A true story about a dancing elephant, a cave and a dark legend
|BRAVE BILLY JOHNSON
Miss Fancy (the dancing elephant), Sam Dooley, and Billy Johnson; what did they have in common? The answer lies beneath an umber-colored mountain on Birmingham's east side.
Several deep valleys slice into the southern slope of that mountain. We eastside kids believed that one of those valleys harbored dark secrets from a bygone era. We called it Death Valley.
Avondale Park is a long way from Death Valley, maybe five miles. The park's main attraction back in the early 1920s was Miss Fancy, an elephant who would dance on Sunday afternoons to John Philip Sousa marches played by a uniformed
band. When Miss Fancy wasn’t dancing, she lounged around in the cool confines of a large, spacious cave located behind the park’s baseball field.
The legend of Death Valley went something like this: In the late 19th Century, Sam Dooley worked as an iron-ore miner in one of the caves which honeycombed the south side of the mountain. One day after hours of digging ore out of the damp, cold walls of the cave, Sam decided to join his friends outside for a rest break.
The beacon of his oil-burning head lamp cast ominous shadows on dripping walls as he made his way upwards along cramped, twisting passageways toward the sunlight. Sam suddenly heard a faint, eerie cry echoing up from the bowels of the cave, "Woe unto them who dig herein... Woe, woe, ohhh." Terrified, Sam ran and stumbled his way up toward the cave entrance.
Sam's story met with ridicule and jeers by his friends. But Sam heard what he heard and refused to return to the cave when the foreman called an end to the break. Intuition told him that something bad was going to happen. Sam watched sadly as his friends trudged single file back into the enveloping gloom.
The miners were never heard from again. But Sam Dooley lived to pass on the story.
Kids from my neighborhood used to have contests to see who could go deepest into Sam Dooley’s cave. The farthest I ever got was about 25 yards. I’d keep listening for other-world voices and thinking about the tons of rock over my head. Then, imagination would get the best of me and I’d bolt back to the sunlight, just like old Sam Dooley.
But 13-year old Billy Johnson was a whole 'nother story. A braver kid was never born.
One Saturday morning, Billy set out to determine just how far the largest of the caves went. His plan was to use rolls of kite string to guide him through the maze of switchbacks and false turns.
After tying the tag end of one roll onto a tree at the entrance, Billy began an epic, day-long journey crawling deeper and deeper into the mountain through tiny, claustrophobic passageways and rock chambers.
Late in the afternoon, his kite string finally ran out. With raw knees, an empty canteen and a dimmed flashlight, Billy decided that he’d better turn back. Suddenly, he saw a pinprick of light far down the tunnel.
As he inched forward toward the light, he began to hear cheering and what sounded like the laughter of children. Then, he heard sounds of leather slapping and bats cracking. “No, it’s impossible; it couldn’t be,” he said to himself.
Dirty and exhausted, Brave Billy Johnson stumbled out of Miss Fancy's cave in Avondale Park just in time to sit in the bleachers for the second game of a twilight double header.