The coming of June meant freedom for the Beattyville Braves. No more school for three long months. Nothing but swimming, fishing, camping and games to occupy our time.
There were six of us pre-teenage boys – Hobo Cooper, Gayle Sanders, Dale Bailey, Vinson Euton, Richard Keith and me. Where you saw one of us that summer you saw all six. It was only 50-75 yards from the village sown to the water’s edge, and the river provided much of our recreation.
We were sprawled on the sandy shore that day, trying to come up with some new adventure, when we looked downstream and saw the big sternwheeler, the Gordon C. Green, rounding the bend.
“Oh boy, does she ever throw some big waves behind that wheel. Got no wave-breaker,” Hobo said.
“Wonder what it’d be like to ride them babies in the Reuben James?” mused Dale, glancing from one to the other of us for signs of interest.
The interest was unanimous. Enough of words, time for action.
We ran upstream to where we kept the 12-foot john boat tied off.
When we rescued her from the flood waters that spring, she had a hole about a foot square in the bottom. We whittled out a board with a hatchet, nailed it in place, then sealed it with oakum and coal tar. We coated her all over with a coat of red barn paint. She was as worthy a little vessel as there was on the river.
With Hobo and Vinson manning the oars, we rowed out to meet the big showboat. Portsmouth was not scheduled for a stop on this trip and she plowed upriver at a fast clip.
We reached her a little early and had to tread water with the oars as she slid by, hoovering over us. The pilot sounded a long blast on the steam whistle. A man rushed out of the pilot house, waving his arms frantically. He picked up a megaphone and yelled, “You crazy kids! You want to get yourselves killed? Get back!”
From the bow of the Reuben James, Richard Keith cupped his hand to his mouth and yelled back, “Aw, up your hairy leg with a blowtorch, Jack!”
That brought shouts of approval from the rest of us. We were bold and daring. In retrospect, foolhardy and arrogant seem to be more fitting adjectives.
As the 30-foot high paddlewheel came abreast of us, Hobo and Vinson pulled madly at the oars in an effort to make that first mountainous wave. Fear of coming too close to the paddlewheel checked us and we settled for the trough between the first and second waves.
Things always seem bigger in memory than they are, but when we hit the crest of that second wave it seemed so high to me that we could see over the top of the second rise and into Beattyville.
We slipped down the side of the wave into the deep trough and then climbed the third wave, which seemed nearly as high. We all were shouting and whooping as though we were riding the roller coaster at Coney Island.
As we started down the far side of the third wave, Hobo suddenly stood up and beat on his chest like Tarzan. He lost his balance and tumbled overboard, grabbing the side of the boat as he went. The boat overturned and dunked us all into the river.
This, of course, made it even more of an adventure. With some swimming and some holding onto the side of the overturned boat, we rode out the remainder of the diminishing waves, then pulled and pushed it ashore a half-mile downriver from where we started.
We turned the boat upside down on shore, then rowed back upstream. We might have tried the crazy stunt again had it not have been for a couple of girls in the village witnessing it all. They dutifully reported it to our parents. That brought us a switching and such a dire warning that we never tried it again.
Reach G. Sam Piatt at email@example.com or (606) 932-3619
IN THE BOOK
That episode is touched on in my 2014 novel, “That Summer of ’45.”
The first edition of 250 books sold out, as did the second edition. I’ve received a third edition from the publisher.
The book sells for $18.95, plus $5 for shipping and handling.
If you’d like a copy, make out a check to me for $23.95 and send it to me at:
G. Sam Piatt
50 First Street
South Shore, KY 41175
Include a note of where you want the book mailed to and whether you want it signed, and to whom.
Reach G. SAM PIATT at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 932-3619.