Sometimes, it’s years before you know you have a phobia
It was January and the last two boys of Troop 313 made their way to the backseats of the old bus. I made a headcount. All eighteen boys were here, including Allan, my son. I was doing good; I hadn’t lost one of my boys in my 20 years of Scouting and I was about to mark another one off my bucket list…Sleeping in a cave.
Spivey was setting on the inside of the front seat, saving me a place. Spivey was the smallest and youngest boy in our troop and if they had, had a height requirement, I’m not sure Spivey would have made it, but Spivey turned out alright as most of my boys did, but to me he was special and went on to get his Eagle Rank.
Spivey was being raised by his mother as his father had a consultation with the Detroit Police Department and I doubted Spivey received the guidance he needed. I never did know the full story as his mother had closed out that part of her life.
I had forgotten to renew my DCL classification, which you need to drive a bus. So, the honor went to my neighbor Mr. Peppers, who drives for Trailways Bus Lines and is the father to the twins, Bobby and Tommie, who were sitting on the last seats in the bus. Mr. Peppers gets off the bus and makes a last-minute outside inspection then returns to the driver’s seat. A loud drawn-out noise erupts as Mr. Peppers sits down. He stands up and pulls the whoopee cushion out from under the towel he had placed on the seat earlier to dry up a spilled drink. The laughter lasts a minute, then dies down as his eyes search the boy's faces, then stops at the boys sitting on the last seats. He gives a salute, then smiles and hands the cushion to me. I place it in an overhead rack and we are off to Hidden Lake Caverns. I have been there before, but it had been a day trip, not an overnight trip, so I didn’t foresee any problems, other than the boys definitely would not come back as spick and span as they were decked out now.
It would be a three-hour drive from Nashville on past Cookeville. Now, I know someone out there is going to say, couldn’t you wait until summer. I guess we could have, but working with young boys and fitting it into family schedules, you take whatever adventure you can get in the wintertime and I didn’t have to worry about frostbite, mosquitoes and ticks inside the cave.
We had permission to camp all night in the cave and the boys were really hyped up about this as it is a new experience. This being before the age of handheld entertainment systems and Wi-Fi, I handed out pamphlets on caves and cave exploring. And I had brought along my squeezebox that I still didn’t know how to play, but it made a good deterrent if I threatened to play it.
The caverns have a long history going on past the Civil War, but most of the stories are centered around the prohibition years when moonshiners used the massive cave and later during the cold war it was designated as a shelter and stocked with tons of supplies, it’s underground lakes are fed by cold springs, which is home to blind trout weighing up to five pounds. Then there are stories of a lost Civil War regiment down there somewhere. I don’t know if the story will keep the boys from wandering off, but it’s worth a try. Still, I will implement a buddy system.
An hour later, we are instructed by the Highway Patrol to pull over to the side of the road. The officer can’t decide if it’s a dead cat or sock monkey, whose tail is caught in the rear door of the bus and is swinging back and forth. Mr. Peppers identifies the stuffed kitten as belonging to his daughter and movies Bobby and Tommie to the fount of the bus.
Without any more incidents, we arrive and make a base camp. We’re not allowed to have an open fire in the caverns. Everyone chows down and were off to exploring and getting cave muddy. Which is not your normal type of mud, it will take at least a second washing to get the doo-doo colored mud out of our clothes.
One thing about a cave, once you leave outside light, it is the blackest of blacks, even outer-space has some pinpoints of light, it can be spooky. Try touching your nose in a cave, you’d be surprised how many times you miss it. There is nothing darker and it will work on your mind in unsuspecting ways.
After counting heads again, we spread out drop cloths and sleeping bags in a large room off to the side of the main trail. The room has an old stale air smell to it. I surmise it’s because the room is off the trail and has no apparent exit for the air to follow. Finally, the last flashlight beam quits dancing across the damp ceiling and all seems at peace. Until, the first whoopie cushion reverberates its throaty song in the still blackness of the cave, followed by a nauseating smell, usually associated with your septic treatment plant. After Mr. Peppers confiscates a whoopie cushion and a can of fart smell from Bobby and Tommie, we fan the air with anything handy towards the only exit to the room.
At around nine, I check my watch as it becomes hard to gage time in here; Mr. Peppers is on the far end of the boys stretched out in their sleeping bags, some just laying on top of their sleeping bags as it is a constant 68 degrees F. in here and 24 degrees F. at the base camp.
So, I’m lying there battling the blackness in my mind, every time I close my eyes, I can feel the roof of the cave falling down, this goes on until 11 o’clock until Spivey turns on a flashlight and says, “Mr. Jones are you awake?”
“I’m awake Spivey; need to go to the bathroom?”
“No, I can’t sleep”
“Well, I can’t either, how about we get our gear and go back outside?”
“I can’t the rest of the boys will think I’m scared.”
“That’s alright Spivey, I’m scared too. If you don't tell on me, I won't tell on you.”
“They’ll still think it in the morning when we're not here.”
“I’ll think of something, get your gear.”
I grab up Spivey’s pack and put him in front of me as it’s a pretty steep climb back to the surface. Spivey has a lite shining out in front of him and I follow behind with a light, at times it’s hard to tell where Spivey is, as he is as black as the cave.
We make it back to our base tent and start a fire and heat some chocolate, get our sleeping bags rolled out and I find an elastic bandage in the first aid kit and put it on Spivey’s ankle.
“If anybody asks, you hurt your ankle and I took you out,” I say.
“Don’t worry Mr. Jones; I won’t tell anyone you can’t sleep in a Cave.”