Daddy and the Duke

April 14, 2011

If ever there was a child who could exasperate me, worry me, make me laugh (or cry) until my gut hurt, astonish me with his insights, or make me see the world in a new and intriguing way, it was your dad. He was a little ball of energy as bright and powerful as the sun. He didn’t sleep much, from infancy. He needed constant mental stimulation or he would become bored and that was usually a disaster. He wore me out, but I thought he was one of the most interesting children I had ever known. Like you.

As young as age five he was surprising me with how much information he took in from conversations, documentaries, and the news. Early one bleary-eyed morning I passed him as he sat at the dining room table, leafing through a Chicago Sun Times that Grandpa Frank brought home from a recent trip. He pointed his chubby little finger at a picture of President Ronald Reagan and said, “Look Mommy, that’s President Reagan. He’s in trouble for selling guns to Iran.”

He couldn’t read yet—he liked to pretend he could—so he must have picked up his information about Iran-Contra from the news. He had about half of the story and the scandal was a year old, but I would have bet that most adults would have not been able to tell me that much. I figured I was going to be in trouble trying to satisfy his curiosity.

I always was.

For one of the family trips we headed southeast to the Great Smoky Mountains and returned through cave country and via Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. On the way back home we stopped in Louisville to visit your great-great grandmother Dodie (your Sidebottom ancestor – hehe). It was a wonderful trip and we didn’t lose anyone. Not even your dad.

The Smoky Mountains were an amazing, if emotional, experience for me. You know how I am about war stuff, and the entire area has Civil War history dripping from the trees and oozing from every rock. I had to carry tissue to catch the inevitable tears.

The first stop was at a motel near Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. We were headed to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, just nine miles down the road from Pigeon Forge, to visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and ride the Ober Gatlinburg Aerial Tramway.

The tram ride was terrible; the kids loved it. They loved even more watching me plaster myself to the wall of the tram car for the whole 2 mile trip up the mountain (and back down, later) and whimper when I saw Joe messing with the door handle.

A young man with a mellow voice and a southern accent as slow and warm as a lazy summer day was acting as a guide. He pointed in various directions and told us of the amenities and attractions in and above Gatlinburg. He managed to get the attention of the tram riders by ending each point of his spiel with exclamations of, “…because this is Gatlinburg!” By the time the ride ended everyone in the car was exclaiming, “…because this is Gatlinburg!”

“The best food and service awaits you above and
below… because this is Gatlinburg!”

“You will find something to do for all of your children,
and here we are all children… because this is Gatlinburg!”

“Don’t forget to check out the best shopping deals in
the south… because this is Gatlinburg!”

“Don’t be nervous about the mild turbulence of the car
when traversing the support towers; we know how to
keep you safe… because this is Gatlinburg!”

The only bits of the mountain I saw as we rode the tram were some vague green shapes just below a blue sky, outside the window of the door your dad was trying to open mid-trip. You know I don’t like heights. I don’t like being as tall as I am, and that’s not so tall. Riding that tram was an act of love and devotion to four curious kids. Never again.

The motel near Pigeon Forge was made up of small cabins, each with a kitchenette. I had insisted we find a motel with a kitchenette so I could feed everyone and see that everyone had a good night’s sleep before we visited Gatlinburg and took off for Lookout Mountain and Ruby Falls in Chattanooga, Tennessee. By the time we found a motel with a kitchenette everyone was beyond ready to get out of the car and have the fun begin.

Directly across the two lane highway was a sheer rock wall at least 200 feet tall that shaded the motel. It was a beautiful, majestic sight that lent a sense of history and permanence to the place. Behind the cabins were trails leading up a small mountain whose name I never knew. Our gracious host visited us in our cabin shortly after we arrived to ask us if we would like to take a hike up the mountain. I was concerned that Jenny might have been too young, but the man assured me that the trails were easy and we could turn back at any time. Working our bodies a bit after being in a car for half a day sounded great. The owner called his black labrador dog, Duke, and we followed them into a wooded area that led up the mountain.

The man chattered as we hiked, pointing out trees and distant landmarks. Pine needles crunched under our feet and the scent of the trees wafted all around us. Boulders were strewn about like pieces on a mysterious giant board game. Tiny flowers peeking out from the forest litter on either side of the trail were breathtaking.

We came to a fork in the trail and the man told us that he needed to head back, but he would leave his dog as a guide. The girls and I were ready to head back and get settled, so we turned to follow the motel owner. Before we left, the man cautioned Grandpa Frank and Joe to go only where Duke went. Duke had escorted countless hikers up and down the hills and followed the safest routes.

We were back at the cabin and cooking dinner while I was enjoying wine and the company of the motel owner’s mother, when Duke trotted in through the open cabin door. No one came along with Duke for a few moments, until the motel owner entered saying,

Duke! Where’re ’em paypul? Git ’em paypul! G’won!”

