1968. Lookout Mountain
I was standing with my father in the pitch-black dark—the blackest dark I’d ever seen in the few short years of my young life—and the blackest dark that I’ve seen since, which is a considerably longer span.
The surrounding air was dank with flecks from falling water.
A disembodied voice rose up from the mist, then swooped back down to submerge in it. First amplified then muffled, the sounds changed places, each taking its turn at prominence. The drone of the voice, the roar of the falls, and the clammy damp came at me from all directions—from the sides, from above and below—to seal me in a viscous coating and stick me to my spot. The waterfall could have been anywhere. Next to me? Yards away?
I dared not move a muscle.
The woman’s words transfixed me with a tale of scuba divers. Fearless swimmers who, over the years, had plumbed the depths of a fathomless pool. In wet suits and tanks, in masks and flippers, down they had plunged into icy water, in an effort to find its bottom.
No search had been successful.
The roiling cascade dropped into a lake that continued, it seemed, to the center of the earth. To China. To horrible depths my imagination was fully engaged in conjuring.
Cold drops of perspiration ran down my face, my arms, and the back of my neck. I was concentrating hard—trying to locate the source of her voice, trying to pinpoint the crash of the falls, trying not to move and tumble in, and trying most heartily not to be afraid—when my father let go of my hand.
That was it, really—that was all he did. He loosened his hand from my grip. And he disappeared, never to be seen again, while the tour guide never stopped talking. July the 12th, 1968. The last day I saw my father.
James Emerson Russell was Sonny to most—from the son in Emerson, I imagine. Or maybe from his position in his family of origin. I don’t really know. He was just Daddy to me, what a little girl calls her father.
He was handsome, that Sonny. It is not just my memory. It is what people still say when they don’t stop themselves from talking about him. And, they say it just like that. “He was handsome, that Sonny, I’ll grant him that.” As though his visage were something they grudgingly bestowed on him. Then they change the subject on seeing me.
He was long and lanky—six feet even—impossibly tall to me then. A slight stoop to his walk, crinkly blue eyes and a halfway receding hairline.
His taste in attire ran to western and that was how he was dressed that last day. Jeans and a checkered shirt. Madras, my mother had called it. Snaps down the front and a turned-up collar. Cuffed sleeves rolled up to reveal strong forearms, all covered in downy blond fuzz. He wore cowboy boots and he carried a hat. In a nod to convention, he would not have worn it indoors. Men did not do that then. Then again, men did not tend to walk out on their children in the middle of tourist attractions, either, but that hadn’t served to stop him. I guess my daddy picked his proprieties from a smorgasbord of options.
He wore a watch and his wedding ring, too, and a belt with a silver buckle. He had surprisingly soft hands for a man. I had held his hand for the longest time, twirling his ring, until the darkness commandeered my attention when the lights were abruptly switched off. Then I just stood still, clutching that hand and willing him to protect me. Those large, soft hands that belonged to a man who would use them to wrest himself free of his daughter.
But how, you might ask, could a full-grown man vanish from the middle of a clump of tourists visiting Ruby Falls in Lookout Mountain, Tennessee on a sweltering summer day? More precisely, how could a man disappear from a cave under Lookout Mountain—when that very act would require accessing the elevator (through the lightless cave), traversing the entrance lobby, crossing the parking lot, starting his car, and driving away—leaving his own flesh and blood child standing frozen under the earth beneath him?
In the end, nobody remembered seeing him do any of those things. And his car, a 1962 Cadillac de Ville, in a vibrant shade of turquoise, remained where he—we—had left it in the parking lot.
It is an unsolved mystery. And it turns out that people who experience an unsolved mystery in their lives become inordinately keen on unsolved mysteries as a topic in general. I am one of those people. My father disappeared from Ruby Falls in the summer of 1968, when I was six and a half years old. He left me alone and mute, unable to move, even once they put the lights back on and herded the crowd past the stalactites and stalagmites and the God-forsaken falls toward the elevators, en route to the streaming sun above.
The tour guides had to pick me up, when it became evident that I was not ambulatory. They groused the whole way up to the surface that I was stiff as a corpse, which, as they made clear to each other and to me, added to the overall creepiness of my father’s de-materialization. Had they been superstitious people (and who, really, isn’t?) they might have thought some sort of black magic was being performed by us.
