“And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.”
On our way to Abrams Falls in the Smoky Mountains, we drove through Pineville, Tennessee.
It was about 4pm and the gas started to stutter. What I know about cars would probably fill the back of a postage stamp. Ok, I’m exaggerating, maybe a postcard. But my head told me that we were losing power and something was maybe wrong with the battery.
My instincts took over and I shouted to Debbi, sitting right next to me, “Turn off the air conditioner and the radio, we have to save power.” I heard the panic in my own voice, so to cover it up I said to Debbi, “Don’t worry everything will be alright.” She smiled and said nothing, knowing that the panic was mine.
Despite my gallant leadership, the car conked out. We were about to be stranded on a backwoods country road just outside Pineville, Tennessee. I remember thinking at the time that we were heading into a classic “big city folk stuck in rural, red-necked, deep south Tennessee” horror movie.
The saving grace was, we were at that very moment driving on a long, sloping decline and the car was running on gravity. What were the chances of passing a garage on this last gasp of movement? – None.
And yet, as incredible as it may sound, up ahead on the left side facing the road was a big red sign, “Old Red – Auto Repair.” All we needed to do was turn left at the entrance and coast into the premises. What a rush of elation. We were giddy. I remembered only later that a voice in the back of my head was whispering, “Do you really want to go there?”
“It doesn’t look like a garage,” said Debbi. We had turned onto a short grassy lane and the car softly came to a halt in front of a big weather-beaten farm house with a big on-ground porch in front. There on the porch under a large overhanging roof in an old faded rocking chair sat a big man. He had a chewed up straw hat on top of a huge round red-haired head and of course the big, approaching-huge grey overalls with the standard rips high-up on the thigh. Completing the picture were the hanging jowls, the big lips and the drooping eyes, not to mention the long dry blade of grass hanging out of his mouth and the corn cob pipe in his stubby-fingered hand. Somehow I knew that this was Big Red.
We looked at each other, me and Debbi, and stoically got out of the car and approached the house. “Hi,” I said, trying not to betray my discomfort. Big Red raised his head slowly and nodded as the line between his lips parted ever so slightly. “We have some car trouble,” I said. It seemed to take forever for him to say “Yup.” I couldn’t really garner any hint from that response on how this was going to go. But, I did feel a twinge of relief in the delayed smile after the “yup.” A bit more at ease I said. “The car just stopped and we were able to roll down the hill to your place.” I felt I was babbling on with unnecessary detail so I stopped. After an uncomfortable silent pause I smiled and said, “So you must be Big Red.” Now in doubt whether his prior smile was friendly or sardonic, I, teetering a bit on terror, nervously laughed. And thank you Jesus, he burst out laughing with me.
I was relieved and exhausted at the same time. “Let me call my son down. He’ll take a look at it for ye.” “Oh great,” I said. Red looked up to the side of the house and yelled, “Lon, git down here and take a look at this vehicle.” From an upstairs window a head popped out and said,”Ok Pa I’m comin’.” Out the door strode Lon, with a big crop of greasy brown hair strewn to the side of his head, wearing similar gray overalls as his father, complete with the traditional torn spots and added grease stains over a naked chest. His pants were too short over his “Little Abner” type boots. Lon smiled, revealing two missing front teeth. You can’t make this up. He said, “Hi ya’all, sorry, I just woke up. We were up late last night shootin’ coon. No, don’t go there I said to myself, but I was about to say, “Well how is coon shootin’ this time of year.” Debbi intuitively pulling my arm, without moving her head or saying a word, communicated to me – “SHUT UP.”
I already lifted the hood and Lon peered in, his crop of hair cascading onto the grease and dirt of the engine. “Stot her up.” said Lon. I smiled a bit, feeling a kindred spirit with this good old boy, identifying with the gender of the car, and turned the key expecting a roar. With all the social interaction, I forgot the dead state of the car, but the absolute silence after turning the key brought me back to the business at hand. I came around and Lon, still looking at the engine, said, “It’s the altanata.” It sounded like a vaguely familiar term so I looked at him as if I knew and wanted him to know that I understood what he said when suddenly it came to me that he was saying “alternator.” My interest in car anatomy was beginning to wane so I didn’t bother asking him what an altanata was. I just wanted to go.
“Ok can you fix it?”, I said. “Sure,” said Lon. “I just have to put in a new one.” “Great, ok let’s do it.” Lon said, “Sure, you can come back tamara and it will be ready for ye.” All I could say was, “Huh?”, my face dropping as I looked at Lon’s toothless smile. It hit me that there wasn’t going to be any other alternative, but in desperation I asked, “ You can’t do it now?”, thinking it was a reasonable question, there not being any other customer or vehicle in sight, but knowing the question had already been answered. Lon’s last words, as his voice was fading into the haze of my disappointment were, “Store is closed now, will go to town tamara and git the part for ye.” He turned and went back into the house not waiting for a further response. Reluctantly, but having no choice, I turned to Big Red as if to say there must be something you can do now. Impressively, Big Red knew exactly what the next step was and said, “ There’s a hotel up the hill in town. You can stay there t’nite and come back tamara ’bout 11.”
