"Oh yeah?" I said after our team had finished last place in the 1987 Anvil Cave Rally. "Just wait 'til next year!"
Suddenly, on June 11th, 1988, it was next year. Our non-award-winning team (Commander Randall Blackwood, David "Wrongway" Cass, Tim Sutton, Lamont Brown, Harold Blackwood, Mona, and me) had been reunited, and was waiting nervously outside Entrance 7 to Anvil Cave, twelve miles of maze passage spread out below us. The idea was to follow a set of instructions and finish according to a set timetable. Too fast or too slow mean a penalty. Not being able to find your way out would be even more embarrassing.
"Just wait 'til next year!" I told everyone. "We're really going to win this thing next year." The endless waiting, twenty minutes worth, was taking its toll.
Finally, it was time. "Team Thirteen!" Reynolds Duncan called out. The race was on. We piled into the entrance, Randall and Lamont in the lead. The rest of us followed through a choking cloud of dust as Commander Randall barked instructions to Lamont.
"Climb over breakdown and take first passage to right! Turn left into third passage, then angle left into crawlway! Hard to port into that canyon!"
There was trouble ahead. The team ahead of us was confused, huddling over their instructions. We pushed by them confidently, then passed another group in a larger passage. The year before we had finished over an hour behind schedule; this time Lamont was determined to make up for that lost time.
"Over here!" he hissed. "We can take a parallel passage and get around these slowpokes!" We overtook another two teams. Everything was going flawlessly. We were finding all the landmarks, writing down the answers to trick questions that counted ten points apiece, making all the right turns. Suddenly, Dave Gazaway loomed before us.
We'd reached the first checkpoint. Here we managed to pass another three teams by pushing through the crowd to receive a map from Dave. The instructions were simple: Follow the map to the point marked X. The first problem was obvious: Where on the bloody map were we? Survey stations provided the needed clue, and with a general idea of the direction we needed to go, I led the way. We crashed into the backside of another team, passed up the survey number we were looking for, then backtracked to find it. Suddenly, nothing fit. We were looking for a "soda straw that touched a ledge," but none were to be found. It was the 1977 "Fluted U" disaster all over again.
After twenty minutes of confusion, we managed to skip ahead several instructions to a "pool of mud in the passage" where things began to make sense again. We hurried on, unsure if we were on the right track but committed to our course. Then we came to the ultimate test: another checkpoint. The instructions said to stop, yell out your team number, and say "Quack Quack." If we were in the right place, there had to be a person hiding nearby. No one was to be found, and all seemed lost. Then David spotted a suspicious wire running down the passage. The wire led to a microphone. The cave was bugged! We were on course.
"Let's move!" Randall bellowed. "Pick up it, Mona!" We were a scant five instructions from Entrance Five; the leaves and surface debris confirmed it. In a flurry of motion, we were out. The last of the team ran up the ladder and stood panting in daylight, an hour and six minutes after entering the cave.
"Okay guys," Randall said after he had checked with reliable sources of rumors. "Do you want to hear the good news or the bad news?"
"Let's hear the good news!" someone said. Randall was silent.
"Okay, let's hear the bad news."
The bad news was that we were twenty-three minutes early getting out of the cave. The good news came later, as we played volleyball. Despite our early finish, Team Thirteen had won third place. The cheers of the crowd seemed slow in coming, but perhaps they were lost in our own shouts of admiration. But things got even better. Later, after a recount, we were awarded second place and a watermelon.
After the closing ceremonies, we drove back to Randall's house in Huntsville and ate our watermelon, already dreaming of the glories to come.
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