The Smell Outside Hints at Southern Indiana Country Air, pt.1

The summer air brought clean oxygen and thoughts about Southern Indiana. The smell was similar. Barbeque. Sweat. Cigarettes. If it weren’t for the people, I might still be there. Limestone capital of the world. Home of astronauts, legendary High School basketball players, cheap homemade drugs containing battery acid, youth groups, quarry jumping, teen pregnancy, and guns. Smiles, heat lightning, tornados, horrific car crashes, hunting seasons (deer, squirrel, duck, and many more), handshakes, and trustworthy car salesmen. Really a fantastic place to grow up. Good things happen there and it’s the good things that I remember.

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The Tunnelton Tunnel is home to the wildest, scariest folklore in the region. Built in the late 19th century, this tunnel stretches a half a mile through one of the giant hills in Lawrence County. Lots of dynamite was needed to pound through the hard limestone. Workers lost their lives daily, as reflected in the graveyard that sits atop this gigantic hole. Ghost stories abound, the most popular one being a railroad worker that carried a lantern. His job was to signal trains of potential hazzards (fallen trees, oncoming trains, etc.) and to guard the entrances from hooligans. In the middle of the tunnel, so deep inside the earth that you cannot see light from either end, cubby holes are built into the walls. The tunnel is so long that when trains pass through (at a high rate of speed) it creates a vacuum. These cubby holes allow one to step inside and hold yourself from the suction that is pulling at your entire being. Legend has it that this man was sucked under the train, beheading him. He walks the tracks, to this day, carrying a lantern.

I have never seen him, nor do I think anyone else has either.

Once, though…

We took a trip out there one sunny Saturday afternoon. The road taking you there was narrow, winding, and girded with some of the most beautiful scenery in the state. The last quarter mile ran alongside White River. Nestled on the steep embankments were the homes of “river rats”, uneducated hillbillys that were more frightening than any supposed ghosts.

After parking the car, we ascended the half mile trail that leads up to the tunnel. It is well worn with teenage shoes. Cigarette butts flavor the hillside and empty beer cans sparkle a welcome to those passing by. We made it to the top and decided upon a cigarette before entering. I don’t like smoking outside, usually, but in Southern Indiana its magnificent. I don’t know why.

We started walking. Our gravel footsteps echoed into one hundred years of nothingness. An uninvited grab always yielded a scream from your partner so this was practiced often. “What is that?” I motioned to two grotesque mounds of flesh resting on both sides of the right rail.

“I don’t know…” Her voice was skeptical. Her tone was asking me to leave with her.

Walking up, I realized it was a squirrel that had been cut in half by a passing train. The entrails spilled out into what looked like a spilled casserole. Beefaroni gone bad.

We winced and continued inside. Eventually the dark enveloped us and we had nothing but our voices to ease our accelerating pulses. It was quiet and still and the darkest black I’ve seen. I reached for her hand and nearly found her crotch. “What are you doing?”

“Give me your hand.”

A giggle spills but gives no color. This is the black of death. Buried alive. “Hey.”

“What,” I ask.

“What?”

“Yeah,” I said trying to play it cool but began to worry that there was a third voice.

“I didn’t say anything.”

It is a quarter mile both ways. If we are getting killed, there is little chance for escape. Vomit rose up in my throat. We both listen.

“Hey.”

It is clearly neither of us. Her hand rolls my knuckles into a concave knot. I can’t comfort someone else if I’m just as scared.

“Hey.”

“Yes?” My voice trembles and my feet are ready to flee. “Who’s there?”

“Hey. You gotta light?”

A flashlight turns the black into an off white. Dust is visible in the air, as well as grafitti, trash, and a small group of teenagers huddled in a cubby hole.

“Jesus Christ…what are you doing? You freaked the shit out of me.”

