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The Pickle Story

The first thing you need to know is that most of the tour guides at Cave of the Winds were teenage boys, in or just out of high school. That by itself should be a warning. Most of them, but not all. One exception was Richard Evans. He was a neighbor of Ray Jackson, manager of the cave, and worked there to keep from being bored by retirement. Richard was the very model of an English Gentleman. He was short and round. He had a handlebar mustache, well groomed, but not ostentatious. And he had wisps of pale hair combed across the top of his head, bridging the gray crescent of the sides. He had formerly been the manager of the New Zealand branch of The Bank of England. He was genial and easy to talk to, but he carried himself with a causal dignity we all admired.

We each had three pieces of equipment that defined our role: our name tag bearing the Cave of the Winds logo and an adhesive plastic strip with our name pressed into it the day Ray hired us, a cheap red flashlight suitable for pointing out speleological features to guests or tossing into the air as a show of some dubious form of skill and finally, our helmet of thin white plastic, offering more utility as identification to the trailing tourists than any facility as life-saving device.

The other thing you need to know is that on the days it was busy—Summer weekends and holidays—there was a tour waiting almost as soon as you finished the one before. And if you wanted to eat, you needed to grab something fast and eat it faster.

On this particular day things were moving along at a lively pace and Joe Sedlor was next up. He was in the middle of a hamburger that would not be waiting for him thirty minutes later, so he was leaning over the guide's desk, trying to get as much of it into his mouth as possible before he absolutely had to go on. Beneath where he was eating was Richard's helmet, upturned like a bowl.

Joe finally tossed the last remains of his burger in the trash and took his tour into the cave. The next tour was called and the tourists holding the colored number cards shuffled forward into a queue at the door and moved out onto the patio in front of the dark archway leading underground. As they stood waiting, Richard walked up to the desk, grabbed his flashlight, popped his helmet on his head and strode confidently out to address his guests.

"Hello. Welcome to Cave of the Winds. My name is Richard Evans and..." A confused look came across his face. He took off his helmet, reached his hand onto the top of his head, looked at what he'd removed and, with honest puzzlement, asked, "What the Hell is a pickle doing on my head?"

I couldn't tell you how his tour reacted. I was convulsed. I couldn't breathe. I couldn't stand up straight. When I tried to regain control, the thought of "pickle" took over and I'd loose it again. But none of that mattered. It was my turn and the show must go on--or in our case, in. I tried to give a good tour, but it was hopeless. Teenage boys are wild dogs at heart and my wounded condition made me fair game.

As a safety precaution, an intercom system was installed throughout the cave. If a claustrophobic tourist needed to get out, we could call for an escort. If there was a traffic jam, we could be instructed to wait a few minutes. But it could also be abused. More than once on my doomed tour, as I began to settle into the safe routine of the spiel, a mutter would come out of a speaker: "pickle," and all would be lost again. The tour wasn't enjoying this, but what could I do? I led my sullen charges into the cul-de-sac to show how dark the dark is: can you see your fingers wiggling in front of your face? ha ha, now you can. Even on good days that one didn't fly too high.

Resigned to the disaster my tour had become, I led them back out toward the short flight of stairs to the next level. There on the penultimate step, just below eye-level, was a small rectangle of white cardboard with the word "PICKLE" written in black ink. Drawn underneath it was an arrow, pointing down. On the step below, in lurid green glory, was a large, lumpy gherkin.