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.
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
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
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.
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
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.