The Sunday Magazine·The Sunday Edition

What the 22-year-old architect of the hole in the ground on the York U campus can teach us - Michael's essay

Rather than creating a terrorist staging area, Elton McDonald says he dug that hole because he just wanted somewhere to hang out. Michael reflects on the sad fact that we have lost the idea of a "caper" -- of doing something just for the fun of it.
Elton McDonald, who dug the hole in the ground on the York U campus (Facebook)

The young man's name is Elton McDonald. He is 22 years old and has a smile that would melt pack ice.

He is the builder no, more the author, the creator of the infamous hole in the ground on the campus of York University in Northwest Toronto. He went public this week because, as he said, he wanted people to know that he meant no harm. 

Run to ground, so to speak, by The Toronto Sun, the talented Mr. McDonald explained why he dug his hole.

"It was just something I always wanted to do."

His hole was designed, constructed,outfitted with great care, with great attention to detail. It was shored up with heavy timber. It had a generator and waterproof lighting. 

From photographs, it looked like the perfect, cozy hidey hole in the dread dead of winter.

A 33-foot-long tunnel is pictured in this handout photo provided by Toronto Police, February 24, 2015. (Toronto Police/Reuters)

The project took Mr. McDonald two full years. Not exactly Panama Canal effort but long enough. His explanation for the cavern is bracing.

"It wasn't really a tunnel. I was going to expand it to have a couple of rooms. I was hoping to put in a TV. I did some barbecuing. It was more a place to hang out."

Mr. McDonald's achievement extends far beyond the territorial confines of the cave. His accomplishments are stirling.

In the first place, he  provoked a contagious hysteria in the media which remains an embarrassment.

Secondly, he made fools out of so-called security experts who suggested, more than suggested, that the whole endeavour might be tied to a terrorist assault on a venue of this summer's Pan Am Games.

He engaged the attention of a city intrigued, confounded, bemused by the discovery of the hole.

Toronto's Deputy Police Chief Mark Saunders speaks to the media about the hole found near one of the venues for the Pan Am Games. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

Finally, he showed that the Toronto Police Department can act in a measured, sensible way when under public insistence to, for God's sake, do something.

Senior officers held a reassuring media conference during which they calmly said there was no nefarious intent, no violation of any law.

In the conformist, constricted and fretful age in which we live, Mr. McDonald has revived the old and honourable idea of the caper.

The idea of committing an act of harmless mischief has all but been effaced from our consciousness.

We have become so judgmental, so censorious in almost every field of human activity that we don't know how to respond to the Elton McDonalds of this world and their sense of play.

And who among us doesn't slightly smile at the idea of a place to get away, when the world is too much with us?

As kids we built tree houses and snow forts. As adults we have lost those inclinations and the attendant skills to build such things, even if we build them only in our imaginations.

Pestered to death by the toxic plasma of electronics, harried by governments, by families, by bosses, by what Chekhov called the wearying experience of day-to-day living, who wouldn't crave a moment of underground respite?

Elton McDonald and his hole in the ground have reminded us that somewhere in our lives, there is sanctuary -- even if we have to descend into the good earth to find it.


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