A blazing midday desert sun burns painfully to the back of his eye sockets though his eyes are tightly closed. Zippy sits on the rim of a rock-filled bucket as it drops the last few inches to the rim of the Hole. The searing pain of the first sunlight in months distracts him from preparing for the landing which sends painful seismic shocks up his spine. Crickets covet sun time. Zippy is about to start his first day in the sun after months living and working underground.
Zippy thinks back to his first days in the Hole as a face cricket. A bucket deposited him on the bottom of a deep hand-excavated shaft. Three men rode the bucket with him, the conclusion of a fourteen-day trip by ox-drawn carriage to Deep Hole Camp.
The unfamiliarity had been a shock that disoriented Zippy and his companions. The prison appeared to be run by an elevated class of prisoner Trustees. They’d never seen a guard or other civil authority. Jargon like face cricket was used freely, but no explanation offered.
Zippy understood that crickets are bugs that live in the dark, but had no idea what face meant. He’d spent much of the trip talking to Earl. Bob and Scarface, the other two men, contributed little and nothing to the conversations. Zippy was impressed that Earl paid attention in school and had some further education. He asked Earl if he sussed a meaning behind the term face. Earl explained that in a mine, the face is the place where the miners advance the mine. He speculated that in the Hole, the face was probably the very bottom and that face crickets work to make it deeper.
Sure enough, Earl was right as usual, thought Zippy. 24 x 7, a fourteen man team works in ragged shifts driving the shaft further into the bowels of the alkali desert. The job is pretty simple in theory — stay alive long enough to be promoted off the face. It is much harder in practice.
Face crickets organize themselves. There is no formal supervisor, though there is usually an acknowledged leader. Scarface, the bald giant who’d accompanied Zippy on the overland journey quickly established himself as the team’s leader. He spoke infrequently, but his demeanor suggested that ignoring him was a risky proposition.
Scarface rules define a shift as the span of time it takes to fill a bucket — the trapezoidal wood container decorated with rusted cable hooks sitting on the shaft’s floor. Ten men wield picks and haul rubble while four rest. Bone-weary men lie in a labor induced catatonic state along the shaft’s walls. An exhausted cricket can fall asleep quickly with no ceremony. On the shouted command of Ready Face, followed by the faint response from above: Hauling, the four off-shift crickets are rousted and four others set down their tools, nestle close to the wall to avoid falling debris, and close their eyes — completely spent. Work never stops. Picks swing, rubble is stacked, an empty bucket filled. Relief is infrequent.
The only way off the face is to be replaced, suffer a catastrophic injury, or die. New prisoners arrive intermittently. They materialize at no discernible interval in groups of four. There is no night or day in the Hole. Measuring time is a challenge. With the appearance of newbies, the longest serving veterans clamber aboard the next rock filled bucket and are promoted up the shaft. The shaft currently has five transfer stations carved into its walls equipped with a windlass, hoist, and crew. Buckets are transferred from hoist to hoist at each transfer point and down the shaft.As promotions ripple upwards and crews adjust to new members.
Death and injury results in Zippy’s original replacement crew being split after who knows how long digging and hauling. He and Scarface mount the promotion bucket with Half-Dollar and Dominique leaving Earl and Bob behind — waiting for the next set of replacements.
Three crickets died outright while Zippy worked the face. A guy named Paul and another known as Maggot were each crushed by debris falling from above. Pussbucket’s head got in the way of a swinging pick. The team agreed it was a just end for a malingerer. Two others were mangled, requiring evacuation from the Hole. Batcrap suffered multiple broken bones when a portion of the wall collapsed on him. Zippy had just been promoted to #5 transfer station as a windlass crew member when Freddy was struck by falling debris that shattered his clavicle and scapula. As Freddy was sent up, Zippy was sent back down and had to wait for the next batch of fresh crickets to return to #5. On the upside, Zippy is happy to be reunited with Earl and Bob when he escapes from the bottom of the pit for the second time.
Zippy has no idea what happens to the injured crickets. He’s never seen Batcrap or Freddy since. Zippy wonders if serious injury is a ticket out of Deep Hole Camp.
Cursed or Gifted?
Today, Zippy is the bucket’s lone passenger, the first of his replacement crew to reach the surface. He slides to the ground and staggers away from the rim, arm over his eyes, still blinded. His meager possessions are clutched close to his side in his other hand.
“Lift up!” shouts the Trustee to the windlass crew. The bucket rises several feet off the ground. “Swing it!” The hoist team hauls a cable that pivots the hoist so the rubble-filled bucket hovers over a two-wheeled chassis. “Lower and Load!” The bucket is lowered and becomes a cart. Through squinted eyes, Zippy sees two men position themselves behind and one in front of the cart. Zippy wearily expects cart pusher or puller to be his next profession.
Zippy’s gift — and curse — is a talent for chatter. Zippy thinks he could have been a great salesman, but he never demonstrated the patience to establish a territory and harbors an unhealthy pejorative attitude toward rubes/customers. Residential solar panels, commercial pumps, ugly fruit sorters, and other products had not generated the commissions Zippy required to achieve his desired lifestyle. Selling counterfeit and/or bogus carbon credits had. His curse was getting caught and sentenced to Deep Hole Camp for three years.
A man from the hoist team unhooks the cable from the full bucket cart. As the loaded cart begins its slow journey to the top of the waste pile, an empty cart takes its place under the dangling cable ends. Zippy has had intimate experience with the hookup and unhooking ritual having worked as a ramp cricket.
