The police lined us up in the pitch black tunnel. Their headlamps flicked around as they gave their orders in French. We were getting searched.
They went up the line searching my friends. First they were patted down, and then their bags were sifted through. Nothing to worry about, as they had nothing to hide.
I was next. I did have something to worry about. Inside my bag, right near the top, were human bones.
An hour earlier, six hours into our exploration of the closed off section of the Paris catacombs, we were lost. Not lost in the sense that we couldn’t find our way out, but rather we couldn’t find the main attraction of the catacombs.
Our guide, a twenty something urban explorer that we’d found on the internet, had forgotten his map of the catacombs. Luckily for us his sense of direction was the polar opposite of mine. He guided us through giant cellars, a German bunker, knee high water, and the site of an infamous underground party in the sixties.
It was all incredible, but we wanted to see the bones. Underneath the cemeteries of Paris there are piles and piles of human bones.
“This is the good way!” he called out.
Finally he had found it. We had given up once and were right near the exit, but a sudden stroke of inspiration had reminded him where the bones might be.
Sure enough, he was right. Near the entrance I took care to make sure not to step on the bones. A few feet later that was impossible.
With every step I cracked some poor Frenchman’s femur or tibia. It was an incredible site – piles and piles of mud-covered human bones, forgotten under the streets of Paris.
I remembered a movie I had seen a while back where the supervillain had cuff links made from human bone. It seemed so sinister.
With so many bones just piled in mounds, would it be so bad if I took one for myself?
Now totally over the grossness of touching bones, I started digging through the piles trying to find a small one. I wanted a finger, but our guide told us that those had already been taken, along with the skulls.
I finally settled on what looked like the tip of a rib. Then I thought of how my friends might want one and I picked out a vertebrae, another rib chunk, and the ball half of a small ball and socket joint.
I put them in a zip lock bag and shoved the bag on top of my jacket in my backpack.
No one else wanted human bones. Was I weird? It seemed like something that everyone would want to have as a novelty.
We left, but our plans were thwarted.
“The workers have put bricks on the manhole. If I open it they might fall on us. We have to go out the same way we came.”
Near the end of our several-kilometer scramble back to the entrance a fellow explorer passed us as we waded through ten inch deep water.
“Bonjour,” I said, trying to practice a bit of French.
“That’s the police,” said our guide, “I’ve never been caught before.”
We were getting arrested and the officer was passing us to make sure we didn’t dart back into the tunnels. These were the special catacomb police.
One officer in back and one in front, they escorted us to the surface.
I had my chance to ditch the bones. The officers were focused on searching other people, and I could have easily tossed them amongst the gravel that we were sitting on.
But when would I ever have a chance to get human bones again? So far it’s taken me 27 years to get the opportunity.
Maybe I can hide them, I thought.
I was already fairly sure that if they saw the bones I would go to jail. But what if they caught me trying to conceal the bones? That could be very bad.
Hey, at least it will make a good story.
When my turn came, I was scared. Really scared. My hands shook as I unzipped my bag. My friends looked over at me as if to ask if I still had the bones.
I had no plan.
My hat lay over most of the bag of bones, with just a corner sticking out. I’d better start removing stuff before he does.
With my left hand I stuffed the 12″x’12” bag under the hat, and simultaneously lifted it out.
“Just a hat,” I said, concealing the zip lock bag.
I quickly moved to the next item.
“My jacket. A water bottle. My camera.”
I held the bag open and showed him the inside while still clutching the hat and bag of bones. He groped around for contraband.
“Okay?” I asked
Thank god. I tried to start breathing normally.
Normally when the catacomb police catch you, you get a ticket. But we were Americans, with no incentive to pay the ticket.
“They want to take you to the station. They don’t catch a lot of Americans.”
The station? Fooling one officer is one thing, but a real search at the station would reveal my treasure.
They started marching us down the train tracks to the police van. One cop was in front of us and a few were in the rear. Todd was speaking in French to the one in the back, trying to build up some rapport.
I needed to move these bones.
I slowed down to distance myself from the front officer and casually unzipped my jacket pocket and took my jacket off, holding on to the open pocket.
I moved my backpack to the front of my body and unzipped it. I put my hat on, revealing the bag of bones. I reached into the bag and grabbed them, stuffed them in the jacket pocket, and then stuffed the jacket into the backpack. At least they weren’t glaringly obvious now.
I thought about stuffing them down my pants, but realized that I wasn’t comfortable enough yet with my filthy human vertebra for that kind of a move.
They had taken Todd’s video camera, so I popped my memory card out of my camera just in case. I slid my hand into my pocket and stuffed the card into my wallet.
When we reached the street they sat us down on the sidewalk.
They took their time discussing what to do and writing tickets for the French people. Behind us was a stone wall separating us from a ravine. I could throw the bones down there and get away scot free.
But it just didn’t seem right. I had come so far and doing that would ruin my story, not to mention leave me boneless. So instead I waited.
Finally they gave us a lecture, which was lost to me since it was in French, and told us we could go. No station? I don’t know if I’ve ever felt that relieved in my life.
We stayed around for a moment to thank them, which was just enough time for the police paddy wagon to arrive. An officer jumped out and barked something in French.
“He says not to go anywhere,” our French guide said.
So close. We are going to French jail. They are going to find my bones.
The new officers huddled with the old ones, discussing our fate.
“What timing,” we whispered.
“Okay, you can go.”
Maybe Todd’s being friendly with one of the cops saved us. Maybe they just didn’t want to deal with us. We walked off quickly, not feeling safe until we were in the car and moving.
And that’s how I smuggled human bones past a police search.