Like every other kid, I thought my dad could fix any problem, had vast knowledge, and was braver than Superman. In my mind, Dad could do anything. He also handled all the scary things around the house (though he did occasionally coax me to do a scary thing). If I was in a scary situation though, I always wanted him nearby because his mere presence lessened the fear.
One set of grandparents (my mom’s parents) lived in Bridgeport, Alabama. The get to their house from Clarksville, Tennessee, you head toward Chattanooga. I associate trips to Bridgeport with barns and billboards emblazoned with “See Rock City,” advertisements for Ruby Falls, and excitedly searching for small waterfalls on the way up Monteagle. I always got to see the waterfalls, but we rarely visited wither Rock City or Ruby Falls, regardless of how much my brother and I begged.
Every now and then though, we begged just right and Dad relented. I honestly don’t remember ever seeing Rock City as a child, though I’m sure I did (it’s possible that either the large swinging bridge or very weird bit with all the gnomes traumatized me and forced memory loss). I do however, remember at least one visit to Ruby Falls.
Ruby Falls is a spectacular waterfall inside Lookout Mountain. It’s 145 feet tall, but over 1,000 feet below the surface. I love both caves and waterfalls, so of course the Ruby Falls fascinated me and my one childhood memory of it is (mostly) clear. I don’t know if my mom and brother just didn’t go into the cave with us or if we were the only ones that trip, but I only remember touring the cave with Dad.
We endured the elevator down and I struggled to take everything in once the doors opened. My eyes skittered over glittering quartz and wondrous formations. We made our way through “Fat Man’s Squueze” (and why does every commercial cave have some variation of this?) was, of course, no problem for a small child. I laughed when the guide pointed out the formation he referred to as “the north end of a southbound donkey.” Or maybe it was the “north end of a southbound donkey.” At any rate, the rock looked like a donkey’s rear. I rolled my eyes when the guide explained the difference between stalactites and stalagmites (as if not everyone already knew that). I occasionally looked up at Dad to see if he was as interested as I (he wasn’t), but didn’t need to hold on to him. I felt fairly safe in the electric light and cool air.
The problem came as we neared the actual falls. Since the falls are the climax of the tour, they try to make it special (as if water cascading like a faucet from 145 feet above you 1,120 feet underground isn’t special enough). They also want to set up a “reveal” so visitors get a rush of the senses. Apparently, the best way to do this is to conceal the falls until you are properly situated. Obviously, a curtain or some such obstruction would be quite impractical, so they go with a simpler alternative. They turn off all the lights.
If you’ve ever been in a cave, you know they are dark. Not just, “oh, I might stub my toe” dark, but “wow, there is absolutely no light here whatsoever” dark. So dark you can’t tell if your eyes are closed or open. I did not like the dark.
Our guide instructed us to feel our way around the railing. In the dark. I was shorter than the railing and convinced it would not stop me from plunging in the frigid water I could clearly sense even though I couldn’t see it. The only sound was of shuffling feet and roaring water. My feet weren’t shuffling with everyone else’s though. I was terrified and close to panic.
I felt overwhelmed, too afraid to move, and started crying. I had no idea why I wanted to see Ruby Falls, but I knew I wanted out. Then, in the darkness, I felt a strong, firm hand wrap around mine. Dad tightly gripped my hand, gently pulled, and I found the strength to take a step. He said nothing as he guided me, but my tears quickly ceased and I was calm.
In a moment, the lights came back on. I gasped. The falls truly are breathtaking (if you ignore the cheesy lighting and even cheesier music – which they still use). The magnificent cascade thundered down into a pool of impossibly clear water. The path wound behind the falls and we saw it from every angle. I was completely captivated.
Actually viewing the falls is my second favorite memory from that day. My favorite came from before when I stood scared in the dark. The moment I felt my father’s hand and, without a word, he removed my fear. Dad held my hand. As long as he did, I knew I was safe and fear simply could not even exist.
Note: If you really like this one, you can own it and a few others in Things My Dad Taught Me.
Do you remember your trip to Mammoth Cave when you were 5?
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