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Urban explorers

June 17, 2010 part 2 of 2 parts

Continued from last week, in which Little Ed laments the passing of the Age of Exploration. When last heard from, Ed and his confederates, seniors at a high school in downtown Chicago, had decided that what the building's Gothic exterior needed was some balloons.

By modern lights, I realize, balloons are pretty tame. Even at the time, I later learned, kids at fancy prep schools in the east were perpetrating pranks involving dynamite and rockets. I would admire the ambition of these schemes while recognizing they were the province of people with trust funds. As city kids we were obliged to be more frugal. We collected a dollar per capita from the rest of the class, thereby amassing seventy-five dollars. This ruled out the nuclear option, but was sufficient for what we had in mind.

Our plan was this. The school newspaper operated out of a little office on the third floor. I was the editor, and as such had a key to the office. Across the hall and up the stairs was the yearbook office, run by Pete. Pete was a good fellow, and to the casual eye respectable. Pete had a key too.

In the yearbook office was a mysterious door. From earlier inquiry we knew it provided access to the catwalk that ran through the school attic above the classrooms. My key didn't open this door; Pete's did. Pete knew that if you pass through adolescence without ever giving your elders reason to wish you'd never been born, you might as well not have been. He agreed to lend us his key.

That was merely the first step. We understood that, having traversed the attic, one might crawl out a dormer window to the school's peaked roof, skitter across the roof to the base of the tower above the chapel, enter the tower through some means the details of which were vague but presumably involved another door, then ascend to the tower's summit — or what was now the summit. We were informed that the tower's original top, a delicate spire, had collapsed into the street many years previously. The official cause was a lightning strike, but knowing what our predecessors had surely been like (i.e., us), we couldn't rule out the possibility that it was a previous teenage expedition gone tragically awry.

What was left of the tower was still quite tall — I'm pretty sure it was the highest point on the building. We proposed to ascend this prominence and tie a long rope to the top. We would toss the other end into the school courtyard some sixty feet below, and to it attach ten-foot helium-filled weather balloons decorated with spray-painted slogans. Then we'd let the balloons float into the sky to bemuse passersby, bug the rector, and who knows, maybe get a mention on the ten o'clock news. It was a good plan, in its simple way. However, in retrospect we'd have been smart to make a dry run first.  

In due course we purchased balloons at an army surplus store, rented a tank of helium, and obtained rope, paint, and other necessities. We drove the goods to school early one morning in Dave's bald-tired Volkswagen and stashed them in one of the courtyard's many crannies. The day passed slowly, but at last the final bell rang. Our plan was to hide out in the newspaper office, then emerge once the last janitor had gone home.

However atmospheric the school seemed when fully occupied, it was considerably spookier when empty after hours. We bided our time in the newspaper office doing homework. Around six I padded out into the hall in my stocking feet to reconnoiter. All was quiet. I approached a washroom and was about push the door open when I heard a faint noise on the other side. A creaking pipe — or a janitor's bucket? I elected not to make a definitive determination, instead fleeing in panic back to the newspaper office, where we waited another hour in terror of discovery. Nothing further developed. At seven I crept out again. All clear.

It was time to begin the evening's work. We entered the yearbook office and unlocked the attic door with Pete's key. Dave now departed to retrieve the bald-tired Volkswagen. Mike and I would make the necessary preparations with the rope.

I don't remember much about the transit of the attic, and am therefore free to conjecture that it was perilously dark, involving much ticklish threading past intricate machinery left over from the exorcism department. This will certainly figure in the movie version, but for now we'll skip to the roof. It was steeper than expected, giving an all too panoramic view of the courtyard eight thousand feet below. We gingerly crabbed our way to the base of the tower, and at the top of a short ladder found the conjectured door.

Here we confronted the importance of thorough scouting. The door was tightly wired shut. We had a wire cutter, or rather my father did, but it was in the basement of my parents' house ten miles away.  It was time to switch to our backup plan. Unfortunately, we didn't have one of those, either.

It had begun to rain, and the slate roof was slick. Common sense would have suggested simply tying the rope to a projection or railing, with which the roof was well equipped. However, I convinced Mike this would make it too easy for the balloons to be removed in the morning, which in hindsight seriously overestimated the willingness of middle-aged maintenance men to risk their lives for their jobs. Instead, we tried tying the rope to a gym shoe and tossing it to remote portions of the roof in hopes it would snag. As might have been predicted, this accomplished squat. After fifteen minutes of flailing in this pointless manner we were thoroughly discouraged, and wet and cold besides, and wanted only to go home.

Dave now returned. Listening briefly to us moan, he became disgusted with our lack of resolve and upbraided us sternly, and this stiffened our spirit to the requisite degree. The task before us was really not that complicated. I don't remember what we tied the rope to, but we tied it to something, and that was sufficient. Then we dropped the other end into the courtyard — another success. Brightening, we ran downstairs and extracted the helium tank and balloons from their hiding place. You'd think we had done this all our lives — in no time we'd inflated four balloons, three green and one red, which was a bit Christmasy for the season, but withal cheery, colorful and also extremely buoyant, which might lead you to expect we'd lose our grip or bungle the job of tying the balloons to the rope.

