By Donald F. Blanford © 1986
Issue: July, 1986
You can't miss Cudjo's Cave. It's right in the middle of Cumberland Gap on Highway 25E. A sign on the side of the mountain marks the entrance, and a souvenir stand and snack bar are perched on a cliff across the road. At first glance, it looks like one of those seedy, roadside tourist traps which used to dot the highways before the intestates were completed. I was surprised to discover that the whole thing is run by Lincoln Memorial University.
I was heading to the university to do some research for my doctoral thesis. The library at L.M.U. had most of the source material I needed on the Lincoln Douglas debates, and I really liked the idea of getting away from Chicago for the summer. The school is in Harrogate, which is just across the Tennessee line and over the mountain from Middlesboro, Kentucky. Those two states and Virginia all come together right at Cumberland Gap.
I hadn't realized how hot the summers were in this part of the country, and after taking a side trip through the national park area, I decided to pull in at the stand by Cudjo's for a cold drink. Actually, I never intended to go in the cave at all, but the air conditioning on my ancient Plymouth was broken as usual - and the thought of that cool air in the cave was enticing.
The tour surprised me. The cave boasted a number of fascinating mineral formations as well as several large rooms. The young guide, who was a student at L.M.U., entertained us with stories about the parties and fancy balls that had been held in those caverns in the past, and he recounted the legend of an escaped slave who had been murdered there. The lighting was primitive the guide used a flashlight to point out some of the features the stairs were made of simple wooden timbers, and the paths were unpaved, but the effect was to make the whole tour seem a lot more adventuresome than in some of the more famous caves I'd seen before. I was glad that I'd stopped.
Well, to shorten the story that was one of the summers of the big cutbacks in education money. About a week after I arrived in Harrogate, the mailman delivered a letter from the University of Chicago. It regretfully explained that one of my grants had been canceled. The check I had been looking for was not coming at all, and the rent on my room was due at the end of the week.
I needed to find a summer job in a hurry, but so did a lot of other grad students. There just was nothing to be found. As soon as I spotted the notice seeking students to work part time at Cudjo's Cave, I slipped the flier into my pocket and ran to the nearest phone.
After I had tagged along about a half dozen times while Jess gave the tour, I felt I had the route and the patter down pretty well. I had also memorized a long list of cave facts, and I felt prepared to field most questions on the natural history of the caverns. On this particular Tuesday afternoon, there was a welcoming barbecue planned at the campus, so the cave and the souvenir stand both were closing a little early. It looked like an excellent opportunity to duck in and try out my spiel unobserved.
I went all the way around the regular route and thought I sounded pretty good. I remember wondering if it would be worth while to tape record my talk, so I could listen to myself once.
When I came to the end of the route, I found the door to the outside was stuck. After several minutes of pushing and tugging, I put my eye to a crack between the boards and saw the chain. The door wasn't stuck; it was locked.
Banging and yelling didn't attract any attention, so I had to make my way back to the front, I was about two third of the way there when the lights went out, and I had to use my flashlight to stay on the path.
The front door was locked too.
We had a light in the snack bar, which we put on to signal when a tour group was starting off, and I flipped the switch back and forth. No one answered; the snack bar had to be closed up also.
I don't get panicky very easily, but when I found that door chained, I broke out in a cold sweat. Being locked in that cave seemed as bad as being buried alive. I spent a long time yelling for help never heard over the highway noise, I'm sure before I finally got hold of myself and realized that the cave would be opened right on schedule tomorrow morning.
At least it was cool and quiet in the cave, and it didn't seem nearly so bad after I thought awhile about the sweltering room I had been staying in. I was hungry, but I would easily last until morning. Here by the door there was enough reassuring light coming through the cracks that it wasn't completely dark. I sat down and decided to pass the time by going over some of my thesis ideas in my head.
When night fell, it was really dark in the cave darker than anything I had ever experienced before. As a city kid, I'd never seen the night sky without the hazy glow of city lights in the background, and until that moment, I don't believe I really understood the meaning of dark and lonely. I had my flashlight, of course, but the batteries would never last all the way until morning. Saving the batteries meant sitting in the dark.
I wrapped myself in my shirt and tried to sleep, although I did manage to doze from time to time, I slept fitfully at best. After one particular encounter with a rock in the small of my back, I flipped on the light and saw that my watch said midnight a long way to go until morning.
A faint sound startled me out of my twilight of consciousness. At first I thought I was hearing a pebble roll down a rocky slope, but after a few seconds, it was clear that the recurring noise was the measured crunch of a footstep on the gravel path.
Anybody searching for me would have turned on the cave lights and come in the front door. There was no one who should be in that cave after closing, myself included, and any one approaching was a trespasser at best. I didn't care to imagine anything any worse than that. Huddled against the rock wall and well off the footpath, I hoped the sound of my knees knocking wouldn't betray me. Immediately, I regretted not having a rock to use as a weapon, but there was no way for me to reach for one now without giving myself away.
"Ain't no use in hidin’, 'cause I can see you even in the dark."
The deep voice startled me like an electric shock. Instinctively, I switched on my light and shined it back into the cave.
