From The Ostermann Method
The wizened elder’s eyes shed some of their hardness as he leaned back, placing his feet up so as to get comfortable. “My name wasn’t always Taavi,” he began. “I was born with another name, in New Jersey, and was the right age to want to go off to war when Pearl Harbor happened. Well, as it turned out, the war didn’t want me, on account of my small stature. In theory, the Navy might have found me a spot below decks on some vessel, and the Army was willing to let me try out as a tunnel digger. The truth is I wasn’t strong enough for either job in those days, but only the Army allowed me to prove it.“
“Actually,” he reflected, “the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve come to believe those Army guys who let me ‘try out’ as a tunnel digger were just having some fun at my expense. You see, they told me that the disappointing results of my physical wouldn’t matter if I could tunnel down under this old shop building on the base we were on and make it all the way to the other side in seventy-two hours.“
Here, Taavi paused, collecting his thoughts while savoring the reminiscence.
“Well they gave me a challenge and I wasn’t about to say no. So I got to it. I dug and dug with this little shovel they gave me, and moved bucketful after bucketful of dirt out of the way. As you can imagine, progress was slow, but I worked nonstop, as hard as I ever had. While I got down deep enough and shaped some stairs, I thought about how to keep my tunnel from caving in. I’d seen some big steel drums stacked up next to an empty building, with a torch sitting next to ‘em that seemed like it was being used to cook ‘em clean before refilling them for whatever reason. But I didn’t care what they were there for -- I’d been told to feel free to use anything lying around nearby to make my tunnel. So, do you know what I did?“
Taavi studied his audience, making it clear with an expectant expression that his question was not entirely rhetorical.
“Thirds,” said Matilda, noting Taavi’s trace of an approving smile. “But go on, I want to hear you tell it.“
“Yes, thirds,” Taavi continued. “See, I had to end up with whole barrels, with no tops or bottoms, laid end-to-end, placed inside the tunnel from one side only. I wasn’t strong enough to move even one barrel forward through a tunnel like that, and there was no way I wanted to try moving every barrel that was already in place forward every time I wanted to put a new one in. So I spent the first twelve hours making the right kind of entrance, and the next twelve hours cutting the ends off a dozen barrels, chopping each into thirds the long way, making slots in these, and then making brackets with the barrel-tops to fit the slots. I used all the torch gas, and all the extra gas too, but I got it done.“
“Then,” Taavi went on, “I started digging sideways and hauling the soil out. When I’d made it one barrel-length, I brought each third in, one by one, put the first and second sections down to cover the tunnel’s bottom, then slid the last section in on top, bracketed the completed tube together from the inside, and got back to digging. Then, I just repeated the process, one barrel-length closer to my finish line every time.“
Even after all these years, Taavi was still pleased with his own cleverness on this account. And he waited until understanding shone on the faces of his audience before continuing.
“So I’m digging and hauling and fitting and bracketing, and taking breaks whenever I got too tired to move. And soon enough, all kinds of people start finding reasons to pass by the place I’m working. Some of ‘em cheer, a couple bring me sandwiches and water, and I just keep going, getting more and more delirious. The sun has gone down and up, down and up, down and not too long after it comes up again, and I’m getting pissed because I’ve only made it eight barrels through when I hear a loud whistle blow right behind me.“
“I turn around, see that two MP jeeps have pulled up next to my pile of soil, and there’s this officer there with a whistle in his hand and some guy in a suit standing next to him. Being there, in that exhausted state, I somehow got it in my head that they were there to arrest me for not finishing my tunnel on time!“
“I looked up at that officer, my hands, elbows, and knees torn and bruised from the work, all covered in muck and grime, and I say ‘Please! I’ll come along without any fuss. But please don’t send me to the brig before I finish my tunnel!’“
Taavi’s infectious glee played across the group. Even Edwina, who had heard this story before, found it freshly amusing, now that she’d spent some time seeing life under the US Government up close. As their laughter gave way to a natural pause, the elder storyteller again captured his audience’s attention.
“As you can imagine, that officer just burst into laughter, which I’m sure was quite out of character,” explained Taavi. “Then he looks me up and down, and says, ‘Take it easy kid. You’re not in any trouble, but whoever put you up to this sure is. Why don’t you hop in the back of my jeep here and stay out of the way for a while while we take care of these clowns.’“
Shrugging, Taavi continued, “What could I do? I just did what he said and ended up falling asleep in no time flat. Slept for god knows how long, and it was deep night when someone finally shook me awake and brought me into a building where that officer sat behind a desk. And do you know what he told me? First thing, after giving me a ham sandwich and a bottle of milk, he thanked me for helping the country catch a group of soldiers that were undermining the war effort!“
At this, Edwina emitted a giggle, and Bryce and Mandy shared a worried glance, having both become still more certain that the pair was utterly mad.
Catching the exchange, Taavi silently drew on the spirits of his ancestors to lend him strength through this era of youthful inattention to detail, and did not think less of these blue youngsters for their sloppy thinking habits. After all, they were not so much older than he’d been when he’d been duped into digging that stupid tunnel. “Come on now,” he encouraged. “Ask yourselves what was wrong with that whole picture.“
Matilda’s concentration showed as slight tension across her youthful face for a moment. This visibly relaxed as she responded in a quiet, decided tone. “They were smugglers,” she said. “The barrels, the torch, the whole setup was ... off for the time and place. They were smuggling something. Probably whiskey.“
“Got it in one,” answered Taavi warmly. “But that officer had more in mind than thanking me that night. While I ate my sandwich, that man I’d seen earlier in civilian garb came into the office and offered me a job in what he called ‘strategic services’. Not knowing any better, I said yes. And that’s how I became a spy.“
Bryce, silent until that point, exclaimed, “What? You were a spy? I knew it!“
“Shh. We all knew it. Let him talk,” scolded Mandy.