Going Up — Going Down
A windlass cable is just over 100 meters long. No one knows why the cable length is just a little longer than a football field. The twisted synthetic fibers could reach further and carry heavier loads. But the big wood spools arrive in one size only and the cable length dictates the distance between the transfer caverns that interrupt the smooth shaft. Each cavern is home to a six-man windlass crew, a three-man hoist crew, a Trustee supervisor and a ramp cricket.
Working the windlass is mind-numbing, physically hard work. The cable spindle is driven directly by the windlass. Even 19th century sailing ship windlasses used gears for more efficient anchor raising and lowering. There is one safety allowance: a friction brake ensures that a bucket does not immediately plunge to the bottom in the event that a crew loses its grip on the big horizontal wheel. However, the braking effect is not immediate. Before a wheel is brought to a stop, it is likely to punish its crew for losing control by knocking them around the cavern. Zippy never saw it happen, but there are plenty of stories about a windlass throwing one of its operators down the shaft. Two in one, thought Zippy envisioning a windlass operator plunging hundreds of feet to land on the hapless face cricket working at the bottom.
The windlass cable runs through a wooden hoist that pivots from side-to-side. Hauling on a cable, the three-man hoist crew pivots the hoist so that a bucket is lowered to the transfer station floor. This is handy when the bucket contains supplies or people. But a Camp directive states that normal operations are to be performed without pivoting. The Camp administration declared that hooking and unhooking buckets in the transfer station grotto is inefficient and places too much wear and tear on the equipment.
When a bucket reaches the transfer point, the hoist crew places a wood plank on the floor of the cavern that extends to the edge of the loaded or empty bucket. The ramp size is specified by the camp administration. Camp inhabitants believe the dimensions are deliberately narrow and the plank purposely bouncy. The ramp cricket scurries over thousands of cubic meters of emptiness into or onto a bucket. He attaches the cable from the hoist at his level and signals the supervisor the cable is ready for tension. The Trustee orders the windlass crew to push the big wheel a foot or so while watching the cable grow taut. The slackened loop ends of the upper-level cable are detached. When the four corner connectors are dangling, the ramp cricket shouts Cable off! And returns to the relative safety of the transfer station chamber.
Crossing a void on a flexing slender board sends most testicles climbing for their owner’s inner body cavity. The problem can be been resolved with a harness and short length of rope, but that is not the way of Deep Hole Camp. Instead, the ramp cricket job became the only volunteer position in the Hole. Performing the transfer is relatively easy work, but many of the most hardened criminals freeze at the edge of the ramp and are willing to suffer almost any other punishment than to risk the traverse.
Heights don’t bother Zippy. Each time he was promoted to the next level, he immediately brings his dexterity at zipping across the ramp to the attention of the supervising Trustee. He had some competition on Level Five and needed to wait his turn. But for the remaining levels, his predecessors had lost their nerve and gladly relinquished the position to Zippy. It made no sense to Zippy. A fall from any of the levels would leave you just as dead. But for others, the slow climb from level to level increased their aversion to taking risks. There was growing hope that they might reach the surface someday and live to talk about the time they spent in the Hole. A moment of inattention or a minor slip as a ramp cricket could literally dash that hope to pieces.
The ramp cricket also served as a gopher for the Trustee who supervised transfer point operations. Zippy accepted the sometimes petty, stupid tasks meted out by the Trustees. There were benefits to compliance such as access to the supply cache and the ability to put messages into the buckets for other ramp crickets. An informal ramp cricket communication channel enabled side hustles that made life in the Hole a little more bearable.
Zippy sidles over to one of the idle pushers squatting in the bit of shade provided by his empty cart. “Yo bro, what’s to know bout push’n and pull’n?”
The man takes in Zippy’s pale complexion, his eyes partly shaded by a filthy makeshift keffiyeh. He looks away with practiced disinterest and says, “Sun time gonna be harder’n you think cricket. You bettah covah up quick like. Sunburn a punishable offense.”
“Where can I obtain a cool hat like yours?” asks Zippy hoping to break through the man’s impassivity.
“Don’t think that sounds like my problem,” the man says wishing for the millionth time he had a cigarette to help get through another pointless conversation.
“Brother, I can pay,” Zippy lowers his voice conspiratorially and scooches to the man’s level.
Zippy is a little too close, the man likes his space but is also curious what the cricket might have to offer. His look encourages Zippy to continue.
“What’s your thing man? I got protein bars, drink powder?” Zippy raises the leg of his coverall and reveals several lengths of metal secured to is calf with twine. “You having troubles and need some personal protection?”
“You got anything to smoke?” the man asks hopefully.
“You in luck,” Zippy puts on one of his best smiles. “I got some prime aged skullcap. You have a pipe or need papers?”
“You have papers?” the man is surprised.
“I do. What you say, two big fat skullcaps as a down payment for an Arab hat like yours? Five more when I can contact my supplier directly?” Zippy loves to deal and eagerly awaits an answer.
The man slowly unwinds a long dirty neckerchief exposing his neck. “Come here, let me show you how this works.”
Smoke curling from his lips, the man watches as Zippy, sporting his new keffiyeh, ambles toward the Trustee who motions him to take a pusher position on the waiting empty chassis.
Skullcap is a smokable herb that can be found wild in dry climates. Its benefits are said to be Anti-anxiety, help for sleeping.
Deep holes dug by paupers
Solar Fury – Nasa Solar System Gallery
Sunscape – “Believe…” by @BK is licensed under CC BY 2.0