Among Yale undergrads it is said that one can get from any campus building to any other campus building via the steam tunnels. No sooner did this bit of folklore reach the ears of this freshman than I determined to find out if it was true. I had at least four years to do it; as it turned out it took about half that to thoroughly test the theory. In the process I founded an organization called SCESTY, the Society for the Clandestine Exploration of Steam Tunnels at Yale, which outlived my graduation by a number of years. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Most of Yale's main campus is heated by a central facility called Physical Plant. From Physical Plant runs a network of underground tunnels which carry steam pipes, water mains, pipes for chilled water, electric power feeds, telephone lines, and other highly interesting and dangerous things. These tunnels distribute their wares to the various campus buildings, though not extending as far as Science Hill, which is left to its own devices, so to speak, for such services. Among steam tunnelers, the name Physical Plant conjures up emotions similar to those stirred up in denizens of Middle-Earth by the name "Mordor". The minions of Physical Plant are the Enemy; Physical Plant itself is a forbidden zone which was often closed approached, but never entered.
By the time I reached Junior year, I and my organization had produced a highly detailed map, accurately drawn to scale, of the entire tunnel system. Sometime late in my undergraduate career I purchased at a campus auction an official tour of the dreaded Physical Plant. On the tour it became obvious that we knew more about the steam tunnels than They did. We chose to not reveal this fact to Them. But I digress.
The incident which is the main subject of this narrative happened well before our maps were complete. It involved myself and someone whom I shall call Ruth. Ruth was a member of my class, a fellow steam-tunneler, a fellow musician, and a good friend. Ruth was also socially inept, significantly underendowed with good looks, a virgin, and desperately interested in altering that last characteristic. My own interest in assisting her in that endeavor was offset by the existence of my fiancee.
(Ruth, if you ever read this, I hope you will not take offense. I remember you with much fondness.)
It was on a Friday evening that Ruth and I decided to explore an area of the steam tunnels that we knew about but had not yet explored. We selected a manhole which we knew was insecurely fastened down, located in the moat of one of the residential colleges. We were both dressed in SCESTY uniform: black pants, black turtleneck, work gloves, and blackened hard hats. We carried flashlights covered with black tape, dust masks, an assortment of tools, a small first aid kit, a modified telephone for tapping into phone lines, and the all-important notebook for recording our findings. Making our way towards virgin territory (the tunnels, not Ruth), we passed through a door which marked the boundary between the explored and the unexplored.
At this point it is instructive to examine the nature of doorness. Doors open, and doors close. This is required behaviour; otherwise they wouldn't be doors but rather walls, or perhaps thumbtacks. Doors also, by their nature, have two sides. If a door had only one side, there wouldn't be much point to its existence, assuming that it could exist at all in a perceivable way in the 3-dimensional world that most of us inhabit. These two facts further imply that a door may be opened (or closed) from either of two sides. What it does not imply is that a door, having been opened from one side and then closed from the other, will then open from that other side. With regard to the specific situation at hand, Ruth and I did so discover that the door which had opened so easily to our hands, once passed through and closed, steadfastly refused to further manifest its doorness from the other side. This other side, the side on which we now found ourselves, was of course the Unknown side.
Memo (we wrote): carefully examine both sides of a door before allowing it to close.
Thus finding ourselves locked into the Unknown, and so locked out of the Known, we were presented with a number of possible actions, which included abandoning all hope and laying down to die, throwing ourselves at the (steel) door until exhaustion claimed us, or continuing our exploration. The vote was unanimous.
Most of the details of the exploration are not germane to this narration. Suffice to say that we discovered a number of new and interesting tunnels, and many notes were added to our notebook. However, the tunnels eventually led to dead ends or to doorlike entities which, as far as their operative doorness was concerned, emulated walls. Eventually we made our way back to where we had originally entered the formerly Unknown, having found no egress. At this point we began a second, and much more thorough exploration. No crack or crevice was spared the glare of our flashlights. Nothing doorlike was spared an intense interrogation of its doorness.
