Five teenagers are standing in front of the Orpheum Theater on State Street in Madison, Wisconsin, looking for something to get into rather than go home. The time is the mid 1950's, early October, 3:00 A.M. on a Saturday night. A kind of an early Indian Summer night and we're just coming out of a late night horror movie. We decide to head west out State Street to the University of Wisconsin.
In my younger days I lived just on the other side of the tracks where they brought in animals for raising and studying. I had many sorties across the tracks (most are dear memories). I feel I know the University of Wisconsin campus like a baby knows his mother's breast. At one time or another, I have taken each of my friends on to the University Campus for high-jinx and adventure.
I am challenged to come up with something none of them have done with me, before. It should be intriguing and exciting, if not dangerous. After a brief ponder on my youth, thinking about old adventures, lightning strikes! I know just the adventure we'll go for. Thinking about that escapade gives me an adrenaline surge that would flip your hat over. I can feel a tingle in my fingertips like a low voltage shock. I haven't done this in several years. Why I didn't think of it until this moment, I'll never know. However, the timing is quite auspicious.
I tell the guys, "I have an adventure that will make those great horror movies we saw as boring as baby-sitting your kid sister. Gentlemen, we are about to step into a scene that has danger, death, darkness and mad doctors," This is enough to get the juices flowing. I can see great interest and anticipation on their faces.
Off we go, and the adventure starts. Out State Street for a few blocks, right on Park, and there it is at the foot of Langdon Street— a very old and dirty five-story red brick building; Science Hall. My uncles told me they did the same thing when they were kids. I guess that means Science Hall has been around forever.
The street light is not working at the front of the building and there is only an insignificant amount of light coming from the fifth floor. I couldn't have set it up better, even if I had Cecil B. DeMille in my pocket. The looks of the building is rather foreboding and ominous; yeah, and scary too!
As we kneel behind a bush, I say, "This is the scam. First the dangers. We've got to keep a weather eye out for passersby, cause we ain't supposed to be here. They might call the University Police." Speaking of the police, the University sends guards to this area with great regularity. And I speak from experience.
"We also have to keep an eye out for the medical students, they might hear us. Now for the quest... When they built this building, the architect talked them into installing an inside fire escape which is a four foot diameter tube. It spirals just like a spiral staircase in a lighthouse, from the fifth floor to the ground. It lets you out of the building in the back parking lot. Our goal is to sneak up the front stairs to the fourth floor, find our way to the fire exit, crash it open, and slide down. All the while avoiding any contact with the police, or students."
"Now this is the layout. We have to be quiet and careful in the building. There are always too many people trying to be doctors. There isn't enough time with cadavers to fit into the standard school semester, so students book weird hours to get their anatomy requirements in. We don't want these interns to hear us. "The cadavers are kept on the fifth floor floating in big tanks full of formaldehyde. My uncles tell me there are ten to fifteen of these tanks."
I take the guys to the ground exit of the fire escape in the back of the building first, to show them where they'll come out. The dim light from the fifth floor gives just enough luminescence. We can vaguely see a couple of bicycles chained to an old rusty pipe. We stand beside this four foot exit hole, which is three feet off the ground and coming out of the north corner of the building. It empties into a small dark parking lot. We run our hands over the inside. The chute is dark, cold and as smooth as polished marble.
I tell them, "Once you enter the chute on the fourth floor, there is nothing to stop you. Imagine a pea being shot out of a pea shooter."
I think to myself, Now is the time to bring in an added risk and danger factor. I tell them, "You know, of course, the Fire Department may have closed this off at the first floor, because it's so old. There we would be, stuck in this tube yelling for help. Or the University Police may have sent a workman in to peel a corner of the polished metal back to discourage its use. This would be like sliding down a banister and having it turn into a razor blade."
"What is more likely is that when we hit the emergency bar to enter the tube, it will make a bang as loud as hitting a car hood with a baseball bat. The interns studying anatomy on the fifth floor will hear this sound and know what's going on. They'll run over to the tanks filled with formaldehyde and dead bodies, grab a glass full of formaldehyde and empty it down the fire escape exit. This stuff is putrid. It makes a dead skunk smell like freshly baked cookies."
We only have to wait five minutes in the bushes before the police make their appointed rounds. With the police gone, we start from the back of the building, heading towards the front entrance. I see someone coming out. We jump into the shadows and wait for them to pass. There are far more dark shadows and strange noises than one is used to dealing with. I hear a slight creak as a whisper of wind moves one of the front double doors. I'm in the lead, all five of us slip through the front door and hug the wall. We have just enough light to see that all we need to do is cross a hallway and then the stairs start.
The stairs are quite wide, with banisters on both sides. The landings are huge things, black as a pirate's heart and as silent as a tomb. You could have heard a mouse break wind. Slinking our way to the landing between the third and fourth floors, we freeze on the spot, holding our breath and pressing our backs to the outside wall.