A tall Black man was limping toward me. At least it looked like a man. He must have been about forty or so, and the little circle of light made his eyes appear dark and solemn. He wore a battered straw hat, a ragged canvas shirt and trousers, and old fashioned work boots, As he came toward me, I caught sight of a large, jagged opening ripped through his clothes and into his abdomen; it wasn't bleeding.
He had a knife. In his right hand he clutched a hunting knife. I suppose that it was nothing special, but my eyes were open so wide, it looked like a cross between a Bowie knife and a cavalry saber.
"What you doing here in my cave at night?" He sat down across from me and began to fill a small pipe he had taken from his pocket. "I usually sits here alone of an evening."
I tried to hold the light steady by resting my hands on my knees, but it twitched and jerked with every heartbeat. No matter how much I wanted to look away from the knife lying beside him, my eyes kept turning back to it. Then I noticed that he didn't have a shadow; the light was shining right through him onto the wall of the cave behind. If there's a Richter scale for scared, I was already off the chart.
After a few gulps, I thought I could speak, and I got up enough courage to ask a question. "Are you the man who was killed in the cave by the Confederate soldiers?"
"Weren't no soldiers. Looters, deserters, they were no good." He brandished the knife. "They found me hiding in here and shot me with a shotgun. Left me to die."
"Then why are you here?" I blurted out. "Why aren't you gone like you're supposed to be?"
He put the knife down before him and his eyes burned straight across into mine. "I want a marker like a man. I ain't no slave, and I ain't no animal to be thrown into a sinkhole after he's dead. I want a proper grave with a stone that has my name."
He seemed glad to talk, and I was eager to keep him occupied. I asked his name.
"Enos, Old John's son. Not Johnson like a regular name; my daddy's name was Old John."
He never let the knife stray from his sight, and we talked. He asked, and I answered him just as sure as if he had been a real man instead of... whatever he was. If my panicked mind had snapped enough to a make all this up, it was doing a very good job, because gradually his whole story unfolded. I think he was relieved to talk to someone about the farm in North Carolina where he had worked, and he rushed to tell me about the wife and young son sold away from him to a new owner. The batteries in my light were weakening, and the beam was very yellow, but I was almost certain there was moisture in his eyes as he spoke. After the separation from his family, his rage became uncontrollable, and he burned the shanty cabin that had been his home, hoping the fire and the confusion of war would cover his escape.
Enos remembered every tiny detail of his home and recited it all with no prompting from me. He had hoped to return someday to search for his wife, and he had carefully buried all his treasures in a tobacco tin before setting out. His voice softened as he described a daguerreotype of his family, thrown away by an itinerant photographer who had been testing the light before posing the master's children. He also saved a shred of paper with the name of the man who had bought his wife and child penciled on the back by another farmhand who could read and write a little.
Enos picked up the knife and abruptly got to his feet. I jumped back, but he simply raised his hand. "I gots to be goin'. I never meant no harm to any man at all."
He walked off, and I didn't follow. I think it crossed my mind that I should see the location of his grave, but I was much too scared to take a single step into the darkness. I remember I felt relieved when he left, but the rest of that night is a blur in my memory. I jumped screaming when something furry brushed my face; it must have been a bat. I don't recall any other details
The first light of dawn should have soothed my fears, but it didn't. The little fingers of daylight crept through the cracks and tantalized me like food just beyond the reach of a starving man. I sat on the gravel with my eye plastered to the gap between the boards until eight o'clock, when Jess came up the path to unlock the door.
As soon as I heard the sound of the chain falling away, I lunged against the rough planks and bolted outside. I ran non stop down the path and across the highway almost getting hit by a coal truck ignoring Jess's call.
Everything was there, in the foothills of the Smokies, just as he had described it. After a morning of searching through the weeds and briars, I even found the remains of a cabin just where it was supposed to be.
There's an amazing amount of material left around any dwelling, and every bit of it helps to tell a story. Bones from meals, buttons, bits of glass you know the sort of artifacts. I found enough to start a thesis on the home life of the American Negro slave, as well as two articles in Historical Quarterly.
The real prize was in a little tin box that I dug up right next to the remains of the chimney. It contained a faded picture, which I was later able to give to a rightful owner, and a yellowed scrap of paper torn from a handbill, which had some names scrawled on the back in pencil.
That bit of paper led me on a trail through the South and up the Underground Railway to Oberlin, Ohio, then to Cleveland. That was the story I called Odyssey of a Black Family and which won all the prizes...Well, you know all about that.
I went back to the cave once. The sign says Cudjo's Caverns now, but they still give the very same tour. I found the headstone just inside the entrance, and I was proud of the inscription, because I thought my choice would have pleased him.
FREE AT LAST
ENOS JOHN'S SON
When the group moved on, I lingered behind to talk to Enos, tell him what I found and how his family had fared. There was no answer. I felt uncomfortable beside that stone; I think that was the first time I realized that what we teach as history is made up of the details of someone else's sorrows, a mosaic of the broken bits of other people's lives.
I won't go back again. The rush of memories isn't completely pleasant.
I suppose that answers all the usual questions about my Pulitzer Prize.
Oh, I forgot about the hair. The doctors all gave the condition some fancy Latin name that seemed to mean hysterical. I once heard some co eds say it looked handsome, so I've never dyed it. A thick head of white hair looked distinguished on a young history professor; it even added a certain flair, sort of like a TV personality or a movie star.