Comforted by his smile, we surrendered to our fate and turned out of Big Red’s up the hill to our big night in Pineville. Barely a word passed between us from the time we left Red’s until we returned the next day, hoping if we said nothing we would wake up and it would all have been a dream and we would be humming along in the car as if it never happened. It seemed to work, other than the part of it being a dream and humming along in the car, because I don’t remember anything about our stay in town. So here we were back at Big Red’s trying to tear ourselves loose from this scene. Interestingly, the sunshine and country surroundings had a calming effect and we were feeling pretty good. The car was right where we left it. Old Red was sitting exactly where we left him in the same wardrobe as yesterday as if he never moved from his spot. I remember thinking time moves slowly in the “Old South.” Red said, “your car’s ready.” I went over to pay and just as a parting clever shot, I said, “I guess you don’t take a credit card.” The last words I ever heard from Big Red were, “We don’t take no checks. We don’t take no credit kods. We only take those little green papers with the words, ‘In God We Trust’, on em.”
Prior to coming to Tennessee, we had passed through Kentucky, stopping to visit the Mammoth Cave. We pulled into the Mammoth Cave National Park on an insufferably hot and humid day and went to see the cave. It looks like a huge tunnel, replete with prehistoric drawings on the wall, all kinds of other cave stuff and mainly cool relief from the heat. I honestly didn’t want to think about coming out but closing time offered no alternative.
We came back to our campsite which by then had all kinds of tents, trailers, pickups and campers circled around a common area as if we were waiting for the Indians to attack. As dusk approached, the thought of a beans and biscuits dinner over a campfire, faithful to every Western I have ever seen, relaxed me. I took a small folding chair and set myself down at the back of the tent lines, for a little privacy, prepared to enjoy the quiet calm of the evening.
Just as I was sinking into the bucolic surroundings, a middle aged man in a sleeveless undershirt and white undershorts with a cowboy hat slouched on the back of his head stepped out of his camper in the back a little down the line. Oh Lord, he had a roll of toilet paper on his wrist. I knew what was coming but my mind and body froze me to the chair. I couldn’t even look away. Right there on the spot, shorts drop and a load drops right before my eyes. He looked at me mid-drop and smiled as if he was coming out to watch the sunset. I finally wrenched my head away, but my sinister mind played the cleanup, in all its detail and movement, over and over to my captive imagination.
That’s it. I pulled myself up and went around to the front to tell Debbi the whole story, when suddenly, near the offender’s camper, I hear an off-tune trumpet bleating out the theme from “M*A*S*H.” “Debbi Debbie, I cannot,” which must have been in a loud voice because Debbi ran out of the tent to see what the commotion was. As our eyes met there was a short pause pierced by the ridiculous trumpet wail and we just broke out in laughter. I told her about the previous exchange in the back and we knew we had banked a memory, still not faded after 35 years.
We finally rolled into Gatlinburg, gateway to the The Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This town serves hikers, campers and visitors hiking into the mountains. I loved the atmosphere, with the endless rows of hiking shops, souvenir stores, lodgings, restaurants and cafes. We fell in love with the idea of walking sticks so we bought two solid laminated sticks for the trail. Loaded down with our backpacks and camping stuff we left the parking area and started up the path which extends to the end of the town. Despite my Mammoth memories, I was still psyched up for one last camping trip.
Upon entering the Ranger’s booth at the entrance to the park, where you pick up all the information about hiking in the Smoky Mountains, my eyes targeted pictures of snakes on the wall behind the counter. A few other visitors were milling around and the ranger was talking to some of them. We turned our attention to him and heard phrases like “Among the many snakes in the park ONLY two were poisonous.” We also heard “…rattlesnake…Don’t worry…out of season…” Everything else around us started to fade. I don’t like snakes. I don’t know anyone who does. In fact, snakes make me uncomfortable. I am scared of snakes. When I think of snakes I think of fangs dripping with poison sinking into my flesh, venom streaming through my body, discoloration of skin, extreme pain, trouble breathing, rapidly falling into unconsciousness, blackness and death. Debbi knew this and saw me watching the oft repeated scene in my mind. She had no love lost for snakes either, but despite all that, we were determined to push on, perhaps realizing or rationalizing that the snake issue was a very small part of the overall mountain experience. We were rejuvenated and ready to go.