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In rural Indiana, the term “country cruising” refers to driving back roads and smoking a great amount of marijuana. Travelling these roads one passes many a farm, general store, unknown town, and covered bridge. I was sixteen when I was invited for my first country cruise. My teammate on the swim team, Sam, asked me in the lockerroom after practice and I was more than happy to get a second taste of this drug. The first taste left me woozy and sleepy, but I was told that the second time is when you’ll REALLY feel the power of the weed.

We headed west out of town and found the highway that led past the Williams Dam and then into the deep country. Miles and miles of flat fields waiting for the next season flowed past my window. Brown, brown, light green, brown. The road is gray and our car is blue. The weed is green and everyone’s faces smiling. It seemed perfect to me.

The joint passed around. Community inside of a Chevy Malibu. I believe Cream was playing. Or the Screaming Trees. Rarely did Sam play anything else. Three of us bunched in the backseat and three in the front. The joint dwindled quickly, with so many thirsty lungs, and another one appeared out of nowhere. I was begining to feel high. And nauseous. “Can we roll down a window?”

“No, man. You gotta keep in the smoke. That way between hits its like you’re still smoking.” The guy that said this rarely went to school. His home life was a wreck but his sense of humor was one of the greatest personality traits I’ve ever run across. His name was Brian and he lived near the church that I was forced to attend. Most of the time I walked over to his house on a Sunday morning, got high, and met back up with the family.

We decided to stop outside of a covered bridge ten miles outside of town. With the car off, the stereo on, the smoke thick, and my brain attempting to piece together the situation, I was having the time of my life.

We talked about music. Brian and Sam were both proficient guitarists and I played many instruments. This is the second bond that brought us close. The first being drugs.

We talked about girls. Sam’s older sister was in the front seat. College girl. She was giving us advice but I wanted her to talk about sex. All I got was how I should treat a woman.

The guy next to me looked like he was five. I closed my eyes for a second and George Washington waved at me. The Statue of Liberty driving a semi and my hands wanting to move but remained motionless. I could see myself doing this again. I decided then that my parents were wrong and drugs were fantastic.

We were getting ready to leave and take a long, slow drive when a car pulled up, pinning us to the edge of the woods. The joint was in my hand and my eyes were on the headlights cutting through the smoke. It was so think I wondered if they could actually see anyone inside.

The red and blue lights decided to come on as well. Wow. When my father would have a bad day, the words that he said were, “Well, that’s the Rodgers’ luck.” I thought of the same thing.

Two white orbs and what seemed like hundreds of red and blue orbs gave birth to a single, smaller orb that approached the car. A spy, I thought. A diplomat from the covered bridge. What will the orb say?

It was a wonderful thing that Sam was driving and I was not.

“Evenin’. What you kids up to?” His flashlight danced from face to face illuminating one confused look after another.

Sarah, Sam’s older sister, was the first to open up. “We were just taking a drive and now we are thinking about where to go next.”

Sam and Sarah’s father was a police officer of over twenty years. He is a respected man in the community and the police force. “I saw you got an FOP badge on yer plate. Who’s your pop?”

“Steve Arthur.”

“Is that right? Can I see some ID?” Sam fished it out of the glove compartment. That is always the part in movies where the whole thing goes bad. A gun falls out or a pipe. Luckily this time it was only a map and his lisence.

“Awright…you guys have a good night.”

Everyone looked at each other. The laughter and the relief quaked underneath everyone’s expressions. Our faces remained rigid as long as those headlights were on us. When they disappeared, even the car could be heard sighing relief.

“Fuck, man!”

“Shit!”

“Thanks, dad!”

I rang in with, “Does this happen every time?”

Sam turns to his sister and says, “Poor Luc, man. This is his first time getting high!”

She looks at me and asks, “Really?”

I nod and wish that they would take me home. Not my home. Her home. College home.

Months later, we were talking about that night and I said, “Sam…that was the first time that I realized I wanted to sleep with your sister.”

“All my friends do, Luc.”

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