Every Friday afternoon at my high school, an all-male, Catholic, military school in Saint Paul, Minnesota, word got around about where the party was, who was hosting and other important specifics like whether there would be girls and beer. There were at least three well-known party spots that I knew of. First, there was “The Monument,” which was code for the bluffs of the Mississippi River at the end of Summit Avenue. A large concrete Civil War monument stood at this location, which gave the party spot its name. Another one, “The Valley,” was nothing more than a wooded ravine near Montreal Avenue that had some decent cover for keggers. And finally, there were “The Caves,” a series of large natural caverns, at one time used for aging beer for the Schmidt brewery. I had never been to any of these places but thought I should probably check a couple off my list to at least know what the cool kids were talking about when referring to them.
After hearing a lot of buzz around school about the Caves, Pete, Dan, Pat and I decided we should check them out on a Friday night. Plans were made, and I picked the three of them up around eight o’clock in the evening. We swung by the Super America gas station and sent Pete in to see if he could score some beer. At the time, the only kind sold at gas stations was 3.2. That’s short for 3.2% alcohol—the weak watered down version of the regular “strong” beer. It was the product of Minnesota’s conservative foundation. If you were crazy enough to drink in attempts to get drunk, well, good luck. It was the primary catalyst for what was known as the 3.2 flu—a good old cheap beer hangover. Because it was also the only alcohol sold after liquor stores closed at 10:00 PM, it was a desperation product for sure but worked in a pinch. In our case, any beer we could get using deceit and persuasion was good enough.
Pete came walking back to the car with a twelve-pack of Miller High life in his clutches. He got in the car and said, “Score, boys!”
“You the man, Pete!” I exclaimed.
“They card you or give you any grief?” Pat asked.
“Nope. Sometimes, you just have to look like you know what you’re doing.”
With the goods in our possession, we were in like Flynn. Pat went in next and purchased a pack of Swisher Sweet cigars because nothing makes a cave experience more gratifying than cheap beer and cigars that taste like old socks. It was clear that even if there were girls in these caves, and there likely would not be, we would repulse them with our tobacco-tainted auras and ill-gotten suds. Nope, this was all boys right here. Goin’ on an adventure! I’m a coal miner, dude!
We climbed back into the Volaré and made our way toward the caves. Pete knew the approximate entrance point near Shepard Road. We parked the car and started prepping for our descent into the unknown. Everyone packed a couple of bottles of beer into their coats for safekeeping. We each grabbed a candle while Pat secured the stogies and the lighter. As high school urban spelunkers, we were good to go. All that was missing was a case of black lung, and we aimed to take care of that with a little help from the Swisher Sweets.
Making sure no one was watching, we crossed the road and hiked down the trail leading into the wooded bluffs. A few yards down the trail we came to what we determined to be the entrance. It was a ridiculously small hole cut into the limestone hillside, one that made all of us pause and wonder if we really wanted to pursue this little thrill.
“This is it?” Pat said.
“I guess so, yeah. Must be,” Pete answered.
“Wow. Well, who wants to lead?” Pat asked.
“I’m shortest, so I’ll start,” Pete offered.
He crouched down and crawled into the opening, careful not to bang his bottles of Miller on the limestone walls in the process. Pete wriggled and writhed his way until we couldn’t see him anymore. Pat went next, and Dan and I followed. It was a human chain of chance in a tunnel to the unknown, and we couldn’t resist the draw.
As I worked my way down the narrow tunnel, I became acutely aware of how confining these spaces were. The fact that we were one small rock fall or cave-in from being buried alive was not lost on me. No one knew where any of us were. We all lied to our parents about where we were going. After all, saying, “Yeah, Mom, I’m gonna go out with my buddies, pick up some beer and a few cigars and crawl into some perilous caves that were supposed to have been sealed up years ago. Is that alright with you?” would likely get you grounded for life.
Nope. It was more like, “I’m going to go hang out with Pat, Pete and Dan tonight.”
In a cave.
When I reached the main chamber, Pete and the others were waiting. They all had their candles lit and were marveling at the walls and ceiling. They passed me one and I lit it using Pat’s flame. We held our candles high and craned our necks to see the limestone magnificence of what we just entered. It was an enormous natural structure with ceilings twenty feet high or higher, a perfect location for beer that demanded a constant temperature for lagering and aging. We were clearly in the belly of the beast. The air was stale and humid with a slightly acrid smoky tinge to it. At my feet the ground was sandy and littered with bottles, cardboard twelve-pack containers and other trash left behind from previous revelers. Pat joked about how ironic it was that these very caves that once used to ferment and store beer were now being used to consume it and eventually serve as its depository after being filtered through our teenage livers. The location served as a circle of life for beer.
