Floyd Collins was a legend in his own time. But his time ran out.
Floyd Collins was a Kentucky farmer who dreamed of striking it rich by turning the Crystal Cave that lay beneath his family’s farm into a major tourist destination, rivaling, and perhaps even surpassing, nearby Mammoth Cave.
Crystal Cave had some success in drawing tourists, but Floyd hoped for more. He continually explored nearby caves for new attractions, believing that other entrances into Mammoth system might be found.
In February, 1925, Floyd (called “America’s greatest cave explorer” by the press) was exploring Sand Cave without proper clothing, with only one lamp and no protective helmet. When a stone fell in the narrow shaft he was exploring, Floyd was wedged in and his leg possibly broken.
When his family went looking for him, they discovered Floyd trapped 55 feet below the surface, in a shaft too narrow for rescuers to enter. His story soon hit the press and was broadcast around the country over the fledgling new medium known as radio. Farmer Collins was transformed into America’s greatest caver and the world’s first real-time media sensation.
Reporters from both coasts hopped trains and headed for central Kentucky. Up-to-the-minute reports of the rescue effort were broadcast around the country. People flocked to Sand Cave in great numbers to see what would happen, and even listened to Floyd as he called out from his underground prison.
Food and water was lowered to Floyd while the rescue effort proceeded. A new shaft was dug and a diminutive reporter was even lowered into the crawlway to interview Floyd. But it was all to no avail. After two weeks, the shaft collapsed even further, cutting Floyd off from human contact. Two days later he died.
The most disturbing thing about the Floyd Collins story was not his death, but the circus that went on just above his head. Ten thousand people came to watch. Vendors sold hot dogs and sandwiches. When Floyd lost his grip on reality and began blathering about angels in white chariots, the crowds were riveted. It was good theater.
Of course Floyd was neither the first nor the last person to entertain crowds by his misfortune. Think of the Roman Coliseum or, for that matter, the execution of Jesus outside Jerusalem. A sign had to be posted in four different languages to inform the vast crowd of onlookers of his “crime.”
How easily we slip into the role of spectator. Of course there are times when we are afraid to get involved, but often we don’t even consider getting involved because we have become habituated to watching without acting. We have seen so many murders and so much mayhem in movies and on television that we have become numb to it. Each evening the news brings us horrific stories of tragedy and injustice that we can do nothing about, with the result that we have become accustomed to doing nothing. It is our default position.
Our tolerance – already too high – for injustice has grown. Our ability to distance ourselves from human suffering has increased. The resulting indifference to the poor and ill-used has taken a toll on our national identity. The home of the brave has become the home of the disinterested.
This spectator mentality also inhibits spiritual development. To hear truth without acting on it is a chief cause of spiritual stupidity. “Doers of the word” prepare themselves for further understanding and, therefore, for further adventures with God and people. But “hearers only” anesthetize themselves to the freeing, life-giving impulses of the Spirit.
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, May 31, 2014