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Tacoma, Washington, United States

Friday, June 24, 2016

Spelunking, Ozark Style

My father was quite correct.  It was not all that hard on us boys because it was simply our way of life.  We vaguely recalled the better days in Kansas City with some regret, but now things were the way they were and everyone was in the same boat.  Oh, we paged through the Sears Roebuck catalogue in the outhouse often enough looking at bicycles, air rifles, and stuff like that, but they were as far out of reach as the moon so we did our wishing (we always referred to the catalogue as “the wish book”) and went about our business.

Business we had plenty of, as I have mentioned before.  We made our own fun and we had the whole countryside in which to roam and explore looking for new territories and caves.

I recall one early spring Saturday when Richard and I went exploring not long after we moved into that little house south of Bona.  It was early enough in the year that we were still wearing our winter shoes—and wishing it was warm enough to shed them.  This particular day we were looking for the big cave spring that was the origin of Maze Creek.  We had heard that it went back into the hillside.  There was a story that some high school boys from Dadeville had gone back into the cave a half miles or more and did not find the end.  Since there were a lot of passages, the boys had strung binder twine as they went so they could find their way out.  They had to stop when they came to the end of the big ball of twine.

A mile or so east of the Bona-Dadeville road up Maze Creek, we found a large pool of water outside the cave.  There was quite an opening in the limestone cliff where the cold clear water came from underground.  It was perhaps four feet high and eight or ten across.  The water filled it from side to side however.  It was a cold day and we did not fancy going wading in the knew-deep water.

After dinking around a bit, I was ready to start home, but Richard demurred.  “No, dang it,” he said.  “I know there has to be a dry entrance around here somewhere.”

“How you know?”

“Well, that’s what I heard—keep looking around, dummy.”

On the north side of the pool we found a possibility.  There at the base of the bluff was a low arched opening in the grey limestone.  It was only a foot or so high in the middle and perhaps four feet wide.  Richard got a long willow branch and poked it back into the dark opening.

“Hey,” he exclaimed, “this has gotta be it.  Can’t feel anything back in there and it gets higher!  You got any matches on you?”

I fished three kitchen matches from the pencil pocket on the bib of my overalls.  Richard snatched them and said, “Con on—we can squeeze under there as easy as pie.”

Side by side, we wriggled under the rock on our bellies.  Sure enough, three or four feet back there was room to raise our heads.  Richard lit a match.  In the dim yellow light, we could see a cavern perhaps it barely showed in the weak light of the match.

Richard squirmed forward.  “Hey, wait a minute,” I said.  “We got no good light.  Besides, there may be animals in there!”

“Shee-it,” he retorted, ‘don’t be such a skeerdy cat.  If there was it would only be a possum or a skunk—be more scared of you than you of it!”

I prudently remained where I was.  Richard stood up as the match went out , then lit another on the seat of his overalls.  On the far side of the chamber there was a pile of fallen rock.  He moved forward to peer over it.

“Hey—this has gotta be it!  There is a passage back behind there!”

The match went out and Dick lit the third and last one.  “You’re right, though.  We need a good light—lantern and flashlight.  Maybe ought to bring the twenty-two in case of snakes and a ball of binder twine to unroll behind us.”

When the match went out, we scrunched our way back out the low opening and dusted off our clothes.

“Hot dog,” Richard said, “that is one dandy cave!  We’ll come back next Saturday!”

On the way home I thought about the snakes my brother had mentioned.  The Ozarks had plenty of snakes of various kinds—some harmless and some having quite deadly poison.  The poison ones were the water moccasins and cottonmouths along the rivers, the copperheads, and spread-heads (an Ozark version of a cobra) in the hills, and an occasional rattlesnake.

There were a lot of harmless snakes—the blue racer, the blacksnake, and the common carter snake that was so harmless that I used to sometime carry a small one in my pocket with which to scare the girls.  There were other garden snakes that I do not at the moment recall.

Come the following Saturday, after we had finished the morning chores, Richard was hot to trot to go explore that cave.  I, however, raised some practical questions.

“How we gonna get away from here with a lantern, flashlight, the twenty-two, and a ball of binder twine?  Dad isn’t home, but Mother is and she’d know what we were up to for sure.  You think she’s gonna let us go explore an old cave?  Nosirree—she gonna put her foot down for sure!”

He sat on the edge of a barn manger, swinging his legs and chewing on a wheat straw while his blue eyes gazed calculatingly into the distance.  Finally, he spat out the straw.

“Tell you what,” he said as he slid from his perch, “the flashlight is in the bedroom and the twenty-two is leaning by the kitchen door.  Coal oil lantern is in the smokehouse so that’s no problem. 

“We’ll go up to the house.  When we get in the kitchen, I’ll get Mother’s attention and you just set the rifle out on the back porch while her back is turned.  We’ll ask if we can go off in the woods.  She won’t have any reason to turn us down that I know of.

“When she says it’s all right, I’ll go and pick up the rifle on the way—she won’t care about that anyway.  Got some shells in my pocket.  Meanwhile, you say you left your knife in the bedroom.  I’ll cut around the house and you hand the flashlight out the window.  She won’t see me on that side and I can go by the barn and pick up a ball of binder twine.

“After you give me the flashlight, go out to the smokehouse, put the lantern in a gunny sack, then you can go out the back window away from the house.  Cut across the kaffier corn patch and meet me in Dead Dog Hollow.  Come on!”

I could not see any flaw offhand in Richard’s plan right off so I did not object.  I just went along with it, wondering when and if I was going to get the dirty end of the stick again.

