Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Magic Box

The first time the sinkhole at the corner of what is now Knob Creek and Sunset opened up was many years before 1963. When it opened in the early 60s, when anyone cared to notice, was when the first documentation was made. The only reason anybody paid any attention even then was that Giddon’s Outdoor Shop had just opened catty-corner to the sinkhole which by then the land had been surveyed and Sunset was just beginning to stretch out from north Roan Street as the town expanded very slightly and would some day meet up with Knob Creek road. Both roads were just pencil lines on the county map that didn’t go too far. A farmer by the name of Edwards owned the property on that corner where the sinkhole opened up but it was an off-shaped corner and as long as he didn’t lose any cows to it he wrote the sink hole off as just a part of the landscape. Nobody lived out there at the time. Buck Giddon had bought his corner location fairly cheaply. It wasn’t an intersection then, only a spot where the road made a bend and he was betting that Knob Creek road would be come a more major road in the future. He was right.

The nearest houses in any direction were down at Skyline Drive on Knob Creek, nearer to town. Since who knows when, there had been a box buried deep in the sinkhole. Along with trees and some trash and maybe a dead cow, the hole had disguised itself until roads and traffic and property lines became more permanent and sinkholes became ever more the nuisance.

When the box surfaced just this spring, though, as the city was trying to build around various other sinkholes, Billy Joe Miller, the backhoe operator had tried to get his bucket under the box, missed, scratched the box, but did not dent it, to bring it up to safer ground. Miller was about as good a backhoe operator as the average car driver could navigate a tank.

Bart Allen, the foreman, gave Miller a piece of his mind.

“It might be valuable, you idiot,” yelled Allen.

“Sorry,” said Miller. He was ticked. Bart Allen thought he was just so much smarter than him.

“Tilt it up on an edge,” said Allen.

“I’m trying,” said Miller. “I’m trying.”

“Well, try harder. Jeez this thing is impressive.”

“Well, I can’t hardly see it down in the shadow of that hole. The bucket is about as far as it will go.”
“Is it heavy?” said Allen. “What’s it feel like?”

“Heavy enough,” said Miller. I wouldn’t want to be under it, he thought, and the idea flashed across his mind that they’d discover a really weird casket top. God only knew what might under it.

But, Miller got it to stand on a long side. By now, a sheriff’s deputy had showed up. Neither Allen nor Miller could guess who called the cops, or why. And for the moment, with the bucket laid gently on top of it to keep it steady the three of them acted like they were safe from something. They didn’t know what. A state car showed up next. Some guy sporting a beard and in shorts and sandals huddled with Allen for a moment. Allen waved his hands and pointed to the hoe and to the bucket, shrugged his shoulders, mimicked all kinds of messages but soon the man with a bag of tools, and now wearing mud boots, went down in the sinkhole, against all advice of any other person in the world, apparently to examine the box.

Not that the box was supposed to do anything as if any of them could imagine this box doing something. It was a box. Maybe six feet high by about three feet across and maybe a foot thick. In the dark of the hole it couldn’t reflect any kind of image although Miller thought it was very shiny for being in the mud for however many years. Miller climbed down out the cab and stood next to Allen and the deputy. Up here in the sun the day was getting warmer. Fifteen feet down in the shadow it must have been several degrees cooler. The deputy was talking to someone on his radio. Allen and the man below communicated via a walkie-talkie.

“Well,” said the man, “it looks really new and unmarked by being in the rocks. The hoe took a scratch in it, though, but that’s all. Whatever it is made of it is really hard stuff. I don’t know my metals enough to say. The edges are very precise. I don’t feel a seam like I should from beveled edges and I don’t find a hinge or lock unless it’s on the bottom. This is very strange.”

Allen seemed agitated that work was stopping for now. Miller was just getting warmed by the sun and noted the sky was clear but remembered the forecast was for rain. It was going to be humid later in the afternoon.

“It’s cool to the touch,” said the man in the pit. “And, it is incredibly smooth. But not reflective. This strikes me as a bit familiar but I don’t quite recall where I’ve seen this.”

“You know,” said Miller, “we ought to get him out of there. This hole could sink in any minute and we’d never save him.”

Allen nodded an approval and radioed the man below.

“No. Not yet,” said the man.

