I have to tell you about my friend, Jay Bell. Jay was blind, as in mostly blind, legally blind. Born prematurely in a small hospital, the oxygen mix was too rich in the tent they put over him and his eyes were permanently damaged. When I moved with my family to the isolated desert town of Trona, California, Jay was the weird kid with the heavy, half-inch thick glasses.
Being friends with Jay had a number of great benefits. First off, was his Mom. “Hi, Berk,” she’d say with a smile when I showed up at the house, and then she’d stuff me full with large quantities of home cooked food. At 6 feet 4 inches and the center on the Trona Tornado’s football team, my stomach was basically bottomless.
The second plus was the freedom we had. I think Mrs. Bell thought Jay would be safe with me and pretty much let us run free in Mr. Bell’s old pickup--as long as I was driving. Her faith in me was justified since neither of us was ever seriously injured, but not for want of trying.
|cc LA Times, 12/21/2011 "Dozens search for ...missing men."|
One summer, a bunch of friends and I, including Jay, decided to drive out to old Ruth Mine. Besides just hanging-out, picking off jack rabbits with our .22s and gorging on Hostess cherry pies, we hoped to find dynamite left behind in the mine.
The main shaft of Ruth Mine is vertical, plunging straight down into the core of the mountain. Every hundred feet or so, horizontal shafts branch off where rich ore veins were discovered. The only way down was an old wooden ladder, stretching for hundreds of feet down the side of the vertical shaft. Carrying extra flashlights and batteries, we descended into the bowels of the mine.
After exploring for hours and finding no dynamite, we got hungry and decided to climb back up to the truck. Those Hostess pies were calling. One behind the other, we crawled up the rickety, old ladder with Jay bringing up the rear. We’d reached the top, and were waiting for Jay, when he suddenly called, “Hey guys, give me a hand!”
There was a large gap between the top of the ladder and the rocky floor of the mine. Jay had put his flashlight in his pocket so he could climb with both hands, and the mine was inky black. Seeing poorly even in sunlight, Jay was now completely blind as he tried to step from the ladder onto the uneven floor of the mine.
Turning, I reached out and grabbed his hand, pulling him up onto the ledge. As I did so, the top section of the ladder, with a splintering crack, broke away from the shaft wall, crashing loudly as it fell hundreds of feet to the bottom of the mine.
We all stood at the edge of the gaping shaft, staring soberly down into its black depths, realizing Jay had just barely gotten off the ladder in time.
Finally, Ken Corbridge spoke up, rather mildly, since he had sworn off swearing.
“Darn! Now we can’t go back down again.”
Shrugging, we trudged back to the pickup. Another day, another mine.