Continued from High School Urban Exploring Part 1.
(Any names used have been changed. Not necessarily to protect anyone’s identity, but just because I haven’t asked them if I could use their names.)
When Mike flashed me his keys and told me to follow him, I knew exactly what he wanted to show me. Like me, Mike was involved in theater, but helped out backstage rather than on the stage. He was involved with building sets, designing lighting, and—most importantly—managing sound design and microphones.
It was the keys to the sound booth that he had procured. The auditorium’s sound booth, which floated high above the seats in the back of the room, was accessible only by ascending a locked staircase, going up three flights of stairs, and braving an intricate maze of metal rafters. Without Mike’s unsupervised access to the keys, we wouldn’t have made it past the door.
We proceeded into the auditorium and through the locked door leading to the staircase to the sound booth. After leading me up one flight of stairs, Mike paused. In front of us was a door. A door I had never even noticed before in my prior travels through this stairwell (always previously escorted by a teacher or similar authority figure.) This door, always closed and locked, was now propped open. It stared back at us, ominously.
“Is the secret room through there?” I asked.
He didn’t say a word. There were muffled voices floating up through the stairwell entrance one floor down. We froze, waiting to see if anyone was coming into the stairwell, but the voices faded and again we stood in silence.
“Come on,” was all Mike said.
He opened the door and walked through, holding it open for me. I entered the mysterious room, making sure the door remained propped open. About six feet in width and ten feet in length, the dimly lit space was more of a short hallway than a room. Save for the door behind us and a door in front of us, propped open by a chair, it was completely empty. Mike swiftly walked forward and into the adjoining room, careful not to knock the chair from its important duty of retaining access to this room.
I followed him into what I could only assume was the central ventilation room for the entire auditorium. The loud buzz from a large air conditioning unit in the corner of the room blocked off all outside sound. If someone had noticed us and decided to follow, there would be no sound of footsteps or doors creaking. No forewarning.
In the middle of the dusty room was a large metal air ventilation shaft protruding at shoulder height from the left wall, curling upwards and exiting through the ceiling. I stood still, standing right by the entrance, admiring a space rarely seen by other students. I silently wondered if this was the legendary “Secret Room.” It was certainly tucked away enough, behind numerous locked doors. The perfect place to hang out and never been seen, minus an occasional janitor.
Mike wasted no time. He grabbed a chair from the corner of the room and propped it underneath the air ventilation shaft. Sitting on the chair, he looked up and began unscrewing an air vent on the bottom of the shaft. I watched curiously until one side swung down, providing access into the horizontal square vent. Standing on the chair, he hoisted himself inside. I watched his feet slowly rise and disappear.
I stood there a moment, wondering if I was really going to follow him. If we had been caught in this air ventilation room, we would have most likely been given a stern warning and sent on our way. But climbing through closed air vents brought this journey to a whole new level. I wasn’t a bad kid. Never big on the whole “breaking and entering” scene. But if the rumors had been true about climbing through air vents, what else was true? What did the Secret Room really look like? How many people got an opportunity to actually see it?
I climbed onto the chair, my torso entering the air vent. I looked around, but didn’t see Mike anywhere. To my left, about two feet away, the vent opened into a large dim room.
“This way,” Mike’s voice drifted in from the gap.
I climbed up and crawled on my stomach towards the opening. As I poked my head through, I saw Mike standing on a dirt floor, about three feet down. I wormed my way down and out and stood next to him.
What stood before me, about fifteen feet away, was a large, elevated, wooden room. Constructed like a house, it was supported by pillars of wood under the floorboards and each of the four corners. The roof of the room stood six feet above the constructed floor, with wooden planks creating four walls. Despite being obviously handmade, it had an extremely sturdy look. Whoever built this definitely knew what they were doing.
I walked up to the room’s front facade and ran my hand along the unpolished wood. The rumors had all been true. It was real.
Mike came up next to me, ducked down, and climbed in the space between the Secret Room’s bottom side and the dirt floor. I followed. He pulled out a flashlight from his back pocked (Mike always had a flashlight on him) and shined it at the floorboards above our heads until we caught sight of a round hole, two feet in diameter, cut into the wood. The entrance.
We climbed through one at a time and stood inside. In one corner sat a faded tan couch, its cotton padding and foam cushions pulling through tears in the fabric. While definitely no worse for wear than many of the friends’ couches I would posture myself upon in my upcoming college years, I had no desire to take a seat.
On the floor laid further proof that this room was previously inhabited. There was an empty coke can laying tipped over in front of the sofa’s right leg; a thin layer of dust just barely obscuring a can design that had been retired a few years prior. An old bag of potato chips, open, empty, laying next to us, telling a story neither of us could put into context.
“So, this is it. The Secret Room.”
I stood for another moment, taking it all in. I wondered about the person or people who had actually built this room, and about its original purpose. Had it really been built by a group of ambitious students? If so, how long did they have access to the room before they were caught? Were they ever caught?
We exited the room, down through the hole in the floor, and made our way again to the expanse serving as the front yard. I looked up, just barely making out the edge of one of the metal rafters that created the pathway to the sound booth above the auditorium.
“That’s the other way to get to the Secret Room,” Mike explained. “You can just tie a rope ladder to the sides of the railings up there and climb down.”
I envisioned myself up on those rafters, looking at the auditorium floor thirty feet below through cheese grater holes in the metal under my feet. I imagined tying a rope to the railing and lifting myself over to start the descent.
We retraced our steps, climbing up and back into the air conditioning vent that served as our exit. My heart began racing again. Had someone entered the ventilation room while we were exploring? The familiar hum of the air unit became louder and I realized there would be no way of knowing until we dropped back into the room.
Mike went first, dropping through the open air vent and disappearing. I paused a moment, waiting to hear angry, chastising voices followed by apologetic responses. But I heard nothing except for the loud constant whir of machined air. I dropped down and quickly looked up, finding the room empty except for Mike standing near the door, expectantly.
We quickly exited back into the stairwell, making sure both doors remained propped open behind us. Once in the stairwell, we parted ways; Mike climbing up the remaining two flights of stairs to head to the sound booth and me to the dressing rooms where I was already late for rehearsal.
I returned to the hidden room only a few more times that year, mostly to show a friend or to just stand there and marvel. The original story about the creation of that Secret Room no longer existed. Only legends and tales remained where once lived the true version of the story.
A few months later, the faculty would find out that students were visiting the Secret Room and close it off for good, replacing the screws in the air vent with bolts and shutting the doors. If anyone wanted access to that room again, they would have to obtain a thirty-foot rope ladder, secure it tightly to the railing outside the sound booth, and descend, in darkness, onto that barely-touched dirt floor.
Would any future students be as brave as the students of legend? Standing on the rafters, peering over the railing to the void below, I sure hoped not. That would be a long way to fall.