After many, many years of adventures in the Great Outdoors, along with some dangerous jobs in the construction trade during my 20s, I’m amazed that I’m still alive, or at least not confined to a wheelchair.
A couple of examples from the latter:
# Underground mining, dealing with explosives, in which huge slabs of slate sometimes fell from the ceiling.
# Building the New Richmond dam, which one time had me assisting a crane in pulling some panels of a gate in the cofferdam to allow the flooding Ohio River in to the construction site before it overflowed – or collapsed – the entire cofferdam and perhaps washed everything away. One huge timber slipped from its choker cable and came so close to falling on me that it clipped the tip of the bill on my hardhat, sending it flying into the river.
My outdoor adventures were rarely life-threatening, but usually just mishaps brought on by my own foolish or foolhardy behavior.
A few friends, learning of some of my antics, as well as experiencing their own days when nothing seems to go right, began describing such times as “having a Sam Piatt kind of day.”
Up Tygarts Creek
One summer evening I ventured into the mouth of Tygarts Creek, where it flows into the Ohio River across from Portsmouth’s Municipal Stadium, in a 12-foot, V-nosed aluminum boat. I had clamped on a 3-hp Evinrude outboard my friend, the late Dickie Edgington, had loaned me with an option to buy (he wound up giving it to me).
I cast a bass plug on the way upstream, but it was more of an exploratory trip than a fishing trip. I worked my way through one spot where a tree had fallen into the stream, holding a collection of trash behind it.
I passed under the railroad bridge and then the U.S. 23 bridge, past McKell School, and was in behind Doctor Collins’ home when I saw a friend camped on the shore. He had a pot of coffee brewing. I pulled in for a cup.
It was a nice visit. We talked of current affairs and this and that. Finally, with alarm, I noticed that darkness had settled in over the creek.
I had brought no light. My friend fixed me up with a three-pound coffee can half-filled with kerosene. We lit a rag and dropped it in. It threw a wonderous light, but mostly just on the tree limbs that formed a leafy canopy over the stream, so thick as to shut out even the starlight.
Hanging in darkness
I headed downstream through a night as black as ink. The odious coffee can with its burning kerosene, placed on the seat in the bow, was blinding me from seeing anything ahead.
I dared not try to move it. I had a gallon can of gasoline sitting back by the outboard. If burning fuel ran down the bottom of the boat and got into that, I could go up in a fireball.
I soon bumped in to the big tree that had fallen into the stream. More trash had worked its way downstream to lodge in the submerged branches. The little motor wouldn’t push me through, nor could I work my way through with the paddle. My path to freedom was blocked.
I spied a sturdy overhead limb within reach. Aha! I could hang onto the limb, lifting my 210 pounds from the boat, hook my feet behind the middle seat, push the boat ahead with my powerful legs enough to get it through the thickest spot, drop back in, and continue downstream.
But alas! I pulled to hard. The boat shot across the drift pile and on downstream, leaving me hanging for dear life onto the limb. For a few seconds I watched it go, its coffee can torch lighting up the night.
There was nothing left to do but drop into the trash and inky water, pop back to the surface, and go swimming after my runaway craft.
I must have been nearing midnight when I entered my little home, wringing wet and my face blackened by smoke from the smudge pot.
A worried wife was waiting up.
“Where in the world have you been?” she nearly screamed. “I was ready to call the police!”
Hush, woman!” I said. “Start the shower for me.”
When I read back in the newspaper a line from last week’s column, I slapped my forehead with the heal of my hand.
It read that old timers on the Ohio River identified the sauger as the skipjack. No, they called it the jack salmon. I knew that.
There IS a skipjack that flourishes in schools in the river. It’s considered a trash fish, too boney for eating. But they’re fun to catch.
Reach G. Sam Piatt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 606-932-3619.