We didn't, though. We kept our wits about us. Soon we had the balloons securely fastened and evenly spaced, and while Mike and Dave held them I sprayed Class / of / '69 / Rah on the sides, one word per bobbing object, since spray paint and balloons weren't a medium conducive to verbosity. We would have taken a picture of the handsome result had we thought to bring a camera. Then we let the balloons go.

Developments from this point on can't fairly be attributed to incompetence — I wish this fact to be known. We were high school seniors; we couldn't be expected to anticipate everything. In a properly run world, the bureau of pranks would have alerted us to the danger of downdrafts; as it was, we found out soon enough on our own. The rising balloons had barely reached the level of the roof when they began to be fearfully buffeted by the wind, which flung them against each other and, more alarmingly, the building. This was bad enough, given the structure's many Gothic protrusions, but was made worse by the slate roof, which was held in place by metal spikes, the hind ends of which projected. These had been uncomfortable enough for us; they were fatal for the balloons.

Within seconds the first balloon had burst noiselessly, followed in quick succession by another. In not much above two minutes the massacre was complete. We stared disbelievingly, swearing in the chaste but sincere manner to be expected of seminarians. There was nothing else to be done.  The rope hung limply down the side of the building, the few shredded fragments still tied to it flapping pathetically in the breeze — all we had to show for the evening's labors. We disconsolately loaded the empty helium tank into Dave's Volkswagen and drove home silently, crushed by failure.

At school the next morning, and repeatedly throughout the day, we were compelled to reconstruct the fiasco for small groups of our classmates, anxious to know what had become of their investment. Here we discovered a remarkable fact. Our mission had been a complete and spectacular disaster, but it made a first-rate story — a story, furthermore, that got livelier and more heroic each time it was told. We had eluded detection by the thinnest margin, braved terrors, risked our lives. What had been a humiliating defeat at 8 a.m. had been recast by 3:45 as a Homeric epic, except in the end the Greeks lost. So what? We'd learned what every traveler learns: the prize is the adventure, and the only sure loser is the guy who never sets out. 

I regret to say no kid will ever again prowl about Quigley's dim reaches on some crackbrained quest — the school closed in 2007 and was converted to offices for the archdiocese. The results of this remodeling were what I had been anxious to see at my reunion. I was surprised and a little saddened to discover how thorough the transformation had been. Although the building looked much the same from the outside, virtually nothing of the original interior remained, the chapel and faculty room excepted. The towers were still there, but I didn't ask for an inspection. The time for such things had passed, I thought — and not just for me. When kids want adventure now, they have their choice of virtual alternative universes on xBox. Who needs the real thing?

These melancholy ruminations lingered in my mind when I went to visit my daughter the following weekend. She was a freshman at a university in a distant city. The school had been founded by a religious order, and I was interested to notice that the architects had evidently studied from the same book used by Quigley's designers. The oldest and grandest building on campus, which housed the administrative offices, was a magnificent stone edifice featuring numerous oriels, parapets, battlements, colonnades, balconies, and other picturesque features, the entirety of which was surmounted by a clock tower perhaps 900 feet tall. Surveying it I felt a familiar itch. So did my daughter, it turned out.

I have no wish to brag, but state as a matter of scientific fact that my daughter is a charming young woman, on the surface all giggles and innocence.  Underneath, however, there beats the heart of an adventurer. In high school she had badgered her mother and me into letting her travel to exotic locations such as Tanzania and India, paid for initially by us and later with babysitting money.

She had then contrived to gain admission to the most expensive institution of higher learning on earth, where she was now enrolled. The educational process being what it was, she had temporarily suppressed her urge to roam, but had done her best to scare up what adventure could be had in the vicinity of the school.

She now explained to me, no doubt in edited form, what this consisted of. I listened with a combination of rueful admiration and shock.  There was the bridge spanning the mighty river, the crossing of which was routine when done in the conventional manner but was more of a challenge from beneath — she showed me the scars from the barbed wire. She also gave me a tour of some of the basements, fire escapes and elevator shafts on campus she'd investigated with her accomplices.

The clock tower was to be the pièce de résistance. I'll omit the details, noting only that it was a work in progress. The sticking point at the moment was a tricky belay that for reasons not adequately explained had to be accomplished externally to the building, from a window here to a terrace there, five stories above the parking lot. She showed me, from a safe vantage point, the juncture in question. I thought: my gawd.

"Ani, as your father I need to tell you this scares the crap out of me, and you should never tell your mother," I said in my best parental manner. Then I looked up at the open window, the terrace railing, and and the unforgiving asphalt. This is my child, I thought, and ventured a tip on how the thing might be done.

Ed Zotti
Photo by Kim Scarborough/Wikimedia Commons

Previous Paulina Street Journal Columns  

Urban explorers, part 1
One in a trillion
Working for Barack
Digital psychosis

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