Mimicking my younger brothers, I slid my feet over the cliff, feeling for footholds with my toes. Nudging them one by one into the subtle indentations, I dropped foot by foot, trying to ignore the Mosel River a quarter mile below.
Until my left foot dangled in space.
"Drop, you're only 6 inches from the bottom," Eric shouted, referring to the lower jaw of the tunnel.
At 18, I was visiting my parents and three brothers during my summer break from college. Though jet-lagged, I had been woken at 7 and driven some 50 kilometers from Bitburg Air Base to one of their favorite haunts: a World War II bunker that the German government had sealed — but had been opened by thrill-seeking kids and skinny memorabilia seekers.
Overcoming fear for the first of many times, I fell into the 5-foot-high tunnel that my brothers had said would lead to the second floor of the bunker, and fumbled to flick my flashlight to follow their echoing laughter. They were nowhere in sight. I was anxious, wanted to call "Wait up" but decided to be cool. This was part of our game, the game our father had taught us.
The temperature of the tunnel was 20 degrees cooler than outside. I wished I had worn my heather sweater under my flak jacket. Finding the end of the tunnel and the start of a shaft, I heard Glenn, the youngest, who felt sorry for me: "Stretch out with your hands or feet. You'll find some iron staples in the rock. Climb up to the first floor. Turn off your flashlight." Good advice. I had been trying to hold it with my teeth.
"That was the easy part," said Mark, as I crawled over the stone slab toward the center of a room carved from the mountain. Eric, the memorabilia collector, said, "This was a sort of guard post. I found Nazi coins in the cracks. They stayed up here in shifts," he said, explaining the past. "From here on it's all down."
"The entrance was up there. A series of iron doors." Eric flashed on a single, vertical railing and six misshapen iron stairs. It looked like the oversized hatch of a submarine. But Eric's light jerked to the right and down, and once again I sped to keep up, trying not to slip on the wet stone floor. Trying to keep my teeth from chattering. Listening for their giggles.
For the next two hours, we four boys descended a series of zigzagging, slippery stone stairs that connected eight more floors. Periodically, they paused to let me catch my breath in the diminished oxygen. At each level, Eric, who had studied the design of Hitler's bunker system, further described the function and layout of the rooms. And my brothers related what they had found: a bayonet, a medal, a belt buckle, ration cans and plenty of buttons.
I felt I was being swallowed by the Earth, wished they would shut up and move on. However, when we got to the bottom floor, we sat on stone blocks pulled up to a rusted metal box. Eric distributed brotchen and GI-issue orange cheese. Glenn passed his canteen of water. Mark shared his flask of Mosel Schwarze Katz. They were clearly enjoying the dark, and the cold, and the depth. And a big brother's anxiety.
Following this repast, they led me out, down a long, narrowing, rough-cut tunnel. After five minutes of crawling on our knees, then our bellies, I, the eldest, yet still last in line, saw light. Then a small hole that grew to the size of a toilet seat. Brother after brother birthed himself until it was my turn. I thrust one arm, then my head, out. But before I could say I had escaped purgatory, my shoulders stuck. My brothers laughed and pulled my arm.
"Squeeze back, squeeze back," Mark said, pushing my skull.
"Take off your jacket," Glenn said.
I did that.
"Just put your head through. Exhale," Eric said.
I did that, too.
"Don't force it! Don't force it, Kurt! The tunnel might crumble," Mark said.
"Shimmy back like a worm, man," Eric said. "Take my flashlight. We'll meet you back at the entrance."
I wanted to cry.
The next day they took me to "bottomless" Daun Lake, the frigid volcanic crater with the 10-meter platform.
K.V. Wilt teaches writing at Saint Leo University.