Thirty seconds into the path we heard a loud hiss. It could have been the wind passing through the hanging leaves of the many huge trees lining the way, could have been just about anything and probably was. We looked at each other and silently screamed, “SNAKE.” Without a word we turned around and bolted out of the park to the car and only started breathing after we were out of Gatlinburg.
They say life is fleeting. If so, every individual event in life is ever so “speed of light” fleeting. We needed a more than fleeting period of relaxation before we retreated from our tumultuous Tennessee tribulations. We found our pastoral paradise at Abrams Falls.
Pulling into the parking lot, created by spaces between lined trees, it had all the makings of a picnic area. As we got out of the car, I felt the calm softly enveloping me. Elmer Fudd’s “West and Wewaxation at wast” is what came to mind and I laughed to myself. Emerging from the parking area at about 4 pm, the sun was pleasantly warm. With just our walking sticks, no backpacks, no equipment, and not even any water we started down a winding trail leading to a creek. After all, it wouldn’t take more than two hours there and back.
Every step down the circular path brought visual peace and beauty; be it the lush, green, and mossy vegetation growing on each rise as we continued down, or the overhanging willow vines wisping softly in the breeze. Close to the beginning of our walk, we smelled this distinctive fragrance possibly coming from some flower or patch of flowers growing on the wall of the path. It was the only time on the way down that we broke the silence of our hike down, remarking how interesting the smell was.
The path was narrow and we had to proceed single file. Down below we heard the river flowing by. Shaded and protected by trees reaching up from the bottom up to the path we couldn’t really get a good look over the edge of the path’s deep drop over the side. I am not crazy about heights in any case. We finally reached the bottom of the path which opened into a kind of riverside area. Some people were milling around at the edge of the moving river. We politely nodded and smiled, and just enjoyed the sheer, clean calm of the place. We didn’t even sit.
Someone came over to us for some small talk for a few minutes, and in passing, mentioned to us that we should probably start heading back as it was going to get dark fairly soon. He said they were heading off down the creek to a different exit. As he left, I said to Debbi, “I guess we better go.” She said, “Ok, too bad it has to end.”
We started up the path returning to the car. Before I even noticed, darkness settled down all around us as if a curtain suddenly fell. I turned to Debbi, “What the heck, its pitch black.” Not getting a response I said, “Debbi are you there?”
She was walking behind me. After an unsettling pause, I heard her voice quietly quivering, “Danny, stop I can’t see you, I’m scared, I can’t move.”
I said, “Ok Debbi I am right here just take a few steps forward you will see me.” She cried, “Ok stay there,” and then bumped into me. “This is insane,” I say. “What are we going to do Danny?”, asks Debbi. After counting to 10 and regulating my breathing I said, (without thinking), “Listen we can do this. We have our walking sticks. So we are just blind people walking up a path. Our sticks will guide the way.” Debbi wasn’t quite convinced. “I don’t think I can do it Danny,” said Debbi. “Ya you can,” I said, thinking it was really me who couldn’t.
In the absolute darkness I must have had a divine inspiration. I took off my shirt and tied a sleeve around my neck. “Ok Debbi,” I said, stretch out your hand and take the end of my shirt. Don’t let it go. I will walk and you will follow attached to me.”
We started to move. I tapped my stick ahead of me and all around just like I remembered seeing blind people do on the street. As we proceeded one baby step at a time, I stretched out the stick to the side and felt it lower off the side of the path. I froze. We were a foot from flying off the cliff.
I cried, “Debbi follow me in a straight line. The cliff is to our right.” “Oh God, Oh no,” she said in a desperate tone. In another inspiration I say, “Hey, look I will sing and you listen to my voice and just follow me. We can do this,” said the blind pied piper. For lack of anything else humming in my head, I started singing the part of the traditional hymn that says, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of darkness…”. Debbi immediately screamed, “Sing something else.” What was I thinking? Further without thinking I started, “we shall overcome…”. Even before she said a word, I immediately shifted to, “Happy days are here again.”
Two minutes later, singing, tapping and stepping, I looked up, even remembering that the overhanging trees pretty much blocked out the sky, and saw something amazing. There was a ribbon of light in the direction we were going.
I said to Debbi, “Look up. Do you see the line of light? We are going to make it.” I didn’t even hear her say, “Danny there’s no light it’s all dark.” I was inspired. We were on the move. A few minutes later, the fragrance hit my nose. I said to Debbi, rejoicing, “The smell! the flowers! We are near the parking lot. We are getting out. Let’s go.” Had I turned around I would have seen a contented smile on Debbi’s face.
I don’t know how we stumbled to the car but we did and I was never so grateful for the weak glare of an interior car light. We looked at each other exhausted but smiling.
I later found out that it was a moonless night that night. Go figure.
© Yehuda Danziger, 2018. All rights reserved.