I’ve decided to stray from the beaten path just a little bit in this particular piece of profound and illegible literature. It’s always easy for me to write about the harrowing tales of escape from blood thirsty animals and the vile vomit inducing tales of dead creature removal but this time I would like to tell a tale of primal fear…fight or flight..you know the type of event that makes you rethink life choices or maybe just shake for hours afterwards uncontrollably because the adrenaline is still coursing through your veins. Before I begin this terrible tale, I’d like to say that I have learned many new skills since becoming a wildlife specialist. One of the things I have done that I am mostly proud of is conquer certain fears. I was never afraid of heights but quickly found that tall ladders weren’t the greatest things in the world. I mean 32’ ladders and 40’ ladders become very bouncy when fully extended. This is something that doesn’t bother me at all anymore. Tall steep roofs are also something that I don’t think much about. Crawling into tight dark places was never a huge fear of mine either. I crawl under houses and in dark hot attics every day. It is simply just part of the routine. In regards to roofs, ladders and tight enclosed places I can honestly say I’ve become complacent. Too complacent actually. I learned a humbling tough lesson 2 years ago at a customer’s home that has changed my personal view of myself. I learned that I was not invincible. I realized that I was being foolish and unsafe. I put my obsessive compulsive attitude of getting the job done no matter what before my wife and new born sons need to have a husband and a daddy.
It was a very hot and miserable southern Alabama summer. Typical 95 degree heat with super high humidity. I had been working on a customer’s house sealing up holes in the roof and foundation made by rats. I had completed the work several weeks ago and the customers were still experiencing noises in their attic and walls. I set traps in the attic again and kept on catching rats. There was obviously another hole that I had missed somewhere. It was some place hidden and out of sight. I just could not figure it out. The customers were very nice and understanding but I could tell they were ready to get rid of these rats. I asked the husband (who is never home and is always golfing) if he has ever heard any noises during the day. He said, “Well, that damn oven always makes funny sounds..even when it’s not turned on and this air conditioning vent on the floor wasn’t working so the AC man ran another air conditioning line underneath the house. He said varmints had eaten through it.” I went on a hunch and asked to pull the oven away from the wall. They told me to go ahead so I pulled it away from then wall and noticed a piece of sheet-rock that had been cut out of the wall above the trim and then put back in place. I got my pocket knife out and pried the piece of sheet-rock from the wall and all of a sudden I was looking at the ground..and piles of rat feces…and a hollow wall void where the rats were getting in. “Bingo!”, I said proudly. “But how am I going to fix it.” I thought to myself. I’ll have to go under the house and seal it from there. I told the owners my plan and they both looked at me and gave me a strange face of disbelief. They said it was a very tight fit. The A.C man had to use a shovel to dig a trench to crawl in order to install the new air conditioning duct. I told them I had been under their house many times and that I will just follow the trench. They still had a look of skepticism on their faces. Now, for a quick history lesson on this house before I get further in to the story, it was built in 1906 and had an addition put on to the back of the house in the 50’s. The original area of the house had a very accessible crawlspace. Almost 3 feet of clearance and a lot of light from the lattice work allowing sunlight to come in from the sides. The addition had a crawlspace of 1 foot and it was pitch black because they built brick walls on the sides. It was “no man’s land” and I knew better than to try and crawl under there. The place I needed to go was at the farthest point from the crawlspace access and no light existed there. Pipes, wires and old air condition ducts were littering the ground. I was determined to solve this problem for my customer so I told myself, “Just do it and stop overthinking it. If the AC guy did it, I can do it.”
