April—it is filled with flowers, showers, sometimes Easter (like this year), but also cool mornings and hot afternoons. It brings to mind disasters for me and many of you in Dade County. In 2011, we experienced possibly the biggest local disaster in our lifetime, when those angry tornadoes blew through our town, killed two of our residents and ripped a wide swath of––well, everything––away. It is too soon for me to write more than that about that April 27th, but it brings me back to that other awful April disaster in 1966 which was not Mother Nature, but a series of events that might not have happened on another day.
Last year I wrote three articles about the Howard’s Waterfall Cave disaster. To recap for those who don’t have it burned into memory, here is a synopsis of that April 16. On that day, a newly formed Explorer Scout Troop from near Atlanta came to Dade with a dozen or so 14-, 15- and 16-year-olds along with a three adult leaders for an adventure at Howard’s Cave at the base of Sand Mountain. Simultaneously, there was a group of cavers from the West Georgia College Grotto here in Dade to explore Case Cave at the foot of Lookout Mountain. There was also a local young man who was scurrying around Trenton trying his best to get a motor to his house to put it back in a car. Then a carbide lantern ignited a gasoline leak inside Howard’s and caused an explosion and all three of these groups converged in an event that took three lives, severely injured another and changed many more forever.
Since writing those articles, I have received cryptic (almost scary) emails from four people and had conversations with at least one more who carries the memory of that day in ways that are deep and unforgettable. One with remorse for the loss of his friend, one with gratitude that he lived to tell his story, one sister who still grieves the loss of her much older brother, one who lost a fellow caver and college friend, and one who survived being burned so badly that his clothing was blown off him. As a result of those communications I have made some new acquaintances and friends and reconnected with some old friends.
For the rest of April, I plan to share the heartwarming and heartbreaking things about that day in April which they have shared with me.This week I will share some of my conversations and communications with Ron (Ronnie) Aycock. He was a member of the West Georgia Grotto and lost his caving buddy, Rusty Mills, that day.
Ron Aycock sent me an email on May 1 that stated, “You still looking for 1st person recollections of HW event?” I was a little taken aback, but I answered that I would love to hear what he was willing to share. The next email was his account of the events which he wrote for the Georgia Speleological Survey in 2016. I replied with a barrage of questions about his life since the day of the cave explosion. On May 2, he kindly answered many of them and I will share some of that conversation.
I wondered if I would ever be able to find any of the scouts or the other cavers.
Donna, I've lost contact with most of the cavers from West Georgia who I was there with, or they have died. It's been a long time. As for the scouts, unfortunately I never met any of them.
By my age at the time (14 and am now 65) I would guess that you are nearing 70 and that you have retired. I would be interested in what you did for a living.
Yes, I am retired from Xerox Corporation where I was in field service as a Senior Customer Engineer. I was with Xerox for 31 years. I am now 71 years of age.
Did you finish at West Georgia?
I did not finish my degree at West Georgia. Uncles Sam sent me a letter ordering me to report for duty. I enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 1969 where I served for 4 years active duty and 2 years inactive reserves. After my enlistment was complete I went back to school and finished my degree.
Obviously, you continued to cave. Was there a time when you did not?
After I got out of the service I indeed did continue caving and continued pretty intensely up until around 1990. Off and on after that, though I have continued to support caving related endeavors since those days. I still manage to get into a cave once or twice a year. I still follow caving-related explorations and discoveries through friends and caving news sources.
Are you still in contact with any of the other West Georgia Grotto people?
West Georgia Grotto is no longer an active entity within the National Speleological Society. It's been defunct for probably 3 decades, though there was a brief attempt to resurrect it in the late 90s. I do keep up with remaining cavers from that era, though sadly our numbers are diminishing.
How did you know about my articles?
I found out because a fellow caver (a current caver) had discovered your interest in writing an article about the event and posted the information on Facebook. I guess like most people I have a love/hate relationship with FB. This is an example of the good that comes from it.
I just sat here and cried when I read your account which was published in the GSS Bulletin.
I have cried a bit as well. More in the last couple of years than even back then. Losing David (Young) on New Year’s Eve of 2106 and then Don (Going) in April of 2017 hurt. They both died of cancer. We had a lot of great times together, both before and after April of 1966.
During the next few weeks, I will endeavor to get permission to print the letter which Ron wrote to the GSS Bulletin. The picture which is included with this article is page 102 of the 1966 Chieftain Yearbook of West Georgia College and is courtesy of Ancestry.com.
NOTE: The Historical Society has another big activity planned for September. We are calling it “Dade County Cave Symposium.” One of our speakers is to be Marion Smith. He is a school friend of one of our members and is widely known among the
caving community. He is also pictured in the yearbook photo of the West Georgia Grotto. He is on the back row. Make plans to come and hear our panel talk about caves in Dade County. Save the date—Sept. 12. More later.