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Spelunking in Tennessee

Updated on July 7, 2015

My Introduction to Spelunking

I was introduced to spelunking when I was 11. I didn’t know what that word meant until years later. It’s just a fancy name for exploring caves. My dad was stationed at Sewart Air Force Base in Smyrna, TN which closed in 1971. Smyrna is about 12 miles south of Nashville and that’s where my brothers and I discovered our cave.

The cave was located several miles out back of our elementary school in some deep woods. Deep woods are a youngster’s delight because there’s always something to discover. There were rich deposits of fossilized pebbles, mostly plant stems and the like, but such things stir a young boy’s imagination and sense of adventure.

Stumbled Across by Accident

We stumbled across the cave by accident one weekend. At first we thought it was just a big hole someone had dug in the ground, but upon further investigation we saw there was a cave entrance at the bottom. This was something three adventurous young kids couldn’t resist. Tom, my older brother, was the dare devil of our group, so naturally he was the first to descend into the pit using an old tree trunk he had dragged to the hole and dropped into it. The hole was about 10 ft deep and twice as wide. I followed as did my younger brother Mike.

Mike had very bad eyesight being born legally blind, so I could never figure out why he always wanted to tag along with Tom and me on our little excursions. I suppose it was the same as me wanting to follow along after Tom.

Once we had all climbed down, we investigated the cave entrance. It was about 5 ft high and 15 ft wide, large enough for gaining entrance. We saw, once inside, someone could stand up but that’s about all we could discern without flashlights. So, there we sat wondering what we should do next. Tom, our fearless leader, immediately took charge and declared we would explore the cave the following day after packing needed supplies. We were excited about our planned adventure so we slept restlessly that night.

The following morning we awoke to a bright sunny day, although the temperature was still below freezing. However, we had dressed warmly for the trip. Our only problem now was getting out of the house without raising our parents’ suspicion. They would never have allowed us to do such a dangerous thing. But we managed to slip out with a minimum of questioning.

We had hidden all of our supplies out back of our house behind some bushes and we went to get them. Once away from the prying eyes of adult supervision we donned our gear. We looked like real explorers with our ropes, flashlights and backpacks. Mike, the electrical genius of our team, had taped large square flashlights to our baseball caps, just like the pros used…except we didn't have hard hats.

We received quizzical stares from passersby probably wondering what in the devil we were up to. But we weren’t about to tell. We also had been wondering if anyone else knew about the cave. We later found out they did. It was rumored the cave had been part of an underground railroad for escaped slaves. According to the stories, it ended up about 40 miles north. We never learned whether this was true or not.

A Similar Looking Cave

Arrived at Destination

We arrived at our destination and shimmied down the tree trunk. The lights on our caps were turned on and our adventure began. Fortunately, Tom had the foresight to bring a large ball of twine and tied one end at the entrance. And then we crawled in. Once inside we stood up and surveyed our surroundings. The sight wasn’t as spectacular as we had imagined it to be. There were a few small stalactites pointing down from the low ceiling but they weren’t multicolored like ones we had seen in school books. In fact the cave was quite dismal with slimy, muddy clay walls and floor.

However, we ventured on carefully watching our steps on the slippery bottom. We came to a fork branching off into two different directions. Without hesitation Tom took the right fork and we dutifully followed playing out our twine as we went. When we had gone about a ¼ mile our twine reached its’ limit and we were confronted with a large rock mound covered in wet clay. Along both sides of the mound were steep slopes which dropped off into untold depths. Tom dropped a rock to find out how deep it was. We heard the rock bouncing for what seemed like forever.

Tom and Mike didn’t seem the least bit concerned about the fathomless crevices, but I’m scared of heights. This was something I’d have to give a little consideration to. My brothers began a slow crawl across the obstacle, inching their way along. They crossed without incident. But, I was still on the other side pondering my next course of action. Tom coaxed me to come across. If Mike had done it, surely I could. NOT! Half way across, slipping and sliding the whole way, I determined this was not the most prudent course of action.

At that point my cap light went out. That cemented my decision to back up the way I had come. No way was I going to continue. Sliding off the rock, I reached in my back pack got a candle and lit it. Then, I began following the twine back while Tom and Mike taunted me with jeers of laughter. I awaited their return at the entrance while eating a couple of sandwiches we had prepared.

About an hour later they returned, with tales of their exploits. There had been an underground river about another ¼ mile further which they described in detail as being ice cold. The part of their story concerning the river I believed. But when it came to finding a skeleton with a pirate hat I became a bit skeptical. That, and Tom finding a civil war saber belonging to General Custer’s 7th Calvary I found hard to swallow. Tom said he left the saber because he couldn’t carry it back across the muddy rock.

Once all of the tall tales were done we proceeded to exit the cave and start home. But to our surprise a man with a camera appeared at the top of the hole. He was wearing an Air Force uniform. The Airman was with the base newspaper and doing an article on where people’s children were playing. He snapped off a few pictures and disappeared.

A few days later I discovered the new base paper in our mailbox. Fortunately, I found it before our parents did. Splashed across the front page was our photo with a huge headline which read “DO YOU KNOW WHERE YOUR CHILDREN PLAY?” We immediately canvassed our neighborhood confiscating every copy we could find and prayed our parents wouldn’t see one. We managed to squeak by without anyone discovering where we had been.

As I mentioned earlier I hadn’t heard the word spelunking before. I learned that word years later while in the Marines stationed at Okinawa, Japan. Coincidentally, I was one of those same kinds of people who took our picture at the cave so many years before…a reporter for the base newspaper.

My fellow Marines and I would sometimes congregate in our office and play cards during off hours. One day a few of my friends showed up wearing a lot of gear which vaguely resembled what my brothers and I had when we went exploring our cave. I asked where they were going and was informed they were going spelunking…exploring the islands’ caves.

They asked if I wanted to go along. But, all I heard was “Big muddy Rock”. I declined the offer.


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