The sinkhole seemed stable enough. As with any sinkhole they all knew activity was unpredictable and dangerous. Whole houses had gone under. Roadways, too. School parking lots. So far no one had been able to predict the activities and certainly no one had a clue how long a sink hole would excavate or why it stopped. This part of town had seen this particular sinkhole over many years but only in the last 50 had anyone paid any attention. With the intersection becoming busier by the year, the town had long past this spot as it sprawled, the potential for losing the roadway was serious.
Too have a man go down into the earth now would bring all kinds of grief down on the contractor and the city.

“We shouldn’t take too much longer, doc,” said Allen.

The man, “Doc,” was a geologist at the college but also a archaeologist and this was the find of the century.

“Can your bucket lift it?” said Doc.

Allen relayed the message to Miller who said there was only one way to find but how were they to get the box into the bucket. Besides, he was worried they might scratch it or dent it.

“We can wrap a chain around it and hook that to the bucket,” said Miller. “But I don’t think we can get the bucket underneath it. And we wouldn’t probably be able to just lift if right up but sort of drag it along the side of the hole.”

“We don’t want to do that,” said Doc. “I’d hate to scratch it on those rocks.”

“Well, we have only a couple of options. We can drag it, wrestle it into a bigger bucket or we can leave it behind.”

“Well,” said Doc, “we’re not leaving it behind. Right now the sinkhole is stable so let’s give this some thought. Also, it’s been down here for years, undoubtedly, yet remarkably unscathed. Maybe it’s more scratch resistant than we think.”

“Well, I know I took a swipe at it with bucket.”

“Yeah, I can see where you clawed it. Not all that bad. If it had been a car door or something you would have gashed it wide open. This isn’t.”

“Nothing is that hard,” said Allen. Miller nodded his agreement. They were both now bathed in sunshine and both were beginning to sweat.

In the hole, Doc dug out underneath an end of the box. Miller got the claw underneath that corner and lifted. Doc slipped his heavy two-inch rope he used for lifting specimen castings underneath in the middle of the box and tied a diamond hitch around it. Miller repositioned the claw over the box and slipped the claw in to the rope slack.

Everyone was talking on their radios now, except Miller who had turned on the AM radio in his cab to listen to the early morning sports show. The deputy was calling the Sheriff’s office to let them know how the plan was coming along. Doc and Allen were talking through the next couple of steps as Doc got the rope knotted. The sun was beginning to burn already in the cab but Allen could easily see Doc working down in the dark of the pit.

Miller got one finger of claw into the sling and began to lift against the slack of the rope. The box was near the end of the ability of the backhoe to reach and just enough weight that he could feel the hoe shake a bit through the rattle of the machinery. The governor pushed the engine revs up and a belch of black smoke rolled out of the exhaust pipe. It wasn’t heavy but it wasn’t light either. He stopped for moment, slack taken up, the box just barely off the ground, to allow Doc to scramble up the slope and into the safety of the sunshine.

Miller pulled back on the lever and the arm lifted and the engine cranked up some more horsepower and the mysterious box rose from the depths of the hole. Into the sunshine. Within a moment of exposure, radio in the backhoe cab screeched like too many tires on concrete. The deputies speaker in his car erupted with a scream that made him first swat at his ears and then dive for the volume control. Same with Doc and Allen. They yanked their walkie-talkies to arm’s length and then turned them off. Shook their heads in amazement at what such a cheap instrument will do all of a sudden.

Miller was too busy trying to lift and move the box to immediately turn off his radio and when he reached for it the box swayed dangerously and before he could gather control the box slipped from the sling and tumbled back into the hole.

With the load off the bucket, the engine settled back to an idle rumble, such as it was, and a kind of industrial peace returned to the site. All four men stood at the rim and peered down at the box. It had landed on a corner and dug itself into a fresh muddy spot to about a third buried.

Doc cautiously turned his radio back on. There was no more ear-wrenching signal.

“What the heck was that all about,” said Allen. He was a man who got holes dug not a man who wondered about electronics. Give him a D9 Cat any day and mound of dirt to move and he was happy. This was too weird.

All of them stood on the rim looking at the box half-buried in the mud below. The sun was just now touching a corner of it. They weren’t sure what happened but they were pretty sure they’d be hard pressed to explain it.