“Hey, who needs a cigar?” Pat asked.
Each of us answered in turn that we wanted one as Pat passed them around. I lit mine using my candle flame and then hacked a rookie’s cough. I was new to this vice and still unclear as to the draw of the “draw.” It seemed to smoking like gargling is to brushing your teeth. You mean, you don’t inhale, but you still enjoy the introduction of toxins into your mouth? I guess I didn’t get it but was willing to give it the old college try, to be cool if for no other reason. After all, my father and grandfather both smoked cigars. Heck, I was keeping a family tradition. The habit was almost certainly the cause behind Grandpa Landwehr losing both of his legs because of blood clots, so I had that going for me. But he was old, and I was barely seventeen and invincible, so I puffed away like a caveman with a “nic” fit.
With the cigars all lit and stinking up the already stale, limited oxygen we had, Pete moved on to the next vice and popped the top off his beer using the church key, as he referred to it. It was a secret term for the bottle opener. He passed the key around and we all did the same. Pete proposed a toast.
“To the caves!”
We raised our bottles and clinked them all around, saying, “To the caves!”
We all tilted our bottles and took long swigs of the carbonated disappointment. Being inside such an enormously secluded natural formation suddenly gave validation to the dangerous entry we just undertook, and it was cause for celebration. There in the dark, dank, fifty-five-degree confines, us low lives were living the high life.
Curious about the magnitude of the cave system, we took a look around. We relied on the small aura of light cast by our candles as we made our way from room to room. In the biggest room, a couple of guys stood around a small fire made of a twelve-pack container. These spelunking Rhodes Scholars had determined that a small fire was more important than the precious oxygen the blaze was converting to carbon monoxide. We kept a distance from them as well as the rest of the folks we encountered. Most of them were fellow high schoolers looking for a thrill as well, but for some reason, people kept to themselves in the darkness. It was some sort of cave etiquette. Party on, but keep your party over there, please.
Eventually, we stopped exploring and formed a small circle. Now that we had seen the extent of the place, we determined that there was nothing left to do but enjoy our vices. So, we puffed away, spat and washed down the afterburn with a little 3.2. We talked about school and girls and music and laughed riotously as we consumed the toxins of adulthood. The combination of adrenaline, alcohol and a little crappy tobacco made everyone feel fine, even a little dizzy. As the “straights” of Cretin High, we would never be as cool as the popular kids or the burnouts, but for now, we had each other and we were as cool as we needed to be. So much of school was about fitting in and living up that it was nice to be around friends who accepted you for who you were. Sure, we all had our little idiosyncrasies and annoyances, who doesn’t? At the same time, these guys were the best friends a kid my age could hope for. We had our own little Dead Poets’ Society gathering under the earth before it was even a thing.
After an hour and a half, our beers were gone, our candles were nearing the end of their useful lives and the novelty had worn off. I figured we were fortunate to have made it this far, so the only thing remaining was to successfully exit our little hobbit hole. We fumbled our way to the opening and one by one crawled into the dark, cylindrical abyss. The trail of crawling humanity on the way out was just as cramped as the way in, but it was accompanied by outbursts of laughter as we cracked jokes along the way. A few cheap beers make every cave dweller a comedian.
The caves expelled our carcasses into the cool evening air. Air! Fresh air! As good as it felt being inside our mysterious place, it felt redemptive to be outside again. The four of us stood and stretched. Collectively, we entered the caves as boys and had come out as the same boys, maybe a little stinkier and dirtier. But these caves were someplace we could assert our manhood with fire and alcohol and bravado. It didn’t make us any more adult to the rest of the world, but to us, it was an emergence from the womb of our youth into the brink of what we thought it was to be men.
Jim Landwehr has two books, The Portland House: A 70’s Memoir and Dirty Shirt: A Boundary Waters Memoir, both on Electio Publishing. He also has two poetry collections, Written Life and Reciting From Memory. His nonfiction and poetry has been published in many different journals. He lives in Waukesha.