Photo by Jen Siska

[MakeShift was a column and competition, by MacGyver creator Lee Zlotoff, that ran in Make: magazine for its first five years. This challenge appeared in Make: Volume 19, 2009. Read past installments of MakeShift here.]

The Scenario

You belong to an amateur but dedicated group of “urban archaeologists” who have made it their mission to document the vanishing details of your city’s history. You notice while driving home late one afternoon that a classic building your group has often admired is now fenced off and slated for demolition. You decide that a quick in and out, a few notes, and some photographs will serve your mission well.

Parking out of sight, you ignore the “No Trespassing” signs, load your minimal gear in your coat pockets, and easily scale the fence to gain access to the building. Guided by your small but powerful LED flashlight, you wend your way up the creaky wooden staircases, snapping pictures all the while with a compact digital camera.

The Challenge

As you cross one of the upper stories, you suddenly crash through some floorboards and find yourself wedged in the hole tight, up to your armpits. What’s more, the drop has forced the splintered edges of the broken floorboards downward along your body. So even though your arms and shoulders seem OK, if you try and lift yourself out, the boards act like a giant, wicked Chinese finger puzzle and just dig in deeper, wedging you in even tighter.

You don’t know how far the drop is below you, and the hole is so tight that it’s doubtful you could get your shoulders through it anyway. Hanging there all night in hopes that the wrecking crew might find you in the morning might be an option except that the massive rats could probably put a serious dent in you by then. So, intrepid archaeologist that you are, how are you going to get yourself out of this one?

What You’ve Got

You have a flashlight and camera, both of which are within reach. You’ve also got a working cellphone and a Swiss Army knife (or Leatherman tool) except both of those are in your coat pockets, which are below the hole. And, is it just your imagination, or is that rat in the corner actually smiling at you?

Analysis and Commentary

In keeping with our somewhat devilish and devious mind — and your relentless curiosity and daring — we’ve once again landed you in what Oliver Hardy always sneeringly referred to as “another fine mess.” Namely, stuck up to your armpits in a nasty hole, in a once-impressive but now equally nasty building, surrounded by, nastiest of all, a horde of the genus Rattus. And it’s getting dark. And you can’t reach your cellphone. And yes, we’ve tried seeking therapy for constantly thinking up these situations, but the guy in the tweedy sweater just kept saying “Tell me more,” which wasn’t helping.

So what did all you intrepid interlopers come up with as the best way to deal with the predicament? Suffice it to say there was much wriggling involved, which we had hoped would happen. Though some of that wriggling was with the terms of the problem as presented. Maybe you could force a hand down along your body to reach that phone in your pocket, or your Leatherman, or something else to tear or cut away the broken boards that had you pinned there. We understand; you’re in a really tight spot so perhaps your best shot is to push against the limits of the problem itself. Sorry, no can do. However accurate, plausible, or delusional, the challenge might be, tiptoeing around its limits gets us nowhere and earns you no points at all. According to tweedy sweater, “We must deal with reality as we find it.” I was never a big fan of that philosophy, but in this case, he’s right.

Fortunately, the vast majority of you did just that; with a host of intriguing approaches. To deal with the rats, many of you suggested flashing the camera at regular intervals or waving the flashlight around to keep them at bay. All good ideas, though that would both tie up your hands, as it were, and possibly deplete your batteries which you might need to find your way out, assuming you managed to extract yourself from the hole. Frankly, we thought perhaps the best approach for the rats was simply to, well … start singing. Say something peppy and boisterous from a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, or better yet, the entire soundtrack to Cats. Rodents are, for obvious reasons, acutely sensitive to sound, and regardless of your vocal stylings, would undoubtedly keep their distance so long as the room is alive with the sound of music. This not only leaves your hands free to assist you and saves your batteries, but can only help to improve your mood.

The next popular approach was to somehow try and signal or call for help; again using the flash of the camera or waving around the flashlight, if not attaching it to something string-like and hurling it out the window. Once again, these aren’t bad ideas at all, but we felt they were long shots at best. It’s possible someone would see the light, so to speak, and contact the authorities. But to assume that your lights would be seen and the person who noticed them would then be sufficiently motivated to either investigate or call the cops seemed like a stretch to us and, as before, might use up both your energy and the batteries’, and leave you in the same situation or worse.

This of course still leaves you with finding a way to get yourself out of the hole. Many of you thought the best approach was to kick off a shoe and let it fall to get some sense of the drop beneath you. And then, assuming the distance below you wasn’t too bad, apply yourself to somehow expanding the hole enough that you could drop through. We can see the attraction here. It is a way out, after all, yet we really felt the risks of this far outweighed the possible benefits. Even if the drop below was, say, only 8 to 10 feet, you’d still have no idea what you might be landing on: broken glass, upturned nails, or an equally weak floor that could have you crashing through yet more boards and falling a distance that might leave you severely damaged. Really not a good option.

One entrant suggested forcing your way down through the hole and hanging on with one hand while you scoped out the situation below with your flashlight. Hmmm… Unless you happen to be a gymnast, or a movie star who can do such things on a regular basis, this is not something we could recommend. Add the fact that the wood around the hole was or is now highly compromised, and this feels especially far-fetched. What’s more, being wedged in up to your armpits really limits just what you can successfully do to work on or expand the hole itself.

And it’s at this point that those of you with the simple but deliciously clever approaches stood out and shone. If you recall, the challenge said because of the splintered wood and the size of the hole, you couldn’t really go up or down. But we never said that you couldn’t go around! And, if you also recall, you’re wearing a coat. So, as a few of you managed to arrive at, in part at least, you could work your arms out of the coat (in time to your singing no doubt), and with the coat now serving as a kind of gasket, rotate yourself around in the opening and slowly but surely unscrew yourself from the hole! The splintered wood will either dig into the coat or break off, but either way should not be able to impede your ability to twist back and forth or around enough to ultimately wriggle up and extricate yourself. At which point your flashlight can either help you find a safe way back out of the building or at least get you to your phone so you can call for assistance. And, if the rats have any decency, they should rise en masse and applaud your performance on all its levels before beating a hasty retreat.

A maddeningly straightforward solution, no? Which is why tweedy sweater thought we still needed years of intensive therapy, and why we left. But then we still have all of your amazingly creative and inventive advice to help us through our worst nightmares, so all in all, a workable state of affairs. Thanks again as always to everyone who tried to wrap their brains around this particular cipher, and congrats to those of you so deftly managed to outwit this “Chinese” puzzle. We look forward to seeing what you all can make of the next one! (But alas, our time is up for this session … see you next week?)

Winners

The winners of the MakeShift Volume 20 are:

MakeShift Master — Most Plausible: Jordan Mocaby
MakeShift Master — Most Creative: Isaac Hathaway
Honorable Mention — Joey Novak (for his very entertaining multi-cell comic)
Honorable Mention — Jack Webb (for a truly imaginative approach to the problem)