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The Mystery of John Brown’s Cave, Harpers Ferry West Virginia: A True Story

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Part II

When my friend Tom Enlow and I first traveled to Harpers Ferry, we were on a schoolboy adventure. Each of us had lied to our parents, saying that we were spending the weekend at a friend’s house. When we left home that Friday afternoon, we had no idea what this particular adventure would bring. Like most adolescents, we had to learn about the Civil War in American History class. To us, John Brown’s raid on the Harpers Ferry Armory was a moment in History, at the beginning of the Civil War, just like the John Wilkes Booth assassination of Lincoln at Fords Theatre was another moment in History. Each of these events were like bookends to the Civil War; the greatest loss of human life that the U.S. had ever experienced...

It was a grey and misty morning when Tom and I awoke. As the locomotive slowed to a slow crawl along the curve of the ancient trestle bridge, the train wheels began to squeal and rattle. The locomotive crossed over the Potomac River from Maryland into the West Virginia town of Harpers Ferry. The year was 1965, and we had hopped a ride in the open boxcar the night before, at the freight yard at Union Station in Washington D.C. As soon as we jumped into the boxcar, we had pushed some hay into a corner for a makeshift resting place and also to protect us from the cold wind that blew in through the permanently open door. We settled in for what was going to be a long night’s ride.

The next morning, clouds began to clear as the sunlight streamed through the wooden slats of the boxcar, forecasting a sunny day. I rolled out of my wool blanket and shook Tom’s shoulder. But he burrowed deeper into the hay. So I stripped the wool blanket from his back. He jumped up and shivered,

“Damn cold! I never could get warm. Besides the constant rocking of the train and all the noise, I don’t think I slept at all last night.”

I had known Tom since our boyhood days at Grace Episcopal Church in Silver Spring. The first time I met him, I was reminded of a young Paul Newman, with the sparkling blue eyes and short-cropped hair.

“I don’t know about you but I sure could use a cup of coffee,” I said.

“Let’s get the hell off of this rattletrap, and go find a warm place in town for some eggs and grits. “

So we rolled up the wool blankets, and tied them to our backs with clothesline cord.

I followed Tom, jumping out of the slow-moving boxcar to walk the short distance into town. As we ambled along the riverside near the old iron bridge, we could smell the organic matter from the water and the honey-suckle vines that grew wild along the track. It was a clear, late April morning. Back in 1965, Harpers Ferry had not yet succumbed to becoming the tourist trap that it is today. The town still showed some vestiges of commercial life in the flood plain just west of the train station. I had a feeling that there was something in the air that April morning. It smelled like adventure…

We gobbled down some scrambled eggs, grits and coffee at a breakfast place called Mom’s, located in the center of town. We met a friendly waitress, who kept batting her blue eyes at Tom.

“Where are y’all boys from?” she said, with a strong Virginia drawl.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you here before.”

Her name was Sherry. She probably was not much older than us, shapely enough to be attractive, particularly to a couple of young guys like us, who had trouble keeping their peckers in their pockets.

No doubt, I speculated to myself, she was married, with three kids at 16. (At the time, I believe that laws of West Virginia allowed marriage of a man and a woman at the tender age of 13.)

“We’re from Takoma Park, Sherry, just passing through,” I said flashing my best smile.

“We’re looking for adventure!” Tom volunteered. “Perhaps you could point us in the right direction for hiking?”

Sherry looked at me, and then again at Tom, quizzical-like, still flirting, putting her hand on one hip, and moving her butt in Tom’s direction, while she stared at the ceiling; meanwhile, sliding the pencil in her hair, back and forth. Finally she batted her eyes at Tom again.

“I don’t know of any hiking trails, but there’s a trail alongside the old railroad grade as it climbs the hill going north along the river.

If you want to climb Market Street, you should be able to see the Train Depot, from high on the cliff at the end of town.”

Afterwards, we walked up the hillside, commenting on the finer physical attributes of the waitress. We noticed that the higher we walked along Market Street’s steep incline, the more the dilapidation and ruin increased. Commercial enterprises that had once been thriving in 1859 when John Brown came into town were now vacant. Since the late 1700’s, some of the first settlers had cut small caves directly into the soft limestone rock, which they covered with cottonwood tree-poles for rafters, and evergreen boughs, to keep the moisture out. These caves had been early residential dwellings, then later, commercial stores. The higher we walked, the more notable the ruins. At the top of Market Street, we had a view of the Potomac River from an elevation of about 100 feet above the old iron trestle bridge. We could see the small building that served as the Train Depot, down below, about a half-mile away.

Just beyond the Depot, we saw the railroad tracks cut into the cliffs rising northward, along the river.

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