipment.  I changed the subject as quickly as possibly and tried not to look too anxious as I left her house and headed back to the dorm for another expedition.

We were dismayed to find three more “explorers” waiting to join up with us. Two of them – Tideman and Carrini –  were from our floor and most welcome but the third guy was from another dorm and not particularly trusted,  but as  his flashlight and spare batteries were a definite improvement over our candles we took him along.  I was much better prepared information wise as well, having had combined notes from previous nights’ experience with a campus catalog map which was in turn double-checked against surreptitious day-light survey of the school grounds .

I was most interested in the “airlock doors” we’d passed the night before. They were extremely hard to open and at first I thought they were bolted or secured in some manner but after getting through the first one I found there was a strong air current moving that you had to open the door against – which did nothing but pique my interest even more.  Each time we went through another door the current got stronger until we reached a small cube-shaped room with a grill in the top which lead me to believe that the tunnels were part of a ventilation system at some unknown campus location.

It was not unknown for long. I popped up through the grid in finest Whack-a-Mole fashion to find myself in the middle main hall of the student center. Formally known as the William R. Wood Center it was commonly known as the ‘Copper Center” because of the cupreous siding on the front of the building. It was brand new having just opened that semester and was mildly controversial because of the large open interior spaces and “modern” decorating motif designed to combat the long winter nights and cabin fever – conservative critics felt like all the open space was a waste of money. The design included a small platform with dining table sitting atop of an artfully designed 20 foot tall metal framework and staircase which we alternately called “The Stairway to Heaven” or ‘The Stairway to Nowhere”.

The grating I came up out of was located at the bottom of the framework, putting me in the exact middle of this large open area. I was saved by immediate discovery and apprehension only the fact that it was A) well after midnight on a holiday and B) most of the people in the area were baked so bad their eyes looked like a road-map of Los Angeles. The minute I gathered my senses I popped back down the hole and made my way back to the main tunnel, my egress all that much faster with the air currents now acting as a tailwind.

We pushed past the entrance to the clock tower and found a branch that appeared to lead us to the new classroom building being built in front of the old student center. At first we figured that as work in progress there would be no locked doors to that building but in fact the tunnel was boarded up with plywood instead. Bent but not broken  we turned down yet another side tunnel which took us directly to the library sub-basement…at which point I started to get nervous.

There was a lot of (what was for 1972) lot of hi-tech equipment stored in that area, along with large numbers of books on carts to be reshelved the next day. I thought back on the story about the students getting the ax over the stolen cameras and opted to head back to the entrance along with all but two of the party, after which I crashed for the night.

The next day was a repeat of the day before. Bernie and I walked the campus grounds measuring off distances and correcting my map. Early that evening I went to visit my Best Friend again and in typical boorish jock manner scared her with a story about being caught in the tunnels the night before and how I was awaiting expulsion. She failed to see the humor in my story but succeeded in demonstrating a surprising strong right arm when she punched my right arm in bad-joke-retaliation.

Again we assembled in our room and like soldiers on the Western Front preparing for a trench raid we secured our gear, prepared our lights and filed stealthily out to the unlocked access hatch….to find a massive brass lock sealing it securely shut. Given the substances some of the guys had been fortifying themselves with during these incursions finding the lock there was literally a buzz-kill but we had no tools and other than scrambling down the grid below the Stairway to Nowhere we knew of no other access points so we called it a night. It was just as well – it was 1:00 AM Sunday morning; the cafeteria would be back up and running for breakfast and I definitely wanted to have something before hiking back to my Best Friend’s home to catch a ride to church with her and her family.

It wasn’t until later that week that we found out what had happened. It was obvious something was up when the entire floor was blasted awake at 6:00 AM by the stereo in Tideman and Carrini’s room blasting “Lowdown” by Chicago. They were heading back to California (early) and while I was elated when they gave me their bunk-bed components I was mystified by the sudden move. It wasn’t until sometime later when I found out the real story during one of the dorm floor’s “herbal remedy” sessions. That last night when the rest of the group (including me) came home early Tideman and Carrini actually got as far as the campus fire station…and a campus fireman. The tunnel they were in made a sharp left turn into the station’s basement and before they knew where they were they had almost run over a guy. He was startled enough that they got back into the tunnels and far enough down them that they were able to get back home without being caught. Did they get away scot-free? I don’t know – but there was a short note in the campus paper soon after restating the zero-tolerance policy about the utilidors, warning dire consequences for those who may be caught down there

…though at that moment I’d have freely taken those ‘dire consequences” if it meant escape from the umber-colored laser stare that I did get from my Best Friend while reading that particular notice.


There are two types of posts I make to this blog. The first type is a spontaneous post and usually involves a piece of art. The second type is in essay form, usually 600-1200 words and has been drafted, proof-read edited offline so it comes out exactly right. This post is going to be a mix of both.

While this is not a political blog, and I am not an overly political person I started out with a rant about prescription pain medication. Granted, there is a problem with abuse and diversion in the country but in humanity’s usual mode of over-reaction a lot of deserving people are being not just hurt but permanently damaged.

