Wednesday, June 12

Riverboat Man

   
 
 If you lived in Hazard, KY through the 1930’s and 1960’s, you probably witnessed some of the most disastrous floods in the history of Eastern Kentucky. I lived on Combs Street which was just a little bit more elevated than North Main Street.

      From that vantage point, I had a front row view of the entire disaster. I would walk down to the water’s edge to watch the dead mules, hogs and cadavers float by. The broken-down homes and fractured barns were also of great interest. It was fun to try and identify the remnants as they floated by. I would say, “That’s part of a house or that’s part of a barn.” And, I would have a real good laugh if some poor soul lost his outhouse to the North Fork of the Kentucky River. And, several of them were observed to be floating down the river with their roof-top facing downward and being partially-submerged.

      I was tempted to try and haul some of the booty to the shore but, the current was too strong for me, a young lad of just five years of age. Little did I know that the force of the current would probably have drawn me into the water if I had had tried to apply any salvage operations. I did try to use my lasso rope like Will Rogers did but I was not talented enough with the lariat toss to rope anything or to pull anything ashore.

      So, I had to devise another way if I was to play the salvage game. And, for this part of the story, we have to flashback about six months earlier before the time that I became a legendary riverboat man. I knew that a flood would be forthcoming and I had formed a magnificent plan.

      I had been collecting my building material for a long time previous to the time that my actual construction phase began. The design intent was to make my boat lighter than most of the other boats so I used small sections of bushel baskets that the grocers in town had discarded.

      They would ask me why I needed them and, when I said, “I am going to build a light-weight boat, they all laughed at me.” Then they said, “You can take all of the baskets that you can carry.” And, I did just that. Time and time again. Our basement became the home of about 100 bushel baskets.

      My boat was designed to be the first known example of a composite materials rowboat. I wove the basket ply at a 45-degree orientation and I sealed them together with roof tar. It took about six months to finish the Project and I was almost six-years old when it was finished.

      I talked my bodyguard friend (John Russell Muncy) into helping me with the task of taking the finished boat out of our basement and carrying it to where the water was located. It was an extremely light rowboat and both he and I were very proud of our joint creation.

      The master plan was that John would sit at the stern and be responsible for the dumping of any water that might need to be discharged from the vessel. I had given him a large coffee can for dipping purposes, if and when any unwanted water might need to be collected.

      I had tied three sections of bamboo together with electrical tape as a steerage pole and my position was to be at the bow for guidance purposes. The length of my pole was about twelve-feet long. And, the flood stage was about nine feet above normal levels when we decided to launch the ‘SS-Hays’. Trouble began immediately after we left the beachfront property.

      John Russell was a huge person even at that age. He tipped the weighing scales at about 150-lbs while I was less than that with about 90-lbs. So we had no idea of the effect that a heavy load of 240-lbs might have on our maiden voyage.

      In the design phase, I didn’t consider anything about buoyancy or tare weights. When John got into the boat, the bow went up in the air and the water level at the stern was about one or two-inches from the topside of the boat. I boarded the bow section to counteract the weight problem but I wasn’t heavy enough for righting the vessel. We both panicked after we had sprung a major water leak.

      John was screaming, “We are going to die.” He said this over and over again. I responded with, “Not if you keep on dipping the onboard water. I replied, “Shut up and dip as hard as you can. I have a plan. We will survive if you will dip at a much faster rate.”  The last time that I looked his way he was moving those stout arms of his faster than ever before. I do believe that if I had taken a photograph of John’s swinging arms, they would have been out of focus and just a blur on the printed picture.

      He was dipping fast enough but we took on more water because his large body forced the stern to be submerged when he tossed the water. The boat would pitch sideways back and forth as he emptied his pail on the port or starboard side. At that time, he was causing us to take on more water than he doused.      I yelled at him but he was too scared to listen. He had a strange look on his face and I then learned what a person does when he is facing death. He goes a little ghoulish or morbid, if you get my drift. So, I concentrated on the steerage of the boat.

      I knew that there was a large bend in the river ahead of us and it was about one mile from our launching point. I kept using the long pole and when I would strike the bottommost portion of the river bed, my face would become very close to the top surface of the water. It was a terrifying experience. I was left with the thought that both the pole and I were too short for that particular application.

      John kept screaming, “We are going to die. Why did I let you talk me into this? This is entirely your fault, Charley.” So I ignored what had to be ignored as I continued to edge the boat’s path toward that bend in the river. It was a landing where John and I always went fishing. At the top of the hillside where North Main Street existed there was Thacker’s Garage and across the street from Thacker was where Elmer Davis operated his Gulf Gasoline Station.

      I beached the ‘SS-Hays’ boat successfully and I have never built another boat. Both John Russell Muncy and I are still afraid of any deep water, although it has been an interim of about seventy-five years since. We shared our adventure with Mr. Thacker and Elmer Davis as we were very proud of our bravery.

      Thacker was a man that few people liked but I was very thankful for his landing which saved our lives because neither John nor I knew how to swim. Davis, a man that everyone loved said, “Sounds like a fun trip to me.” And, that’s the end of my mini-story about our joint involvement with the big flood.

20 comments:

  1. Charles, what a post. I had to read it over twice. This is awesome and I know many still out there remember but I wonder if as vividly. I watched the old outhouses, etc. go down the river and then I saw a little pig on top of something. More, more, you have good memories.

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  2. Seeing the photo of my family's grocery store filled with flood water really brought back memories. I remember going on the Main Street bridge and seeing all kinds of debris in the water: parts of houses, animals, etc. Going through a flood experience has a strong impact on a person. I still sometimes dream of trying to cross a bridge while the river is so high it almost touches the bridge.
    Billie Reda Sowers
    Dayton, OH

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  3. Love this,but would not want my kids or grandkids to do this,but it really cracks me up when you say ,shut up and dip! Had to read this to my husband,very funny!

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