Being an only child for almost 15 years, the son of a couple who was upwardly mobile, highly motivated people. I was quite used to being palmed off, handed off, shuffled off, being abandoned to whatever happened to be handy at the moment, so these ‘parents’ could enjoy the lifestyle they seemed to feel they so richly deserved.
During the school year, they got me up, mama drove me to elementary school within walking distance of my grandma’s, slow down enough for me to jump, and head on downtown to her office.
My grandma lived on ‘B’ Street, Anderson Mill, so when school let out I got to walk down to her house, where, from there, I could play around there or walk down to the end of the street to the mill gym. I didn’t have to be anywhere or do anything special until just about dark when mama would swoop me up, and we’d head for ‘our’ five or six miles away.
As soon as school was out, the YMCA had something called ‘Day Camp’. Five days a week my folks would get me up, load me into mama’s car where she would drive me by the ‘Y’ slow up enough for me to jump, and come get me about dark or dark thirty.
Us ‘campers’ would get on a bus to go to ‘Camp Rymer, up near Sandy Springs and every so often we’d ride up to Stumphouse Tunnel, up near Walhalla.
I’d been there so many times I could give tours.
And years later, as I was writing columns for the Greenville News, it came to my turn to write a center spread story for a publication we printed called Notions.
I decided to revisit Stumphouse Tunnel. It was not a hard decision for several reasons. First, I already knew about all there was to know about the place so there was no real work involved. Second, it was in Walhalla, and that meant just one thing. Mileage.
The amount the newspaper paid for us to get from one place to another over and above the regular price of gasoline.
Did I mention it was mid-December? Stumphouse Tunnel was a quiet, secluded place, and I would have bet high I wouldn’t see a soul when I got there.
I packed my rubber boots, a good flashlight, and one cold, rainy morning, headed out all by myself for Walhalla.
I had already gone through town, headed on up the mountain, when I saw a 1940 Ford sedan sitting behind a chainsaw shop. I decided to stop, on the way back, to see if it was for sale.
And I drove on up to the tunnel. Sure enough, there wasn’t a single vehicle anywhere around. I parked my truck over in a secluded spot where it would not be easily seen, put on my rubber boots, grabbed the flashlight, put on yet another waterproof coat, and headed into the tunnel.
In the years since I had visited, the state had filled in the middle of the floor of the tunnel so at last visitors were not having to walk in water, jumping from one old board on the bottom to another to stay out of the deep spots. I was, in fact, having a good time, heading on back to the end of the tunnel, wondering in the back of my mind how many years it had been since I had completed the trek and wondering how long it had been since the initials I was sure I had carved into the rock face had disappeared.
At one time, long ago, Clemson University had processed cheese in the tunnel, and there was still a brick wall in place with a door opening with the door itself long gone.
I had made it behind that wall when I heard a noise. I heard voices.
I cut my flashlight off and eased back to the door, looking down the tunnel to the open end. Two young men and a young woman were walking down the tunnel. They didn’t have flashlights. And they were walking slowly.
I’m college educated, but I didn’t need any higher education to know right away these three people were far behind their comfort zone.
The young lady was the most distressed. She was saying in no uncertain terms how afraid she was and what, just what, would happen of someone else came along.
The two guys were just assuring her that there couldn’t be anyone within miles of them, and hadn’t she seen the empty parking lots. They were telling her how foolish her fears were when I figured they were close enough.
I was standing there in that doorway through the brick wall. I snapped on my flashlight, and said, in a loud voice, ‘HowYawlDoing?’ Yep, all one word.
The two young men sort of ran in place a little bit, but the young lady could have medaled in the Olympics for her getaway.
I walked on out, slow, explained that I was a newspaper writer and that I needed to interview them. I tried to get all of their heartbeats slowed down and breathing back to normal. They were a terrible interview, still scared and trying to hide it. And I never did figure out where the young lady went to hide.
I offered to give them my flashlight, but they said they were just leaving, anyway.
I figured it was time to go, anyway, and I wanted to check about that ’40 Ford. When I got to the chainsaw shop, I talked to the owner a bit, found out the Ford was not for sale, and decided to head back toward Greenville. But on the way out the door, I did have one question.
“I’ve been in that tunnel lots of times and one thing I have never figured out. That’s a huge hole in the mountain, and I just don’t know what happened to all of the rock that came out of there. What did they do with it?” I asked.
“They dropped it off the back side of the mountain, between it and the next mountain. Filed in the whole gap,” the man said.
“Anybody ever go back there,” I asked.
“Nope. Nobody has been back there for years, as far as I know, and nobody from around here has any plans to go back there, either.”
‘Why?’ I asked.
‘With all those rocks, and cracks, and services, there are some ‘gray-headed rattlesnakes living back there,’ he said. “Nobody wants any part of them.”