I've heard that the Ozarks were once as tall as the Rockies and that they've since withered to their sad state through countless millennia of erosion. It's hard to believe these hills ever were that tall, but I can vouch for the erosion. The land here is rocky, mostly limestone, covered with tick-infested brush and deciduous trees, covering a hidden but vast world of caves, caverns and sink holes. A road project here in Branson has been on hold now for some time, because every time they tried to cut into the cliff to make the new road, a sink hole would open and destroy the work.
Of course I've always been interested in caverns, but my dream has always been to find a cavern no one else knows about. Spiral staircases and manmade walkways and memorized tours are fun, but a secret underground world of my own would be fantastic!
We weren't long in the Ozarks before this dream came pretty close, although it would be shared with a few. A co-worker, Brent, told me about a cave near his place that no one else knows about, and that, because of the narrow entrance, no one has gone into it. I was fascinated, and as soon as possible, went over to Brent's place and he and I hiked to the cave. All I could see was a hole going into the ground, large enough to crawl into at the top, but narrowing at the bottom, blocked by a big rock. Beyond the rock, the flashlight revealed that the space continued. Brent told me that he had tried to pry that big rock loose, but dropped his crowbar and heard it falling down into the earth. "It's still down there, somewhere," he said.
The two of us rammed at that rock with what tools we had, but couldn't get through. We thought of one of us going down head-first, with a rope around his ankle, to tinker at close range with the obstacles, but the claustrophobic idea was not long-lived. Finally we gave up, for that day, planning to rent a jack-hammer to break through that rock; and Brent took me over a few yards to a rock wall where there was a wide crack, but not wide enough, and he said that this was another impassable entrance to the same cave. If you yelled into the crack, your voice could be heard in the other hole, and vice-versa. We left frustrated and all the more anxious to get down there.
Not long after that, I returned to the place with three of our children--Sam, 11, Andy, 8, and Glory, 5. We brought rope, flashlights, etc., with the hope that at least one of the kids could fit through the hole. This was not wise, for the Ozarks are also littered with copperheads and rattlesnakes and various dangers, and who knows where a snakes' nest might be? We fiddled with the claustrophobia hole for a time, but no one had the nerve to try slithering past the obstructing rock. Then we went to examine the crack in the wall. It was too narrow for either Sam or Glory, but Andy was, at the time, small and skinny. He played with the opening a bit, then told us he thought he could fit through. I tied the long rope around his waist, gave him a flashlight, and we stood there amazed as my youngest son squeezed into the earth and disappeared.
I kept any slack out of the rope as I fed more and more of it into the ground. It was a panicky feeling for me, and I regretted the whole idea. If anything were to happen to Andy, if he were to get stuck, or in any kind of trouble, what could I do? That rope held in my grip was all I had of my son. And then it happened. The rope suddenly pulled hard, and a couple feet slid through my hands before I grabbed hard and held it. Then from deep in the earth, we could hear Andy's voice shouting, "I fell!"
"Are you all right?!"
"Yeah! Give me some rope!" And I let him down into a large underground chamber that he later said was big as a garage. He also said that there were cracks there at the edge, indicating that the cave went down further. But what thrilled me was when I heard his faint holler, "I found a crowbar!"
Not only did that kid scale a stone wall on his way back up, alone in the darkness of the earth, but he did it carrying a flashlight and a large crowbar. We were excited to see the tools poke out of the crack in the wall, and then to see Andy's face. But for some reason, squeezing in through the crack was easier than squeezing out, and at one point he got stuck between the rocks and became frightened enough to shed some quiet tears. He then turned and tried a different approach and managed to slither out.
Andy is the only human being ever to have entered this cave, to have ever rested deep in the earth in that room as big as a garage. (Now, eleven years later, Andy just went skydiving for the first time, free-falling from 14,000 feet. He had never been in an airplane before, and still has yet to land in one. You might say that this adventure, falling freely through immense space, was the opposite of his adventure when he was eight-years-old.)
I will never forget the look in Brent's eyes when, at the time clock that next morning at work, I handed him his now rusty crowbar.
For the complete contents of the Butter Rum Cartoon, click here.