I got to go on my first trip to visit Walhalla’s Stumphouse Tunnel when I was about 10 years old. And I got to go because I was an only child.
When you are an only child, there never is a problem for the parent to try and figure out who the culprit is whenever something turns up missing or broken. My folks were into corporal punishment, which means that on a regular basis l would just get my butt tore up to right the wrongs I was always committing.
I never will forget one time I was laying in the den floor, watching television when my dad came in, reached down and grabbed me by the arm, and into the big bedroom we went. He already had his belt off.
Naturally, since we were doing the dance of me running in a circle while he stood in the middle of the room holding me by one arm and swinging that belt. My daddy was a big man, and he was an expert on whipping his child.
This particular time though, he failed to mention what I had done to earn this whooping. So while I ran and he swung that belt, I kept yelling, “WHAT’D-I-DO?” and he kept answering, “You know good and well what you did, and if you ever do it again we’s do this dance again.”
The hard part was, I had done two, maybe three things that would earn me this punishment, and I never did really find out what they had gotten wind of.
Anyway, when you are an only child and both parents work, you are free as a bird until they get off in the afternoons, and when school is out you have practically the whole day to go anywhere and do anything and just hope you don’t get caught.
I quit being an only child when I was 14. I got a sister, and my folks turned all of their attention to raising her. I was allowed to really shift for myself after that and I don’t think I ever had to do another belt dance.
One thing the parents did to kind of keep track of where I was each day was enroll me in the YMCA Day Camp. Back then it lasted a good many weeks, and there were lots of bus trips to different place, like Camp Rymer, which is now under Hartwell Lake.
And every year one of the highlights was when we would load up and head to Stumphouse Tunnel up near Walhalla. In those days, there had been no upkeep or improvements to the place, ever. You walked along in line, wearing rubber boots if you had them or just getting your shoes soaked. I always got my shoes soaked. After several years of waking down that tunnel, getting wet and being miserable the rest of the day, I’d just sit quietly on the bus waiting until everyone loaded up and we went home.
I was sentenced to that Day Camp every year until I was about 12, then I rebelled. That was about 1955. Thirty years later, in 1985, I decided to return to the tunnel and talk to tourists visiting for the first time. By then I had a family of my own and was columnist for the Greenville News.
When I decided to go back to the tunnel. I thought ahead and packed rubber boots and a flashlight. I stopped and bought a couple of sandwiches on the way. It was cold that day, and misting rain and when I got there the parking lot was totally empty. I pulled way down to the end and parked beneath a tree, and only later realized nobody could see my truck.
So, since there was nobody to interview, I started walking the tunnel. I was way back, almost to the point where Clemson University students had built a brick wall to cut off the back third of the tunnel. They were using the tunnel to make cheese. I didn’t have my flashlight on, anyway, and was about to step through that doorway when I heard something. I looked back and saw a young lady accompanied by two young men. They all appeared to be about college age, and it was obvious they had never been there before.
They were just coming into the tunnel and the girl was scared, and quite vocal about being scared. The boys were making fun of her.
I had a great view, since the end of the tunnel and daylight was behind them. There was just nothing to give me away. So I stood there in the dark and let them approach. They weren’t far away when the girl once again asked, “What if someone comes back here?”
As her companions laughed at her, I switched on my flashlight and yelled, “HELLO.”
The girl ran, while the two boys just kinda ran in place. They seemed to be undecided as to what do or where to go, but she didn’t have a problem making up her mind.
She was gone. The boys calmed down enough to answer some questions, once they found out I didn’t have an axe or other major weapon.
As I was coming back down the mountain, I saws a little chain saw repair shop with a ’40 Ford in the back yard. I stopped, tried to buy the car, and asked, “What happened to all that rock that came out of the tunnel?”
The mechanic said that rock had been dumped next to another mountain, right behind the tunnel, but cautioned that nobody needed to go back there.
“There are some “gray-headed’ rattlesnakes back there”, he said.
I took his word for it, and decided not to visit, but I now know that if I take a notion to find myself a gray-headed rattlesnake, I know just the place.