Lest I forget to mention—my name is Ruby. Not believable, you say? Well, it is true. My name is Ruby (not Falls, if my name were Ruby Falls, that would be unbelievable). My name is Ruby—Eleanor Ruby Russell—but called Ruby from birth, in the way that Southerners do, being extremely fond of middle names.
Thus, I became famous for a while at the age of six and the press had a field day with my name.
Did Ruby’s Father Fall in Ruby Falls?
Ruby Took the Fall in Ruby Falls!
You can imagine, I am sure, the extent to which the headline writers amused themselves. I might have been entertained, too, except for obvious reasons. Namely, my age at the time of the incident. But, trailing a close second to that was the fact that my mother shielded me from the newspaper clippings that she studiously pasted into a scrapbook. I was a teenager when I discovered that macabre memento.
Strangely—though what about this case wasn’t strange?—my father had chosen my name. My mother hated it—Northerner that she was, she considered it a countrified name—but my father had won the day. That did not look good for him, in the end. Or what everyone has questioned, from that day to this, as being the end or not. Kind of suspect to insist on calling your daughter Ruby, then abandon her and vanish into thin air in the middle of Ruby Falls—bad form no matter how you slice it. It could be taken as intent.
But intent to do what?
My mother had not been with us on our outing that day and the staff had had a hard time figuring out what to do with the rigid child on their hands. Understandably, they had no idea that my father had been the one to leave me alone in the cave. They figured I hadn’t come to Ruby Falls on my own—considering that I was only six years old—but no one had taken much notice of me, or whoever might have been along with me, for the first half of my descent into the cavern. When questioned, some thought they had seen me with a man. But there was no longer a man to be seen with me. There were no security cameras to review, no credit card records to comb. There really was no way of verifying when and with whom I had entered the cave. Or who had exited without me.
And I wasn’t saying much.
The police were called. They drove out to the mouth of the cave to have a look at the little girl who was found on her own at the bottom of it. It came to be closing time and no one knew what to do with me, so the policemen stuffed me into the back of a squad car and took me back to the station.
It was around ten o’clock that night, I later learned, after numerous hands of pinochle, when my mother understood that my father and I were not just dawdling over dinner and telephoned the precinct. Margaret Russell—her husband’s social superior in every way: birth, breeding and means—identified herself, as if the Tennessee cop might know her. Officer Brady gave his name in reply. And then they got down to business. Officer Brady matched up the child my mother described with the small, silent, staring creature he saw on the bench before him. Pink and green flowered shorts?—check. White eyelet short-sleeved blouse?—check. White socks, red Keds, blond pageboy haircut, and big brown eyes?—check, check and check.
Aunt Hazel, at whose house we had been staying on our annual Southern trek to see my father’s people, drove my mother to the station to fetch me. The women floated in on drafts of Jungle Gardenia and bourbon (in fairness to them, it was after eleven p.m. by that point). All scarves and heels and shirtwaists, their pumps clattered their arrival just seconds after their scent had pre-announced them.
My mother confronted the officer. Just what did he mean by this? In the face of Peggy’s perfection—her beauty, her cat eye glasses, her touch of eyeliner and frosted lips—he shouldered the responsibility. He was sorry, he said, for her troubles. He could not say what had happened to my father. He looked to me to save him.
And I was not talking.
Reminded of her duties by Officer Brady’s glance in my direction, my mother swished over to peer at me. I must not have looked good for, big as I was, she reached down to pick me up. For the first time in hours, my body began to uncoil. Her smell, her warmth, her vitality—her utter familiarity in a world that had become a funhouse—seeped into my cold, hard bones and, on the spot, sedated me.
I fell fast asleep in her arms.
Sometime later, my mother laid me on the back seat of Aunt Hazel’s Comet station wagon. The women took me back to my aunt’s and put me in my pj’s. They ladled some broth down my throat, offered me Jell-O, which was thought to be curative, and put me to bed, where I remained for the better part of the summer.
My condition, and my father’s absence, grounded my mother and me in Chattanooga.
She, answering questions and chain-smoking.
I, face to the wall.