The last three weeks have been brimming with political news — the resignation of our scandal plagued EPA chief, a brewing battle over who will replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, and ongoing legal strife about the separation of migrant children from their families.
However, it is a non-political story — the rescue of 12 boys and their soccer coach from the Tham Luang cave complex in northern Thailand — that commanded the attention of all but the most fervent political news junkies among us.
Caves have long played a significant role in human history, serving as shelters, shrines and the homes of our earliest artwork. Tales of them fill our ancient mythologies and, in the world of today, where the unexplored is rare, they provide an opportunity to lay eyes upon things that few, or even no, other humans have seen before.
In our most recent societal foray into a cave, we have caught a prolonged glimpse of something beautiful and too often fleeting — unadulterated human unity.
As the rescue attempt unfolded, numerous friends on my Facebook feed eschewed talk of politics and instead chronicled the rescue operations regularly, drawing more “likes” than I’ve seen in years. One friend texted me a photo of a neighbor’s yard sign that read, “Thank you international divers!!” All over the country, the rescue at Tham Luang seemed to be bridging chasms that had formerly been unassailable.
Though it may seem unlikely that America could have united around something as rare as a cave rescue in the past, like so many other experiences, this one is a repetition of history.
On Jan. 30, 1925, a 37-year-old Floyd Collins, an experienced caver, found himself held prisoner by a rock that had trapped his foot in Sand Cave, which now sits within the boundaries of Mammoth Cave National Park. A rescue party soon located Collins and an operation was commenced to free him.
Once the press got wind of this, the nation became transfixed and pulled together in support of rescue efforts. By Feb. 2, the front page of The New York Times read “Landslide Traps a Kentucky Cave Owner; 200 Men Work Vainly 36 Hours to Free Him.” Every day afterward, the front page of the Times and many other newspapers, chronicled the rescue attempt, with an article on Feb. 9 entitled “10,000 visit cave and picnic on scene of Collins Tragedy”.
Much of this coverage was thanks to a reporter named William Miller. Being quite small in stature, he was able to crawl to Collins and interview him, which later won him a Pulitzer Prize. Many people wanted to contribute to the rescue efforts, even celebrities. Charles Lindbergh carried reports to a newspaper by air, not dissimilar from Elon Musk showing up to Tham Luang with a mini-submarine.
Politics as usual moved forward, of course, with eerie similarity to today’s struggles. As engineers drilled a shaft to rescue him and fought rising waters, a new organization was formed to push for the repeal of Prohibition, the Senate confirmed President Calvin Coolidge’s nomination of Harlan Stone to the Supreme Court, the U.S. abruptly withdrew from the International Opium Conference, and it was revealed that Russia was funding a German Communist Revolution.
The national coverage of Collins’ entrapment concluded sadly on Feb. 18, a day after he was found dead, when the front page of the Times read “Collins Left Buried in his Cavern Tomb; Simple Service Held.”
With those in the Tham Luang cave now rescued, this story has a much happier ending, though the life of one rescuer was lost.
Unfortunately, the national solidarity brought about by Collins’ entrapment quickly dissipated after his death, as people resumed their roles in warring political factions. Now that the Tham Luang rescue is complete, it is likely that the solidarity produced by this uncommon struggle of man versus nature will soon disappear as we recommence our more familiar struggles of man versus man.
If only there were something besides a tragedy that could halt this lamentable process. Ultimately, we must ask ourselves, how many more times will we have to descend into the dark confines of a cave to see what unity looks like, when it would be so much easier to visualize if we just created it out here in the light?
Brian Barnett is a psychiatrist from Salyersville.