In June of 1969, seven-year old Dennis Martin went missing in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. One sunny afternoon in Spence Field, a grassy bald on a crest near Thunder Mountain, Dennis and three other boys decided to sneak up on their parents. Three boys went into the woods one way, and Dennis went in the opposite direction. Five minutes later, the other boys appeared. Dennis did not. For many weeks, the adults in my neighborhood talked about the missing boy. Summer evenings after the sun went down, folks began to gather on one porch or another and chat well into the night. As parents laughed, traded gossip and recipes, the children swarmed in the yard playing Tag or Ghost when the sky went black. Sometimes the pack of children dissolved into a few smaller groups, which is when I would dash to listen to the adults tell their stories. As I listened, I generally did not hear all of the details; my ear caught tone, it monitored the subtleties of the music of the human voice.
The summer young Dennis Martin was swallowed by the mountains never to be seen again I was eight, just a year older than the lost boy. Whenever the adult conversations on the porches turned to Dennis Martin, the same pattern emerged and often, the exact same words: “It’s a shame about that Martin boy. I can’t imagine what’s been done to him.” “I know. Where could he be?” “His poor mama.” A pronounced hush would then follow, and both the women and the men would look out into the night or up into the sky. Facts about the case from the newspaper may have been part of the discussions, but I never heard them. I heard fear in their voices.
By the end of the summer, Dennis Martin was no longer in the local news, and the intensive and extensive search for him had been called off. Folks pretty much stopped talking about him, the days grew shorter, and soon it was time to go back to school. Gradually, the image of the adorable curly brown-haired boy who mysteriously disappeared from the world became a part of my memory. But now and then over the course of my life, someone out of the blue will mention Dennis Martin, still astounded that the little boy was never found, and I suddenly feel fear creep into my throat.
Those nights in the summer of 1969 listening to the adults talk about Dennis I think in some way I became a part of him. To vanish without a trace in a deep forest covering 814 square miles was something I could not fathom when I was a child; it was quite unreal. Even though many years later I read the newspaper accounts of the incident, those voices from so long ago are all I can hear when anyone mentions the case. By now, any remains have been found by vultures or other mountain critters, but I see Dennis smiling at the thought of surprising his parents when he jumps out of the forest, and I see Dennis quietly hiding deep in the thickets of fragrant laurel and rhododendron.