One particular door was especially interesting, not because of the door itself, which was flatly uninteresting, but because of what lay beyond it. The room itself was rather disappointing: a closet no more than ten feet on a side. However, from one wall emerged a trio of extremely heavy cables, which looped themselves over a set of large glass insulators in the middle of the room, to disappear into the opposite wall. To remove all possibility of boring a new occupant such as myself, the wall opposite the door held a sign which perched calmly like a predator who knows that its next meal is assured. The sign read: "Danger / 13,800 volts".
I froze. How far, I wondered, can 13,800 volts arc? I pondered the question briefly, then shut the door. As far as I was concerned, the door had become a wall. Or a thumbtack.
Another door at the top of a staircase proved, upon close inspection, to open into Yale Station, the campus post office, which had long since closed for the day. Adding federal crimes to local ones seemed like a bad idea, besides which, that door was locked, too.
After much crawling about in awkward and uncomfortable places we found a place of particular awkwardness and uncomfortableness. Near one turn in the tunnel, behind a stack of enormous steam pipes which obscured, but did not quite entirely cover, the entire tunnel wall, we discovered a large square opening in said tunnel wall. This opening was filled by an almost, but not quite equally large fan, such that there was a space of about a foot between the tunnel wall and the frame of the fan. It looked as if a sufficiently desperate human might be able to squeeze through with much care and perseverance, but "sufficiently desperate" in this case meant considerably desperate indeed, because whoever had installed the fan had quite clearly neglected to install the safety mesh that any sane designer would have specified be placed over the blades, and those very blades which were rotating at a speed quite adequate to chop both Ruth and myself into stew meat, a fate which would no doubt have delighted the local rat population, but which both of us viewed with somewhat less relish.
Nevertheless, we were sufficiently desperate. The rats were disappointed.
On the other side of the fan was a smallish room containing nothing of interest but a door, or at least something which appeared doorlike. However, this lone artifact fully satisfied our interest, being that it was not locked and thus eager to demonstrate for us the entirety of its doorness. On the other side of this door was a world completely at odds with the world of steam tunnels: a linoleum floor supporting modern steel shelving which held packaged reams of paper and assorted boxes: an office supply closet. This was, we agreed, a definite improvement. Elsewhere in the closet we found another door, also blessedly unlocked. Beyond that door, a dimly lit but much larger space. Tables. Vending machines. Cross Campus.
I shall probably have to explain a little bit about Cross Campus. Cross Campus is a two-story underground library which is adjacent to the main campus library. Above it is a large lawn, with a few sunken atriums which let a bit of natural light to irritate the eyes of the academic troglodytes who inhabit the the upper level of the library beneath the lawn. Between Cross Campus proper and the main library is a cafeteria area with an array of vending machines, which was the area in which we now found ourselves. Now, Cross Campus closes at 5pm on Fridays. We had begun our explorations early that evening. On a Friday.
So there we were in a portion of the university library, several hours after closing, drinking sodas and trying to figure out how we were going to get out of the library without getting arrested. We supposed that we could just let ourselves out the nearest door and then explain to the nice officers that we had fallen asleep in the stacks, but we also supposed that we could come up with a better plan.
Some time before this particular adventure I had been exploring the main library, trying unsuccessfully to get onto a narrow balcony which runs all around the nave-like area that houses the card catalogs. I had found a nice little window on the second floor, and it sounded like as good an exit to try as any, and better than some, such as the front door, which was likely to be locked, alarmed, guarded, and/or booby- trapped. We made our way to the window without further incident, and found that Providence had provided just outside that window a tree, well within reach. A rather young tree, actually. All right, a sapling. But a stout sapling. We hoped.
The sapling held, and we were free. Almost. We were in the inner courtyard of one of the Master's houses. Great: another opportunity for arrest. But this opportunity failed to knock, apparently not recognizing in us this lesser aspect of doorness, and then we really were free, out on the streets of Yale with not a care left in the world. Except, that is, for the matter of Ruth's virginity, a matter which we very nearly addressed in her room shortly afterward when we came that close to seducing each other, but that's another story.