My fears were groundless this time.  It worked just fine.  When we got to the kitchen, we announced that the chores were all done.  Richard had even taken an extra armload of cookstove wood in with him.  When we asked if we could go to the woods, Mother just said, “Oh, I don’t see why not.  Just be home in time for the evening chores.”

Richard, meanwhile, was messing around the kitchen counter while I edged over to the little rifle by the door.  He hit the dishpan and a little soapy water splashed out on the floor.

“No look what you’ve done,” Mother scolded.  “I swear you boys are as clumsy as a bull in a china store—get me the mop!”

While that was going on, I quietly eased open the screen door and set the rifle onto the porch.  Richard got the mop then picked up the little rifle as he went out.  I called out, “Wait a minute—I got to get my knife!”

He was under the window when I got to the bedroom.  I handed hi the three-cell flashlight, then went through the kitchen and out to the smokehouse.  I made sure the lantern had kerosene in it, found a gunny sack, lowered it out the rear window, and hopped out.

Keeping low, with the smokehouse between me and the kitchen, I went through the kaffir corn patch and a grove of small persimmon trees to the little hollow beyond.  We called it “Dead Dog Hollow” because one time our Aunt Alice had a little dog that turned to sucking eggs.  No one can abide an egg-sucking dog so my father took the dog out in the woods and shot it.  He buried the dog there in the hollow in a little dirt cave that Dick and I had dug.

Richard was there, a ball of binder twine bulging the bib of his over alls.  We put everything except the rifle into the gunny sack with the lantern then kept to the woods past the woodlot and over the next hill until we were out of sight of the house.

When we arrived at the cave, Richard took the flashlight and the rifle.  I lighted the lantern and slid it ahead of me through the low opening.  Richard had already gone in and was shining the flashlight around the cavern.

It was, indeed, a dandy cave.  There were a couple of shiny small stalactites on one wall and there was a dark low opening beside the rock fall.  We tried it but it did not go anywhere so we tied the end of the binder twine to a rock and started climbing over the rock fall toward a larger opening.

It looked very promising.  Beyond the pile of rocks there was the opening of a tunnel about four feet high and with a nice dry dirt floor.  Short of it, however, we froze because there was a sudden bussing sound in the silence of the cave.  The hairs on the nape of my neck prickled and I said, “Whut wuz that?!”

Old Richard did not linger.  He hissed “Rattlesnake!” and knocked me over as he scrambled back across the rocks toward the entrance.  I dropped the lantern, retrieved it, and was close on his heels.  In the dim light we did not take time to try to spot where the snake might be.  We literally threw the rifle, flashlight, and lantern through the low opening and dived through there like grease through a goose.

After we got our breath, we agree that we would wait until summer to explore that old cave after the snakes were out of their winter hibernation.

We sort of ran the plan in reverse to get the stuff back in place at home.  The glass globe of the lantern got cracked either when I dropped it when the snake rattled or else when I slung it out of the cave ahead of me.  We had a few cents of rabbit money so we replaced it before Dad needed to use the lantern.  I think the globe only cost us twelve cents at Grandpa’s store.

Richard and I never got around to another try at that cave but I did get into it one more time.  A few weeks or months later, and I do not remember the details clearly, there was a bunch of us up there one afternoon.  Leslie Beck was there and some others that included Claude and Billy Todd.
I do not recall why we were there, nor do I recall why I happened to have a torch in the back pocket of my overalls.  The torch was made out of a baking powder can and a hole punched in the top.  I had used a strip of gunny sack for a wick and had filled the can with coal oil.  Probably had been using it to heat a piece of baling wire to make a stem of a corncob pipe.
Anyway, we were there (I can’t remember if Richard was with us) and someone proposed that we go into the cave.  Leslie, who was the oldest, said he would lead the way.  We scrunched through the narrow entrance and then lit my kerosene torch which was the only light we had.  Leslie took the torch and lead the way with three or four of us younger boys following close behind.  It was a very satisfying adventure at first.
We went over the rock pile and along the tunnel beyond.  There were a couple of side tunnels so I used a piece of rock to scratch markers on the mail tunnel since we had not found the roll of binder twine that Richard and I had left in there before.
The tunnel intersected the stream of water somewhere along the line but we could wade across and there was dry dirt on the far side.  Unfortunately, the second time we crossed the underground stream, Leslie tripped and fell into the water—torch and all!  All of a sudden we were plunged into stygian blackness deep in that cave.
No one panicked.  Leslie fished the torch out of the water and we spent several minutes wringing out the wick and trying to get it re-lit.  We had several matches between us.
It was to no avail.  On the second to last match the wick caught for a moment, but it quickly died into nothing but a red ember.  The blackness of the cave was almost suffocating.  I was starting to feel more than a little apprehensive and I’m sure some of the other were also.
Billy Todd said in a low voice, “You reckon we can find our way back?”
Leslie, as the leader, rose to the occasion.  “Sure we can.  We just feel our way back the way we came.”
That did not work.  Twice we came to where there was more than one tunnel branching off and, in the total darkness, we could not find the scratches I had made on the way in.  We were definitely lost.
The second time we came to a passage with water in it someone, maybe crazy Leslie, had an idea.  “The water comes out of the cave—let’s just follow it.”
There was a distinct current so the idea worked fine.  We got wet because in places the roof of the tunnel came down and we had to crawl under with water up to our chins, but after a couple of turns we could see daylight ahead and we came wading out into the sunlight.  I heaved a sigh of relief and had no further desire to explore that particular cave any further.