It's a little over an hour from Paragould to Ravenden Springs Arkansas. The next morning I was up early and out the door, ostensibly to pay the tip I had overlooked the day before, but really to further explore the cave and town that were becoming the highlight of my entire writing process with Lost Apple.
I arrived mid-morning, pulling up in front of the Back Pocket in the same spot I had parked before with that odd feeling of so it wasn't a dream after all! The unexpectedness of finding the School Cave and the mystery surrounding it and the forgotten town were such that, driving up 93, I half-expected to be met with only more woods and vales, the town having dissolved like a faery realm seen once, and never again by a wanderer fortunate enough to stumble into its enchanted precincts. I suppose that's an over the top analogy, but in all honesty, that is how I felt. The place had a curious hold on me.
The cafe was closed. For a moment I panicked. Poking around in rural town without invite can lead to all sorts of misunderstandings. Paul was my one link to the residents and his absence put a damper on my hiking back into the canyon. I wrote him a note, folding it around a five dollar bill and slipping it through a crack in the door. Disheartened, I was ready to drive all the way back to my in-laws when it occurred to me to try the marshall again. What did I have to lose?
Back to the ramshackle cottage I went and was barely in the drive when an old woman with wild white hair appeared coming down the slope from a similar cottage higher up the town knoll. "Good morning!" I called out, but I barely had to introduce myself. She knew who I was, and apparently my arrival with Bobby the day before had created a stir in the village. Looking back, I doubt there was anybody, of the 50 or so people in the town who had failed to hear about the teacher from Denver who had come looking for the cave.
Alma Simmons, that was her name, turned out to be the marshall's mother. The marshall was still away, and I never did meet him. Alma, however, was tickled pink to have a guest and for the next two hours let me into the town museum (formerly the high school) and took me on a walking tour of the town, telling me as much history as she knew; and she knew quite a bit having lived there all her life.
As noted earlier, Ravenden Springs, what's left of it, occupies the west side of a wooded knoll. Atop this knoll is beautifully preserved craftsman style school building dating from 1941. It was operational from 1941 to 1975 as Ravenden Springs High School and later renamed Oak Ridge High School. Alma's son was in the last graduating class before the school was shuttered and High School service was consolidated in nearby Imboden.
With the closing of the little school, the town began its long slow death. For me there are still so many pieces missing from the story of Ravenden Springs, and any information that my readers can provide me will be deeply appreciated. I have read that the School Cave was used well into the 19th century. Could it have been operational at the time of the town's founding in 1881? What sufficed for a school before 1941, both elementary and secondary? These are just a few of my many questions.
In any case, Alma told me about the town and its lack of families with children. Then she took me up the hill to the school turned town museum. As luck would have it, I was unable to gain access to the room filled with historic artifacts. There was a separate key for this room that was not in her possession at the time. Still I was able to explore an amazing building that was so lovingly preserved that it looked as if its doors had closed only yesterday and not 35 years earlier.
Alma took me down the main hall lined with framed photographs of each graduating class over the decades (usually under ten in number). There were only four classrooms (one that had been converted into a kitchen), a principal's office, a library, and an auditorium and stage with maroon velvet curtains. Here were all the essential elements of the American public school, that great paradoxical institution with its homogenizing practices, marginalizing values and heartfelt love of teachers for their students.
The old classrooms were mostly empty save for odds and ends and a few pieces of unwanted furniture. Alma explained that they regularly held town hall meetings in the auditorium. Two of the most poignant things I saw there was a table covered with all the athletic trophies the school had ever won, and the library filled with well-worn books, call letters still in place, untouched now for a generation. Alma had worked in the library when the school was functioning and digging through a drawer found a stack of un-issued library cards and filled one out for me. I was honored as well as touched.
Leaving the school, Alma guided me down the gravel drive and into the two proper, pointing a dilapidated building that she explained had once been the school's cafeteria, but was now the official Town Hall and meeting place of the local coon club. As we strolled she pointed out many features of the nearly dead town, open and overgrown plots where houses had once stood and the vine-choked ruins of a stone bank building. After visiting one of the town's two modern churches, where I made the acquaintance of two ladies who were busy vacuuming the chapel, we made our way to the Back Pocket. Happily Paul's truck was now parked outside and going in I made new acquaintances among the townsfolk.
Paul was overjoyed to see me, expressing how touched he had been to receive my note and the tip. “I am going to frame that letter you wrote me and put it right here next to the register!” he said proudly, patting the counter. There were two other men in the cafe, as well as his disabled wife who sat at a table cane in hand. While Alma bought a gallon of milk, Paul introduced me to Jesse, the younger of the two customers and a local scrap-hauler, and Winston, an older gentleman, whose occupation I do not recall. We all got to talking, but when Paul brought out two burgers for the men conversation stopped, hats were removed and Jesse led everyone in a prayer before eating.
Among the highlights of the conversation that ensued was my marriage to a Japanese woman (all of them asked that I return with her), and my practice of Buddhism. Jesse, it turned out was born again and became very animated about his faith. In fact it was the only thing he talked about. At every turn of the conversation he would bring it back to Jesus and the need for sinners to be saved. Alma eventually left, expressing her hope that I would return again soon and write after I returned to Denver.
An old man entered the cafe, ordering lunch just as Jesse was really catching fire. “You need to accept Jesus Christ as your lord and savior! You can do it today! I can take your right over there to that creek and put your head under the water and you can accept Christ into your heart!” he volunteered. It was getting to be a bit much, but I respected his passion because he was genuinely sincere. Then the old man got talking in a hill accent so distinct from what I was used to in the delta, that I had trouble following his words. He spoke of the End Times and how changes in the weather in recent years indicated that they were nigh. I was struck with the realization that these people had rarely if ever left the green pockets of these valleys and that old men here had been talking about the approaching apocalypse probably since the days of Caleb Lindsey and the first settlers. There are places in this world where time stops, but in the case of Ravenden Springs, they really are in their End Times.
I had to interrupt Jesse's polemic. I asked him politely if he knew how it was possible for the early Christians to successfully spread their faith among the tribes of Europe in the post-Roman era. He paused for a moment, looking down at his plate, really thinking it over. Finally he said, “Well, I don't know.”
“I am guessing it was their openness to dialogue.” I replied. “I don't think Christianity would have spread in Europe or around the world if it were not for Christians' willingness to really talk and listen to the people they were trying to convert. You would do better to listen more and talk less if you really want to bring people to Christ.”
Taken aback, he did not speak right away. I had succeeded in taking the wind from his sails, and from that point on he listened and spoke in equal measure; even to my explanation of my faith. When it was all said and done and I was saying my good-byes he ran out to his truck and came back with a battered, grease-stained pocket New Testament. He said he wanted me to have it and even signed his name in the front cover. Like the library card, it is one of my greatest treasures.
I took one more look at the School Cave before I left, but I had found so much more in this little place. Over the centuries and decades of its life, I had come to Ravenden Springs in the winter of its existence and found the human heart. Rarely have I experienced such sincerity and openness among strangers, rarely such a mixture of joy and sadness. The School Cave is only a cave now. The town school devoid of children's voices and laughter. Only memories persist there, and, for any who will listen, education. Always education.
Causes Iain Coggins Supports
Education as a human right, rather than as a privilege or an opportunity.