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Sothern Exposure

My Summer at Fantastic Caverns, Missouri's Drive-Through Cave

It's 1966, and I develop photos of tourists in a leaky darkroom and sell them for a buck each and hope they don't fade before the people drive away.

by Scot Sothern
Oct 27 2014, 8:35pm

The caves are still a big draw. Photos by the author

It's 1966, and I have a summer job as a photographer at Fantastic Caverns, a local tourist attraction. The tour guide, a kid my age who is going to die next year in Vietnam, drives a jeep pulling a long wagon where the stub-holders sit. He explains how stalactites hold tight from above and stalagmites grow upward with all their might. A hundred yards into the cave, the guide stops and says, "We're stopping here for a photograph so when we come back out we can check it for missing people."

Everyone laughs, yuk yuk.

I've got a 4x5 Speed Graphic camera and two Graflex flash guns on stands. I have a nice spot up above and tell everyone to look at me and say moonshine. I take the shot and run up to my little cellar darkroom where I've got tanks and trays of developer, a little enlarger, and an old print dryer. I dip and dunk the sheet of film, then give it a quick wash under the faucet. I slap it wet in the enlarger and make 5x7 prints, which I quickly develop, wash, and squeegee onto the dryer. I stuff the prints into cardboard folders and meet the folks as they come out of the cave. I sell the pictures for a buck each and hope they don't fade before the people drive away.

Everything in the darkroom is wet and everything electric is frayed. I've been jolted on my ass three times. One afternoon, the tour guide knocks and comes in to hang out. He's kind of a bully and I don't really like him, so I ask him to flip a switch on the print dryer for me and then I crack up laughing when he gets zapped with 120 volts. I think about it the following year when he dies at war and it still kind of cracks me up.

On Saturday nights, Fantastic Caverns has a country music show in the big room where, not all that many years ago, the Ku Klux Klan supposedly held meetings and socialized. People come from far and wide, ordinary folks and hillbillies, cowboys in Cadillacs and country gals who smoke and drink and don't stand for no nonsense. The owner pays me 25 bucks to take pictures of the show and the stars.

Bobby Bare is the headliner. His hit songs are "Detroit City" and "500 Miles Away from Home." I sit with him for a while in the back of a jeep, waiting to be taken backstage. He smokes a Lucky Strike and I smoke a Kool. We don't talk, and when we get backstage, I take his picture.

The show starts and I'm standing offstage next to a fat guy in overalls. A cross-eyed comic in baggy pants takes the stage and says, "Howdy folks!" The fat guy next to me roars with laughter even though we haven't heard a joke yet. He slaps his leg and jabs me in the ribs with his elbow, pointing at the comic. Fifty years later, I'll wish I'd taken more pictures and saved the negatives.

In August, the owner hires a crew of men with dynamite to blast a new opening in the cave so jeeps can drive in one side and out the other. I bring my little brother with me and we lay behind a couple of logs. When they blast, three times, the ground reverberates and rocks and mud rain down and it's very fucking cool, like being in a cowboy movie.

Soon the summer's over and I'm a high school senior. On Friday night, there's a dance for teens at Fantastic Caverns. Rock and roll. I bring my girlfriend, Suzy, and I'm driving the family car, a 1965 Oldsmobile 88 convertible. The road is curvy and hilly and I'm sucking on a bottle of Old Crow whiskey. I tell Suzy how I drove this road every day for three months and can drive it with my eyes closed. I'm going about 70 when we come to a hairpin curve and I keep going straight over a barbed wire fence, landing in a field about five feet lower than the road. Unscathed, Suzy and I catch a ride to the dance with friends and somebody calls a tow truck to come and get the car.

The next day, we find out the car's body has been knocked loose of the frame. I tell my pop I wasn't drinking and somebody going the other way ran me off the road. He gets the car fixed, but it's like an old person with a broken hip-never the same as before. 

Many years later, I'm visiting my pop and he's 90 years old and I'm 60. "You lied to me about not being drunk when you wrecked the Olds," he says, "didn't you?

I tell him yeah, I did, and I'm sorry and I won't do it again.

Now it's 2014 and I'm back in the Ozarks, visiting family. I've got an afternoon to myself, so I drive north on Highway 13, take the turnoff to Fantastic Caverns, and take pictures through the windshield.

Inside the shop, everyone is hospitable. I tell the guy behind the ticket counter that I'm the one who first set up a photo concession here in 1966. He introduces me to the woman who serves as the photographer now. We talk about what it was like back then and what it's like now and they let me ride through for free and give me a picture. I have a really nice time and say thank you.

Scot's first book, Lowlife, was released in 2011, and his memoir, Curb Service, is out now. You can find more information on his website.