His name was John P. Murphy. We called him just plain “Murphy,” as I was called just “Briggs” and Morton just “Morton.” I know Murphy worked at the nearby Alcoa Aluminum Plant in Alcoa, Tennessee. I believe he was a supervisor of some kind. The most important thing about him was that he was our scoutmaster, and he was a man we loved and admired. Unlike many of our other adult leaders. No one of us spoke a bad word about Murphy. If you had, you would have been looked at strangely, or worse.

Murphy loved hiking in the mountains. Our small town was right in view of the Great Smoky Mountains, and Murphy took us everywhere. Cades Cove, Silers Bald, Gregory’s Bald, Charlie’s Bunion, Mount LeConte, Balsam High Top, Rich Mountain, Turkeypen Ridge, Thunderhead Mountain, the Ch imney Tops, Hen Wallow Falls, Snake Den Ridge, Spence Field, and many more. Excepting the short and popular “tourist walks” we all scorned.

I thought that Murphy liked me and I know now that he did. But looking back on it, I do believe now that every one of his boys felt the same. Every one of us felt like we were special to Murphy.

Murphy didn’t do discipline. There was no shouting or cussing or demanding. But if he asked us to do something, we did it. If he asked us not to do something, we didn’t do it. Things were that simple.

Then there was the overnight hike to Icy Water Springs.

I see now on the maps that it is called “Icewater Spring.” And that is okay, although inaccurate. It is near the intersection of the Boulevard Trail and the Appalachian Trail, and we parked at Fontana Dam to hike there, sleep in the trail shelter, and come back the next day.

My story begins on the hike back. Morton and I were hiking by ourselves and behind all the others. When we hiked, we preferred to be in the lead up front or bringing up the rear.

So, Murphy and all the others are down the way in front of us, out of sight, maybe some already sitting and resting in the shade at the parking lot. And Morton and I are hiking, talking, not too far to go now, and then we see something there in the woods, and we stop in our tracks.

We see an old car. It is parked in a clearing down off the trail. Is it junk or what, we wonder? We look at each other. It is agreed we must find out. We look and listen all around. No sight or sound of anyone. So, we approach this car.

The car is clearly still in use and also unlocked. But why would it be parked way up here in the woods? A moonshiner maybe? Someone up to no good, for sure. What would be our duty in a case such as that?

We raised the car hood, unhooked all the spark plug wires from the distributor cap, removed the cap and threw it in a nearby bush. Now, no car in those days would ever start or run without its distributor cap. We had taken this car out of service. We had excused it as citizenship but knew it was only mischief.

Then we decided we should get on our way, and did. We put on our packs and started down the trail to join the others in the parking lot.

Wait! There was someone coming up the trail down in front of us. Shit! Better hide. We ran off the trail and into some bushes and were lucky that a mountain man walking the trail had not seen us. Oh shit! He went straight to the old car, which apparently was his car, and he got in and tried to start it. This failed of course. Puzzled, he got out of the car and lifted the hood, immediately seeing the hanging spark plug wires and no distributor cap. He looked around on the ground and saw nothing. And now he was no longer puzzled, he was mad. Mad as hell.

He turned and started back down the trail, going fast. He had remembered the bunch of young boys in the parking lot at the bottom of the trail. One of them had done this. He must hurry before they get away. He will call the police. They will pay for this.

Morton and I discussed what to do. We had no good alternatives. The mountain man blocked our path of escape.

Down at the parking lot the angry man told Murphy what his boys had done to the car. Which one was it? All shook their heads. Is this all of you, the mountain man wanted to know. Well, no, Briggs and Morton had still not arrived. Murphy told the man forcefully that Briggs and Morton would never do such a thing. The mountain man said the Bryson City police were on the way and nobody leaves, and he started back up the trail.

I can still see him coming as if had been filmed and replayed for me to watch over all these years later. He was striding fast, and his big fists were clenched. We were two scarred kids and wanted any way out of this. We came out of hiding and met him and told him we would fix his car and we were sorry, sorry, sorry. For a minute there I thought he was going to beat us up, but the offer to fix the car made a difference. We found the missing part and fixed the car. The man escorted us back down the trail to meet the police. We were put in the police car while Murphy and the other boys watched. I can still see their watching stares, and that of Murphy.

I now think that Murphy had talked with the called policeman before we arrived back with the mountain man. Murphy who was mortified, but still our friend and leader. The Bryson City policeman drove out of the parking lot with us in his back seat. He drove around for awhile and talked with us about what we had done, almost like a Murphy himself. Before he brought us back, he mentioned that the same mountain man who called him had been in his jail before. He knew that man. Then he drove us back and set us free. The mountain man had departed.

I recall no lectures from Murphy. Perhaps he was depending on the policeman for that. But I can recall my deep sense of shame around him for some time afterward. We never thought this little prank would have led to such dire consequences. We had planned to join the group and say nothing about it on the long ride home.

I knew Murphy had liked me before, but I did not know if he would like me any more. Morton and I were both in a repentant state, and it would be a long time before we could joke about this occasion. It would be a long time before I could give up the thought that every time Murphy saw me, he would be thinking about what we had done. I desperately wanted this to change.  And I think it did, and I know when.

It was Youth Sunday at our church. There were to be three youth speakers. I had volunteered and was one of them. Hard to believe, Briggs up there in the pulpit being religious. That seemed as unlikely as getting caught by the mountain man up there with his old car.

It was my first time ever up in a church pulpit addressing a congregation. But I “did good” with my 10 minutes, they said. And it served as my redemption, for looking down into all those faces, the one that mattered most was that of Murphy. Murphy looking up to me.

He was smiling. 


You can send Ed Briggs an email HERE

To share this post with others or on social media, select your method below: