CAVING WITH PETER

By Phil Bartow

 

Peter's mind was locked in a pre-vocabulary stage of development. He had two levels of grunt, one deep throated and the other higher in the throat nearer the top. He was 26, thin and narrow faced with sharp features. His hawk-like eyes focused on me for some time when I handed him a flashlight.

I was driving the van and could watch him in the rear view mirror. There were several others from a center for the mentally handicapped and some from learning disability programs. It was an interesting group to take caving.

As I drove I watched Peter. He had been holding the flash light horizontally in both hands. The switch was between his thumbs. I didn't know if he even knew what a flashlight was or if he had ever seen one before. Maybe he had but of little consequence. He seemed to be in a stage where every experience was new. Except for residual memories from a few minutes before and a limited repertoire of body movements, Peter was reborn on a continuous basis.

His thumbs moved casually over the space between his hands on the flashlight. The protrusion of the switch became a focal point for mind and thumbs. After several caressing passes at the switch the realization evolved that it moved if pressure was applied. A few minutes Iater Peter found the combination of right and-left thumb pressure which moved the switch between the on and off positions.

The bright glow from his right palm when the flashlight was turned on eventually caught his attention. He watched his hand through several slow motion cycles of movement of the switch and gradually moved his right hand toward his face. All his energy seemed transfixed on the source of the light. He watched with a thin smile as the light went on and off.

My attention to Peter's progress was continuously being interrupted by the demands of the winding narrow country road and questions from the others about how big the cave was and how it had been formed. I absent mindedly tried to describe the cave while I either watched Peter in the mirror or turned and caught glimpses of him over my right shoulder.

The cave had been formed by faulting and water action. Thousands of years ago the ground was pushed up and the bending rock weakened and cracked. Water seeping through the ground in the wet seasons eventually formed a subterranean river which shaped the multi-level winding tunnels, large rooms and small pockets of space.

The opening to the cave was less than two feet high and would require that we sit and move our feet in first, then lay back and slide into a space large enough to allow us to stand. From there we would have to slide over the top of a rock covered with a layer of white minerals which had been deposited when the dripping water evaporated. The rock was like a saddle on a small horse. We would slide our right leg over the top and then drop down the other side into a narrow hole which led to a tilted corridor in which we could walk in a crouch by leaning against the wall on the right side.

Peter was making an association between the switch and the bright light. His thin smile widened and he forced air into his throat in a grunt of satisfaction.

As he methodically and repeatedly turned the light on and off, he moved his right hand to his face until the lens of the of light touched the bridge  his nose.  He stared at the source of light and controlled its existence.

We arrived at the parking area  below the path leading to the cave and stopped. The others suddenly became restless from the two hour drive and tried to get out of the van at the same time, creating a small amount of pandemonium as they pushed.

Peter sat completely absorbed in his new world as the others bumped passed him. The flashlight was like a new friend. Bill, the counselor, leaned into the van and gently pushed Peter's hand away from his face and tugged on his jacket indicating it was time to get out. Peter slowly got his feet and body contorted around to a position where he could move spastically toward the side door.  He clenched the flashlight in his right hand as his feet moved independently, gently searching for something solid. His eyes focused on Bill's face, something familiar and friendly.

I watched the effort required to get Peter out of the van which had steps and hand holds, and started to wonder a little more seriously about how I would get him up the steep, irregular trail and into and out of the cave.

Everyone was given a helmet and a flashlight and we walked a few yards up the road to the beginning of the trail. I had taken Peter's hand to guide him as we walked. His gaze was on-my face as if he was trying to figure out who I was.  We started up the steep trail. The incline of the slope threw Peter off balance and he staggered backwards. He had a surprisingly          strong grip as he grabbed for my arm for support. His finger nails dug into my wrist breaking the skin. I figured it would be better if I took his arm.

My pulling firmly helped Peter keep his balance and we continued up the trail to the cave entrance. The others followed with more ease than Peter but being used to flat sidewalks they found the inclined trail strange.

Whether Peter really understood and could follow instructions was still a question. Would he panic when we started into the cave?  Some of the others were starting to find excuses for not wanting to go in and expressed their fear of the dark.

"Alright, everybody listen.  I'll lead Peter. Eddie, you follow Peter. Bill you stick with Eddie. The rest of you follow Bill."

I crouched down under the overhang which tapered into the cave entrance and moved toward the opening. By sitting down I could slide my feet under the flat rock forming the roof of the entrance. I reached back and tugged on Peter's pant legs pulling him a step forward.  I slapped the rock where I wanted him to sit and patted the seat of his pants saying, "Come on Peter, sit here" and patted the rock again. The slap echoed off the surrounding rock walls.

He sat down slowly and methodically. I had the sensation that he was being disassembled in the standing position and reassembled in the sitting position.

Peter seemed fragile. When I reached to pull his leg to indicate how he should move, my hand fit all the way around his ankle.

"Come on Peter, slide in." I animated my motions, patting my rear end, the rock and bounced up and down.  I started to pull on his leg and found he was already moving. It was dawning on me that Peter did a good job of mimicking but everything was in slow motion. I crawled into the small cavern and turned on my light to watch Peter's progress.  His left heel was already through the  opening on the ground and as his body slid under the rock opening his left knee bent.  His right leg slid through the hole and he extended his left leg. His head came through. I bent over and lifted him under the arms so he could stand.

I tried to draw his attention to the different rock formations with my light and slapped the rocks. I took his hand pushed it onto the cold, damp, smooth flowstone.  He drew his hand back and turned on his flashlight and slowly raised the lens to his nose and stared at the bright bulb.

I side stepped to the saddle like rock we had to cross and pulled Peter along. My timidity in moving him physically was abating with every motion.

As I swung my right leg over the rock I kept saying, "Watch, Peter" and slapped my pant leg, slapped the rock and directed my light beam at my pants. "Come on Peter, follow me."

Bill and Eddie had followed Peter into the small room and were looking at some of the small flowstone formations.

"I don't think he can do that." Bill expressed his doubts when saw what I was trying to get Peter to do.

"Peter can too do it.  So can I ."The slight tremor in Eddie's voice betrayed his nervousness as he encouraged Peter and bolstered his own confidence. Eddie was older than Peter and had the mental development of a five-year-old.

Since Peter had been staring into his flashlight all the time I was coaxing him along I figured he hadn't followed how I had crawled over the rock barrier. I started to reach for his leg to pull it up and over the rock and noticed he had started a slow-motion version of what I had done.

"Come on Peter, you're doing great. Keep coming. Sit up here. Put your head down. Good. Slide down." His right knee came up to the top of the rock, he put his left forearm on the rock in front of him, lay forward, and pulled the rest of his right leg over the rock and gently slid over the other side. I braced him so he would not land hard. Through the whole maneuver he never broke his gaze into the flashlight clenched in his right hand.

"OK Peter, turn and sit and put your feet through this hole." I had squirmed through a small hole which led to a narrow corridor and turned around to guide Peter. By grabbing him by the hips I could turn him and then pushed down twice to indicate the direction I wanted him to go. Since he seemed to do OK by himself in his own time I thought I would just watch.

Peter emerged from the small hole with the speed of a butterfly working its way out of a cocoon. He stood by himself. A grin of exertion or satisfaction was noticeable in the yellow Light of the flashlight on his face. He truly seemed to be enjoying himself.

"I'm stuck. I'm stuck." Eddie was yelling out to Bill for help in getting over the saddle. "I don't like this," he said as Bill pushed him over the top and down in front of the small hole.

Bill diverted his attention by asking where Peter was. Eddie wasn't sure. I called back to Eddie to let him know which way to go and that Peter was OK and having fun.

We followed the narrow passage for twenty to thirty feet. It was three feet wide and leaned thirty degrees to the right.  Walking was made easier by resting the right shoulder on the cool rock.  Peter had no problems. He moved one leg forward at a time. His foot seemed to hang limply from the knee as he put it down on the contoured dirt floor. The directions his feet pointed looked random, but the direction he moved was forward.

Peter and I stopped to wait for the others. When they caught up I suggested to Bill that we could turn around and head back. Eddie was enjoying being under a mountain but liked the idea of going back to the van. They started back.

I had to get on the ground and crawl around Peter's feet to get behind him to lead him out. "Come on Peter. We are going back." He started to walk backwards. The flashlight still beamed into his face. After a couple of backward steps I figured he didn't know how to maneuver around in the narrow passage. I turned his shoulder around and reached down and turned his feet in the right direction.

When we returned to the saddle I had Peter crawl and wiggle under the pile of rocks rather than go over. I still questioned just how much he could do.

The passage was about three feet through and only eighteen inches high. If he got stuck there we could pull him through.

I patted the ground and patted Peter's stomach to indicate he had to lie down and wiggle through. Inch by inch he moved. His feet scratched at the ground and the rock to find something to push against. His leg didn't seem strong enough yet he kept moving. Bill tickled him when he came through the other side and he rolled over and got on all fours to crawl out the entrance hole into the bright sun.

Everybody slept as I drove back to town to rendezvous with the van from the mental health program. We arrived and the other van was waiting. While I was describing the events of the day to the driver, who was also a counselor,  Peter walked back to the van and climbed in. For a long time he stared at the box filled with flashlights and slowly reached down for the one he had used.

The counselor started to tell Peter he had to put it back. I told the counselor to let Peter keep it; when he gets tired of it you can send it to me. Peter, staring into the flashlight, walked toward the other van.

I learned at a party a month later that the attachment of Peter and the flashlight had been reported up through a number of channels in the state agency dealing with the disabled. 

October 1982