Prior to that outburst I thought I knew southern accents. Half of  my family is southern. But wow, I didn’t understand that. It sounded like a foreign language. The man was clearly upset and turned to me to say,

“Duke ain’t ne’er left ’em paypul ‘fore. Ya’ll wait. Me’n him’ll fond ’em.”

It was becoming clear. Grandpa Frank and Joe had been gone for more than an hour, and Duke had returned without them. A sick feeling of alarm shot through me all the way to my tingling fingers and weak knees. I asked the owner’s mother to stay with the girls and followed the owner and Duke up the trail once more. The owner told Duke every few seconds to “git ’em paypul.” It took only ten minutes to find Grandpa Frank and Joe, heading back down the trail. They were both subdued and a bit tired.

“What happened? You were supposed to be with Duke! How did you become separated?” came out of my mouth along with a huge sigh of relief.

In unison, Grandpa Frank and Joe said, “Duke went the wrong way.”

The motel owner scratched the dog’s ears and said, “Duke ne’er left ’em paypul. Good boy!”

The trip to the Smoky Mountains required diligence to keep the kids in line—Kimberly (12), Heather (10), Joe-your-dad (6), Jenny (5)—and I was constantly counting noses and having each kid holler out their assigned “trail buddies” numbers.

When I said, “Count!”

Kimberly would holler, “1!”
Heather, “2!”
Joe, “3!”
and Jenny, “4!”

If there was a missing number, there was a missing kid. Usually they were not too far away and could be rounded up quickly. We hadn’t used the trail buddies count at the motel near Pigeon Forge because all of the kids were with a parent. It didn’t seem as though any of them could get lost while being so closely supervised.

We followed hundreds of signs to Lookout Mountain and Ruby Falls. Most of them were red and white, painted on barn roofs, sides of sheds, businesses and roadside billboards, and began at least a hundred miles away from the falls. When we saw the first signs we began counting them in our excitement. I don’t remember at what count we left off. The signs were so regularly placed that I half expected to see a huge red and white sign hanging off of the summit of Lookout Mountain reading Burma-Shave.

Taking in the beauty of Lookout Mountain and Ruby Falls left us exhausted. There were amazing things to see in every direction and we just couldn’t see enough. The tour through the caves to see the falls heightened all of our senses. Colors were either vivid and bright from man-made lighting systems where tourists were presented with the falls themselves, or were a palette of grays, browns and oranges in areas where the purpose of the lighting was safety alone. Sounds of dripping water and the shuffling of tourists’ feet echoed strangely and our voices were sometimes muted by nearby rock formations. Damp air filled with an earthy, rocky scent moved around us and dripping walls showcased the formations that water had created over millenia. Some of the hand rails along the path of the tour were wet and gritty with fine limestone silt. The closer to a stalactite dripping onto a stalagmite a hand rail was, the grittier it was.

Our next planned adventures were in cave country and we headed north, following secondary highways. About halfway though that leg of our journey we stopped at a campground and pitched our huge red, blue and white canvas tent and pulled out our camping gear. Everyone was tired but no one was irritable. We had just seen beauty beyond our ability to describe and we were still a bit enthralled. But not for long.

We had called for the trail buddies count after unloading the tent and camping gear and again after the tent had been pitched. We had no missing numbers, so no missing kids. As I set up the camp stove to prepare some much needed coffee, I called for the count.

I heard “1!” from Kimberly.
“2!” from Heather.

Jenny was jumping up and down hollering, “4! 4! 4!” But I had no three. I was missing a kid. The girls checked over the camp site as I moved a bit further out in widening circles to see if I could find any evidence that Joe had been around. Calling his name and on the verge of panic for the second time in the vacation I was circling faster and faster, running through camp sites and the edge of the woods surrounding the campground. I finally saw him standing in the woods about 30 yards from the edge of the campground.

“Look Mommy, I found a cave!” he said.

He had, indeed, found a cave. It went straight down into the earth. It was black as night. And Joe was standing mere inches from its gaping maw. He was very proud of himself, and I could see he was about to begin a little happy dance. He did that sometimes when he was very excited and was showing the object of his excitement to others. I stood about ten feet from him, not moving, and said in my calmest and most soothing tone,

“Joe, back up.”

He turned his head to look at me and I could have sworn I saw him teeter on the edge of that hole to hell. I repeated,

“Back up. Slowly.”

With a huge grin he began to back up in a sneaking, ninja type movement. He thought it was a game. I didn’t care as long as he backed up. When he had backed off a few feet I scooped him up and rolled away from the hole, holding him tightly to my chest. He was such a little thing at only six years old. We sat on the forest floor under the leafy canopy near cave country while he told me all about his discovery and I held him to my chest, trying not to cry.

Our trip out west : Westward, ho!
Our northern trip : Redux

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