I went to my truck and put on my headlamp and respirator. I got my drill, my steel hardware cloth roll, a bag of screws and a foam gun and my wire snips and entered the crawlspace. Trying to carry all of this was very difficult so I went slowly. It was not so bad until I came to the point where the air conditioning man made his “trench”. If that’s even what you wanted to call this thing. “They must have sent in a damn Oompa Loompa to get through here.” I said out loud. I decided that I was just going to use my hands and dig it wider and deeper so I could make it. The dirt was very loose and so dusty that immediately, when I began digging, I lost 95% of visibility even with my high powered headlamp. The AC duct was sitting on top of me and I was digging and dragging tools with my body pushed up against the floor. There was no room to move anything but my head and my arm that was digging. I was on my side using all the muscles in my body to keep myself going. The respirator was making it hard to breath but I had to keep it on because the dust would surely gag me. I finally got to the point where the AC duct ended. I then realized not only was I in the wrong area but I had to make a 90 degree turn to the left. I was still very calm and collected somehow (apparently too dumb to recognize the situation I was in). I thought to myself, “I will just dig under this support beam and travel in between them in parallel. It should be a straight shot with no more digging!” This house was built with huge 4” wide cedar joists that were very low to the ground. I dug and dug and dug some more until I made a large enough space to where I would surely just slide right underneath. I turned my body sideways and put all my tools through the opening onto the other side first then I proceeded to try and wiggle my head, shoulders and waist underneath the beam. It was going well until I stopped….mid back. “Oh no” I thought. “I’m stuck!” I kept calm for several minutes and then this is where my mind took over. I was in a pitch black cold place with no ability for movement at all. The house felt like it was crushing me even though it obviously had not moved. My deep breaths were muffled by my respirator and the beam I was stuck under was pushing against my ribs. I just couldn’t get enough air. I managed to touch something with my leg. It felt like a brick support column of some sort so I had the bright Idea of using both legs to push as hard as I could to force myself out from under the beam. So, I did and it worked. I then realized I was better off under the beam where I came from. I had forced myself into a coffin made of wood. It was a dead end. The support beams were touching the ground on both sides of me. My face was in the dirt and my mask had been ripped off. I couldn’t move anything. Not even my neck or my arms or legs. I was toast! I started talking to myself out loud so that I wouldn’t panic and break my own neck trying to get free. It didn’t work .I don’t remember a lot of what happened after that. I remember pushing so hard that my shoulder joints popped in and out of the sockets several times. My legs were kicking and breaking things around me. I remember somehow contorting my body enough so that I was turned around and could see the hole under the beam where I came in from. I was having a coughing fit from the thick dust that was made during my “event”. I slid my body under the support beam and yes….I got stuck again. This time there was nothing to push on with my legs. I do not remember how I managed to get unstuck but I can remember crawling and coughing and seeing light shine in from the lattice work. I somehow made it out of there. I was shaking uncontrollably from the adrenaline rush that I experienced. It was supposed to be a quick fix but I got to my truck and realized I had been under there for 4 hours. I must have passed out. The home owners were not there and I was very lucky I didn’t get stuck under there and die. The next day my body was sore all over. Hip joints and shoulder joints were too sore to move. I must have turned green like the Incredible Hulk in order to squeeze myself out of that place. I coughed up some pretty gross stuff for a day or two. One problem still remained. I left all my tools under there in that wretched place. I waited a full week before coming back. I was dreading the return visit. Luckily I dug the trench enough the first time that I could easily crawl to the spot. My tools were not within reaching distance anymore. In my panicked escape I kicked them all further under than I had gone before. There was obviously NO WAY IN HELL that I was going back under there. I had to think of a different way. I went back into the kitchen and noticed they had hardwood floors. Under the oven I noticed the floor looked like it had been cut out and then screwed back down. It was in the shape of a square. I got my screw driver and took out the screws and popped the wood out. Holy moly there was the ground and all my tools sitting right there! I ended up cutting out the wall and installing a steel sheet to cover the hole leading into the wall from the ground. The customers were satisfied in the end. The rats never came back. I think about that experience now every time I do something risky. I think it may have made me a little bit claustrophobic as well. There is a fine line between bravery and stupidity and now I know where that line is for me.