MAYBE YOU'RE ONE OF THOSE bat-loving types who lectures people that bats are actually very clean animals and they eat half their weight in insects every sundown and it's a false slander that they get tangled in women's hair. Batophilia is not that uncommon these days, as evidenced by all the people heading into the flying mammals' very lairs: high-tech cavers armed with headlamps, special caving ropes, and the ability to use the word spelunk without laughing.
But back in that stone age when all outdoor equipment was bought at the Army Navy store, caving was an amateur's game. I was introduced to it in the late sixties by my friend Donald, whose grandmother had a house in Sewanee, Tennessee, on the Cumberland Plateau. T-ma, as the grand dame was known, was happy to share her equipment, mostly a pile of old dented lanterns that dated, probably, from the Civil War. You filled the lantern's bottom with carbide and added water, and once it began to make a certain unmistakable sizzle, the resulting gas—as redolent as boiling ore—was flammable.
In most Tennessee caves there are several fairly unavoidable features—the big cathedral space, the mud room, the fat man's squeeze. On one occasion, Donald's father, a noted heart surgeon, was struggling through a fat man's squeeze. Dr. Eddie was also bald, and every time he'd lift his head, he'd howl as a tiny stalactite dart punctured his scalp. He exited looking like a middle-aged messiah who'd just removed a crown of thorns.
I was next in the squeeze, grinding on my elbows across a gravel floor made more comfortable by a freezing stream of cave water trickling through. The spare plastic bag of carbide I kept in my pants pocket had rubbed open from all the wiggling, and my hip began to sizzle, then to warm up, and finally to burn hot as fire. I'd begun to hump pretty damn fast, squirming in a panic, as my mind foresaw a suffocating gas buildup—or, more likely, a Jerry Bruckheimer-like explosion—when a concerned Dr. Eddie bent down to shine his flame into the tunnel. "Hey, Jack, are you having any—" Boom!
Turns out there was a lot more air in the tunnel than I thought, because right then and there, ten cave bats decided to flutter through on their way out. The sudden chaos of fur—when I think about it, there must have been a hundred bats—encouraged me to discover the virgin pleasure of pressing one's face into frigid gravel water. Fortunately, bats have that radar thing, so all one thousand of them easily found the space above my prostrate body, although it must have been difficult scrambling down my back given the vibrations caused by all the subaqueous screaming.
When I finally got out, everyone was tending to his own suffering. Dr. Eddie was stanching his head with a rag. No one cared about my encounter with ten thousand bats. Donald's brother accused me of exaggerating. He said he'd seen only a couple of bats. I don't know. In my mind—then and now—my ordeal resembled that encyclopedia picture of Carlsbad Caverns at dusk when a million bats roar out like demonic nuncios in a funnel of black terror.
And yet, I still cave. Because even though I fear bats, mine is an exquisitely nuanced phobia. It's not truly activated unless I'm in a cave and I see a bunch of bats, and then my pants catch on fire.