Topic: "Limestone Cowboys" (3)
Frodo is no geologist, but he has long known that the Appalachian Mountain chain is the oldest on the small blue planet. The probaly result of continental collisions which threw the sea bottom skyward, there is a significant amount of limestone ranging from what is now Maine, all the way down to Georgia. Where there is limestone, there are caves; water, over time, works its' way through and around limestone. When he was a halfling, Frodo often convinced Bilbo to take him to caverns named Shenandoah, Luray, and Endless, all in Virginia. The stalagtites (from the roof) and the stalagmites (from the floor) amidst pools and falls of water were cooling even during the hottest of summer days.
Frodo met Harvey Cupp at the College of the Shire. Harvey was a true farm-boy, while Frodo was a product of a much larger scenario. Frodo is unable to recall why they started to talk about caves, but it was clear to Frodo that Harvey knew a great deal about "spelunking," and Frodo was at the age where everything deserved at least one effort. Harvey somehow found out about a cave that was visible from the river that ran its course near the College of the Shire. He convinced Frodo that they should gather necessary equipment together, and strike out in search of the cave.
Amid Frodo's Rambler Station Wagon (aka, a motorcar), Harvey had packed ropes, headgear, several tubes of what appeared to be rocks, a funny looking headlamp, and about 10 flashlights. Harvey explained that the headlamp was a carbide lantern, which he would wear, and that it would remain lit throughout their entry into the underworld. Harvey told Frodo that he would be handling the flashlights, since they were very susceptible to the moisture in the cave, and would burn themselves out one-after-the-other. Frodo felt all that sounded reasonable, and the two struck out in the direction given.
Within a half-hour Harvey pointed to what he called a "sinkhole" on the far shore of the river. Conveniently, a bridge stood nearby and the would-be denizens of the deep pulled the motorcar within a hundred yards or so of the cave entrance. After properly outfitting themselves, Frodo and Harvey entered the world beneath the surface.
There were numbers and arrows spray-painted at various points within. Harvey explained that these were markings indicating that the cave had been mapped. Despite Frodo's excitement, it meant that they were not the first two upright creatures to ever enter.
After twenty minutes or so, Frodo was on his third flashlight. Harvey's carbide lamp was a beacon in the darkness, showing the way as the path led further downward, over boulders, requiring slow and skillful dexterity. It was not a cavern with the artistic beauty of the Luray, but it was dark, cool, and inviting to the imagination.
Harvey was muscular, with a grin that never stopped. His dark hair was cut short, and Frodo thought he would probably someday be a very good unit commander in the jungles of Southeast Asia. Frodo felt totally confident in Harvey's leadership.
After several hours, Frodo's final flashlight was surrendering its' battery life, and the cavers entered a large chamber, where fresh air flowed from above. Suddenly, a gust of wind struck directly at Harvey's face, and the carbide lamp was extinguished. Frodo's final flashlight took that exact second to succumb. The initial shock of total darkness was supplemented by a silence so deep that, even now, Frodo cannot put into words exactly how quiet it was. He called to Harvey, who was only a few feet away, and Frodo's call was more a whimper than an interrogatory. Frodo was clearly afraid, and started to panic.
Harvey took control, and calmed Frodo with authority in his voice. He assured Frodo that he was re-lighting the carbide lamp, and that all would be well. "Above all else," he said to Frodo, "do not move. Don't do or say anything until I tell you. Just listen, just remember how quiet, how peaceful, how deep this moment is." Frodo stopped, drew a breath, and began to pay attention to the darkness. Never before, and never since, have things ever been so quiet in Frodo's life.
True to his word Harvey re-lit the lamp, and the happy companions then proceeded to follow the geographic markings out of the chamber and back toward the surface. Less than thirty minutes later they stood beside the motorcar.
It was the Spring of the year, and classes soon ended at the College of the Shire, with no further opportunity for the two to try another expedition. They shook hands, new-found friends, and Frodo promised to have his own equipment the next year, and they would find several occasions to explore the land beneath the limestone.
The following Autumn brought Frodo back to the College of the Shire with his own ropes, helmet, and a carbide lamp. He learned that Harvey Cupp had been driving the tractor on his father's farm, and it had turned over when it struck a small sinkhole, trapping and crushing his friend.
Frodo sold the stuff. He has never gone deep into another cave. He remembers the silence, just like Harvey taught him. He just can't describe it.