Cathy Hamilton: The boredom of tight spaces

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Cathy Hamilton

Seventy days, people. Seventy days trapped in a hole.

OK, it wasn’t a hole like, say, Baby Jessica’s well.

(Can you believe that was 23 years ago? One minute, you’re fixated on a baby stuck in the backyard; next minute, you’re glued to a white Bronco tooling down the Interstate. Before you know it, you’re tearing up while Miner No. 27 hugs his wife under unflattering spotlights. Where does the time go?)

But the point is, a hole’s a hole, and it was 70 days!

I don’t count claustrophobia among my many psychological challenges, but I can’t help but wonder if I could survive 70 days underground like those miners in Chile.

What does one do for 70 days? That’s 10 weeks, 2 1/4 months. Or, to put it in terms any Catholic will understand, almost two entire Lenten seasons. For anyone who’s given up candy, booze or French fries from Ash Wednesday to Easter, that’s perspective.

It’s not that I fear being trapped in enclosed spaces. It’s just that my threshold for stir-crazy is dangerously low.

Take your typical snowed-in scenario, like the one that occurred last Christmas, for instance. For the first day or so, I’m great. Give me a raging fire, an extra-plush Snuggie, maybe an Irish coffee or two, and I’m happy as a mollusk for a good 24 hours.

Why? Because I have still outside stimulation, also known as HGTV and the Food Channel. Without these — say, in the case of a power outage — my cabin fever reaches a fever pitch.

Upon further analysis, a shrink might tell me this has something to with the trauma I suffered as a child.

I was 14. A major ice storm knocked the power out in our house for 2 1/2 days. Ours was a comfortable home. Nothing like a coal mine, except maybe for my room, which the family referred to as “the pit.” But, that’s not the issue.

At first, the blackout was exciting. (“An emergency! Yay!”) But, time passed and the air became frigid. Two parents and five children were forced to camp out — sleeping bag next to sleeping bag — in the only room with a fireplace.

No Ed Sullivan. No “Bonanza.” No cartoons.

Mom and Dad made a valiant effort to keep the fire stoked and their progeny entertained.

I vividly recall my 7-year-old brother bringing the house down with a Paul Lynde impression in a fire-lit round of charades. (I know you’re not supposed to talk during that game, but rules are made to be broken in dire circumstances. Besides, it’s a special 7-year-old who will channel Paul Lynde as a clue for “Bye-Bye Birdie,” especially when “birdie” and “bye-bye” are the obvious choices.)

Charades was the high point. After that, all hell broke loose. (Think “Lord of the Rings.”)

Soon, the batteries died in my transistor. I was pacing like a caged tiger. My sisters fought constantly over who got to hold the flashlight. (“It’s MY turn!” “No! You got to hold it for Chutes and Ladders!”)

My brother refused to let up on the Paul Lynde schtick. Over and over and over, he’d warble: “Kids! You can talk and talk till your face turns blue…” Enough already!

Things got worse before they got better. As my younger siblings’ fingers became too frozen to color, desperation set in. Mom cast nutritional caution to the winter wind and gave us anything we wanted from the kitchen cupboards — marshmallow Fluff and Hershey bars, Jiffy Pop, Chicken in a Biscuit crackers and Sugar Frosted Flakes, right out of the box.

Then, when we were all hopped up on a carb overload from hell (“Kids! But they still do just what they want to doooo!”), I’m fairly sure Dad slipped Valium into our Ovaltines. (That’s a controversial accusation, I know. But, on the second night, all five of us were zonked out by 7 p.m. I’m just saying, what are the odds?)

Maybe that’s how the miners got by without losing their minds for 70 days: medication. I mean, there’s only so much Charades you can play, even with 33 people.

I can only the hope rescuers on the surface sent Xanax and Ambien down the chute with the fresh laundry and hot meals.

And I pray none of those miners had seen “Bye-Bye Birdie” on Turner Movie Classics lately.

Forty years later and I still can’t get “What’s the matter with kids today” out of my head.

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