We can hear two students chit-chatting as they come down the stairs. They are using the inner railing. We hear them cursing the janitor for leaving the light switch off and taking the key home with him. Old public buildings have light switch keys to keep the unauthorized from putting lights on unnecessarily. The almost-doctors had a curse or two for some professor who gave them a project that took all night to do, still had to be written up, and handed in Monday morning.
I can feel my friends tighten up as the two people pass us like ships in the night, never knowing we are here. It seems to take forever for those students to finish three flights of stairs. We hear the squeak of the front door and all take a deep breath, knowing they have left the building. Easing up to the fourth floor, all is wel1. Now all we have to do is make our way to the far corner of the building and the fire escape.
It's been a long time since I was here last. The dim light coming from some distant nook or cranny indicates to me that there have been some changes. I vaguely remember coming off the stairs, crossing a hallway and standing in front of a door which led us in the right direction. As it turns out, I am standing there with my nose against a solid wall. This is where the door use to be. Using logic, I tell myself a more circuitous route is called for.
My instincts are telling me to keep going through doors and hallways heading in the general direction until we get there. After trying ten or more doors we finally find one that is unlocked. After we have made several twists and turns, in and out of several dead-end offices, with no problems... it happens! One of the guys kicks a trash can into a chair. We could have used this noise to substitute for the cannons in the 1812 Overture. I say, "That's it, boys! They must have heard that from upstairs, for sure. It's time to quit worrying about noise and start going for speed. Follow me."
We are running and stumbling, knocking more things over and all the time getting closer to our prize, the fire exit. Passing through the third office at this fast pace, I see a faint red glow coming from the correct direction. As we approach the light I can see someone took this small nook and turned it into a supply and storage area. There's a parsons table standing right in front of our goal. We, however are not to be daunted.
I say, "Guys, by this time, the medical students will have called the University Police and they will be on their way. We must taste adventure and success. Gentlemen! Move the table and let's go."
I stand in front of the exit chute. The emergency exit bar is waist high. My hands are sweating, the adrenaline is pumping. Looking at our would-be commando team, seeing each face in the faint red light, I can see they are all excited, but cool. "Okay men, make like this is D-Day, the sixth of June, and we are the first wave of parachuters."
I hit the bar, the doors burst open and a blast of cold air hits me. When the doors burst open, it is with a vengeance. The thunder clap was deafening, echoing up and down the chute. Holding on to the bar, I swing into the smooth, cold blackness yelling "Geronimo." At almost the same time, I hear a second clap of thunder; I know what this means, there's no question the doctors-to-be are on to us. Here comes the formaldehyde, I smell that smell and my Levi's are soaked. The odor is so noxious, it makes my eyes water. I can hear my fellow troopers yelling "Geronimo" as they jump into this smelly pit. We're all yelling and screaming with excitement as we go spiraling down.(As you know, a wet water slide is ten times faster than a dry one). I can feel my Levi's getting soaked with another dose. The interns must be throwing buckets of that foul swill into this prize we risked our butts to win.
Around and around, down and down, I am going so fast I actually feel a G-force. The next thing I know, I am being shot out of this hole-in-the wall; into a puddle of formaldehyde in the dark of night; on a corner of a small unlit parking lot. Right behind me I hear a 'shlop', 'shlop', 'shlop', 'shlop' as the other guys come shooting out. They land on me and each other in a pile. The fire escape spit us out just like a cat having kittens.
To look at us, we are all arms, legs, and heads in a pile. All in a pool of formaldehyde. We are all laughing so hard our bellies hurt. Listening to us would put a smile on even the Grinch's face. We are all talking at once, telling each other what we did, what we felt, that damn smell. sipping and sliding and trying to get untangled. Somebody says, "It looks like the Keystone Cops at a Wesson oil party." We laugh all the harder.
After finally getting untangled we realize what a mess we are. Just as we are starting out for Lake Mendota to get the worst of the smell off, I stop at the fire exit and yell up, "Thanks, it was great". I don't care if there is anyone there, or not.
The tube acts just like a megaphone. To my surprise, I hear somebody, just like he was next to me, say, "We heard you guys laughing and it was great. We wish we could have been with you. However, you did make us laugh till we cried. By the way, we did not call the police. See ya around."
Then we hear the students closing the fire door on the fifth floor. It gives me an extra tickle knowing the students got a good laugh out of this. It's like telling a funny joke, and every one gets the punch line, and laughs at the same time.
It's less than a block to the Lake. We dive in clothes and all, but the smell is still overwhelming. We wring the clothes, 'shlooshing' them back and forth. Makes no difference, the stink stays with us. We start on a slow, talkative walk home; each telling his story in turn. I guarantee none of us will forget this night.
Early October, early morning, we hardly notice the cold at all. We reached our goal, we made our quest, we are champions. Through all the years the Science Hall has been there, I wonder how many mothers, on wash day, have said, "What is that god-awful smell? What has that kid been up to now?"