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  • Writer's pictureLee Weaver

HOW DARK IS DARK?

HOW DARK IS REALLY DARK?

From my earliest growing up years I’ve never been afraid of the dark. I will admit though, that if I were walking by a cemetery after dark, I would whistle louder and walk faster! When we were living in the country there was no “light pollution” such as one sees in or near a city, reflected from cars, houses, businesses, signs etc. ad Infinium. Nights in rural Texas are simply beautiful with the star glow of millions of points of heavenly light.


I suppose there are perhaps numerous ways to experience total darkness. I DO NOT recommend being locked in an abandoned ice box or refrigerator. Nor do I recommend falling behind the tour group and being left behind in King Tut’s tomb or pyramid or whatever! I relate my “opportunities” to experience that sort of blackness. At my first one I was too young to remember much but I include it here only for the sake of a complete list.


Sometime in the earlier part of my first decade, my family (Dad, Mom, older sister) decided on a trip to Carlsbad, NM, to visit the famous Carlsbad cavern. We were living in San Angelo at the time, and in the mid-1930s I expect this was a pretty good haul. (In my adult years that would not at all be considered a long trip.) In these cave tours it is typical for the tour guides to turn off the lights in order that the visitors can experience total darkness, but I was much too young to realize the effect.


Carlsbad Caverns National Park comprises several caves, the largest one is named Carlsbad Cavern. The Park is in Eddy County, New Mexico, about eighteen miles southwest of the town of Carlsbad, in the high Chihuahuan desert and Guadalupe Mountains. The Chihuahuan Desert is a large ecosystem mostly located in the Mexican state of Chihuahua but extending northward through western-most Texas and into New Mexico. A prominent feature of the Chihuahuan Desert region is the occurrence of mountain ranges surrounded and separated by desert lowlands. Two of these mountain ranges are the Franklin Mountains near El Paso; and the Guadalupe Mountains which rise up 3,000’+ above the desert in West Texas and extend northeastward toward Carlsbad, NM. Guadalupe Mountains National Park is also located in the same ecosystem. Guadalupe Peak is the highest point in Texas at 8,751 feet.

The caves were known of by the Mescalero Apache Indians and other tribes, as well as by the early Spanish explorers in the southwestern area of what is now New Mexico, Texas, Arizona, and part of Colorado. Pictographs on the cave walls and firepits and other evidence in or near the entrance pre-date our modern knowledge of the cave by several centuries.


The modern “discovery” of the cave occurred in 1901 when a young cowboy thought he observed smoke in the distance. Fearing a grass fire might be threatening the ranch, Jim White rode closer and was amazed to find clouds of bats emerging from an opening in the earth. Over the ensuing months White and a buddy explored deeper, then deeper still in the vast cavern. Today the largest known room, the “Big Room,” covers approximately eight acres. Though this is the largest known room, it covers only a fraction of the entire system of caves. The area was designated “Carlsbad Cavern National Park” in 1930.


My next opportunity to experience true darkness was a return trip to Carlsbad as an adult, with wife and children. That was around 1970 so my memories are dim, but what I remember most from this trip is the vastness, yet beauty, of the cavern spaces (“rooms”) with all sorts of stalactites and stalagmites and colorful formations infused from minerals in the rocks and in the waters which formed the caverns. Again, the darkness is complete when the guides temporarily shut off the lights!


Flipping the pages of the calendar ahead several years, my next ‘opportunity’ was almost traumatic; not because of dark itself but due to claustrophobia!


In the early 1980s I was in the Energy Loan Department at First National Bank of Fort Worth. One of our borrowers with a significant loan balance had put up collateral including a coal-mining activity in Kentucky. Along with one of our loan officers, I went to Kentucky to visit the mining operation. I had heard the term “low coal” but had limited knowledge of just exactly what that meant. In this operation, the coal seams were only about three feet thick, running through and underneath low mountains (in Colorado they would be hills rather than mountains). Rather than vertical shafts, the miners accessed the coal face by means of small tractors hauling the miners in, lying down in low trailers. Tractors and personnel trailers were limited in height to travel through horizontal shafts or tunnels only three feet high. The tractor driver’s position was horizontal, looking alongside the tractor rather than over the motor. When removing the coal, pillars were left in place to support the mountain above. (I don’t remember the spacing of the pillars.)


Lying on one’s back in the trailer, side by side with five or six others, with that black coal seam inches from your nose, a mile deep into the mountain, is guaranteed to improve one’s prayer life! I was praying almost constantly: “Lord, please get me out of here and I’ll never inspect another coal mine, not for the rest of my days.”


A few years later I had the unexpected experience of finding that “dark” on the surface of the earth can be almost as oppressive as “dark” in an underground cave or coal mine!


I was working for a European oil company which had its US office in Fort Worth but was affiliated with a financial group with offices in Paris, Brussels, and Geneva. Early in my association with the conglomerate, I had appointments in each of those cities to meet and establish working relationships with the European personnel. My late wife, Wanda, went with me. We flew first from the US to Paris. No time for sightseeing on this trip but I’ve always wanted to go back to Paris after our previous trip there. After a couple days in the Paris office we went up to Brussels. While there, one of the officers, together with his wife, took Wanda and me out to dinner. (At that dinner I was prompted to try eel twice – the first and last time!)


From Brussels we decided to rent a car and drive to Geneva. It would have worked okay except that it was late afternoon, almost evening, when we left Brussels. We had anticipated seeing Luxembourg on the way, but it was too late in the day to stop there. We decided to drive on through to Geneva, thinking we could stop in a while and find a hotel or bed and breakfast. On a previous trip we had made a three-week circuit of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland and never had a problem finding lodging. Not so in France!


As the night came on the countryside grew darker and darker. We were also concerned that service stations appeared to be non-existent and we might get low on petrel. There were no lights along the highway, there was no moon, and I was and remain convinced there is nowhere on the surface of the earth as dark as the French countryside near midnight!


DARK IS DARK AT THE BOTTOM OF A COAL MINE OR IN THE MIDDLE OF FRANCE!!


At every little French town we would find a hotel, and in every case the desk clerk knew only one word: “complet,” (pronounced kum-play’, translated No Vacancy). I think they just didn’t want to discomfort themselves for an American.


Just before midnight we found a small hotel on the square in a French town whose name I never knew. The room was right over the bar and tiny dance floor, bathroom down the hall. I was so tired by then that I might have slept in the barroom.


We made it to Geneva the next day and found a luxury hotel to make up for the night before. When we returned to Fort Worth, naturally we had to fully describe our trip to our two daughters. When we described the part about the obscure French hotel, with my comment that we were the only guests who stayed through the night, our daughter exclaimed: “you stayed in a bordello!”


Guilty as charged, but just passing through! My chastity remained untarnished.

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