I was that rarest of anomalies, a drug-free college student in the early 1970s. I didn’t start out with any hard and fast opinions either way, but I made a promise to my girlfriend that I would not indulge, and I kept that promise even though it brought enormous pressure from the other residents of my dorm to include threats of violence. When they finally figured out that (A) I wasn’t a narc and (B) I wasn’t going to cave their attitudes changed and I became the token “straight.” As my good friend The Badger said to me “Deitrick I guess you have character,” and from then on anyone from outside Lathrop Hall risked damage to life and limb if they pushed the drug issue with me.

It’s been that way all my life. I had extremely high security clearances and was selected to control large amounts of money and extremely valuable items of equipment because I have proven myself to be scrupulously honest. When I returned an extra $20 a clerk gave me with change after a purchase she was amazed that I did so, saying, “No one would have ever known” to which I answered, “But I would have”

So, where is this going? Please bear with me.

At the same time that I have been going through life as the living embodiment of Richie Cunningham from Happy Days, I have also been going through sheer physical hell. As the result of a now overwhelmingly disproven SIDS prevention measure known as Thymus Irradiation I was deprived of a healthy immune system. Because of that I have multiple auto-immune problems: advanced rheumatoid arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis and multiple skin rashes which are often severe enough to bleed through.

…and did I mention the pain? I don’t have a thesaurus big enough or accurate enough for me to find words to accurately describe the exquisite torture I go through just to get up in the morning. You know that little graph they use to help verbalize pain, the one with the little faces on the number scale? At any given moment I have at least five areas bouncing up at about #7–and there are days when I could tape an extension to the end of that little scale and draw in three additional expressive faces showing pain at level 11 (vomiting) 12 (voiding bowels) and 13 (giving the world the “one finger wave”). I have knuckles that look like walnuts and major joints which possess 20% of the range of motion I had ten years ago. Because of the various non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs prescribed to me I’ve gone through pancreatitis twice (usually a one-way trip the first time around). I have gone all the way to “the edge” because of uncontrolled severe pain. The only way I can live anything close to a normal life is by using pain-killers.

OOOOOOHHHH. AHHHHHH. See–already you’re sucking your breath in and looking back over the previous half-dozen paragraphs to see if I ever car-jacked someone or dried a baby off in a microwave. If you use pain medication you are automatically judged as a criminal/addict. Never mind that all these “conditions” are due to massive stupidity on the part of doctors that are all dead now–I am flawed because I need this kind of help. What is bitterly ironic about all of this is the fact that pain-killers don’t really “kill pain.” The pain is still there, but you’re able to ignore it to an extent.

Long term chronic pain acts almost like a disease in and of itself. As your body copes with the overload on your nervous system it changes and adapts–and not in a good way. To take the pressure off of one joint I have to kind of twist in an otherwise unaffected area-–but which now causes more pain because it has been forced into an alignment it wasn’t made for. The longer the pain goes on, the faster and more intense it becomes as well. One doctor explained to me this simplistic but effective manner: it’s like the pain messages have worn a groove they can zip down.

At one time I longed for a device that would allow someone to experience my life for just thirty seconds–a small hand-held device with a push-button on it–but in the end was glad it didn’t exist. I’d be leaving a trail of people collapsed on the floor, covered with vomit with their bladders and bowels voided.

…and contrary to what thoughtless people have said to me, this isn’t a moderate condition that I am “using.”  As you would expect with growing up in Alaska and life as a soldier, I have experienced other periods of severe pain before all of this set in. At age 10 I walked on three broken bones in my foot for a week before getting a cast. I had my left thumb slashed/dislocated in an industrial accident and I took care of it with aspirin and a butterfly closure. Passed gallstones twelve times before the operation with only ibuprofin to ease the pain.  I know what pain is and what I go through daily equals those brief incidents.

Fortunately there are exceptions in the human race, people with unfeigned compassion.  I have two attending doctors now that both deserve sainthood for what they have done for me but in many ways their hands are tied by government rules and regulations that are just not thought out very well by people who know nothing of the science involved to begin with, much less the misery their actions have inflicted.

I make it through each day only because I have a great support system, with my beautiful Saxon princess at the top of the list. As I mentioned there are my two doctors and their staff who regularly save my life through their care and compassion… and there are the members of The Club.

The Club. I am certainly not the only person in this situation and I refer to those friends of mine in similar straits as members of The Club. I can readily pick those individuals out of a crowd–there is particular combination of a dark exhausted look around the eyes, a careful way of walking and an absence of judgment that comes only from countless sleepless nights, regular spasms and chronic joint pain… and the fear that comes with it. It is something that can only be experienced to be understood and it gives you a compassion that nothing else will.

At the outset of this post I said I didn’t know where I was going or what I wanted to accomplish, and I still don’t have a totally cohesive thesis statement to tack onto the introduction. Just do me a favor please. If you know someone in pain-hell, or in your daily activities encounter someone with a cane, moving in an oddly stiff manner or maybe wincing while moving around at a desk or handling objects, please be kind. No matter the kind of life they’ve lived, they’re going straight to heaven because they’ve already lived in hell.