G. Sam Piatt
PDT Outdoor Columnist
I crumbled crackers into the glass jug, screwed the lid back on, then waded out to my knees and immersed the jug, making certain not to leave any air bubbles inside.
Then we baited up with nightcrawlers, cast out, rested the poles in forked sticks shoved into the soft earth near the water’s edge, and sat down with patience on a log.
It was hardly 10 a.m. but already the sun was shimmering on the surface of the river and its heat was making us wish for the shade of a tree.
“Wasn’t this about where the old diving tree stood?” asked John Vinson Euton.
“I think so,” I said. “Where’d it go?”
“Same place as a lot of this bank, I guess – on down to the Mississippi.”
In fact, we remembered that just downstream from where we sat, there once grew a grove of huge water maple and tulip poplar trees. Sherwood Forest, we called it.
We both recalled how the Beattyville Braves of old, posing as Robin Hood and his merry men, used to tie ropes in the limbs and swing down and knock the sheriff of Nottingham and his posse out of their saddles, then grab the chest of gold from the King’s carriage.
After the high-level dams were built in the 1960s, most of those trees had been felled by the lapping waters of the Ohio River and the waves pushed in by the big diesel towboats, eating the earth from around their roots. Flood waters had stolen a big chunk of Farmer Matt’s bottomlands, too.
New maples and willows were growing back on the slope of the first rise, but there was hardly a tree big enough to accommodate a decent raid on the King’s carriage by Robin and his band.
Friar Tuck and Little John are riding down together
With quarter-staff and drinking-can and grey goose feather.
The dead are coming back again, the years are rolled away
In Sherwood, in Sherwood, about the break of day.
— From “A Song of Sherwood,” by Alfred Noyes
Nor was there a tree anywhere large enough to shelter the tree house, which we remembered stood between the diving tree and Sherwood Forest.
The tree house, built of every conceivable piece of board and driftwood, was sheltered nearly 30 feet up in the limbs of a giant silver maple.
It had a deck on the front where we lay in the dappled shade and were cooled by a river breeze. We could peer out through the foliage and see the paddlewheelers pushing their barges of coal along, sometimes – when the water was up in the willows – so close we could see the pilot light his cigar.
A PLACE OF SECURITY
For the Braves, the tree house offered a place of security in an insecure world.
Vinson Euton was looking now across the river at the sandbar lying just downstream from the point where the Scioto River flows into the Ohio.
That stretch of sandy beach once represented Guam, Iowa Jima, Corregidor, Battan and Okinawa.
The six of us Braves would pile into the little red john boat, the Reuben James, heavily armed with wooden rifles, cardboard bazookas and flame throwers, tin can grenades, and invade the Japanese strongholds.
Vinson, the general who led the attack, was, like the rest of us — indestructible. We could be machine-gunned down or somersaulted by exploding shells, we quickly leaped back up to fight on.
I remember that summer of 1945 as though it were yesterday. How could I ever forget? It was a summer filled with more adventures than any boy had a right to expect.
I keep trying to recapture that summer of 1945: Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy, Terry and the Pirates, Orphan Annie, Red Ryder, the Gumps, Fibber McGee and Molly, Gabriel Heatter and Walter Winchell; and the Saturday matinees at the old Garden Theater — Lash Larue , The Phantom serials and John Wayne in “Back to Bataan.”
Vinson and I discovered that some things hadn’t changed. We still caught fish from the river.
We landed several sheepshead, a catfish, a smallmouth bass, and two hybrids.
When I raised the minnow jug, I was surprised to see, in among the captured three or four dozen river shiners, an Ohio River chub. We used to catch chubs with cane poles and take them home for our moms to fry in an iron skillet. This was the first chub I had seen in the river in a long time.
“If the chubs are coming back, then the river has to be getting cleaner,” I said.
We were so busy catching fish that another Brave of old, Dale Bailey, had slipped up and sat down on a cinderblock behind us. Another of the Braves, Hobo Cooper, who at the time lived in Beattyville, was to join us later.
Sad to report, since that day Vinson and I made that visit to the Beattyville riverfront, both Hobo and Dale have died.
That leaves four of us: Richard Keith, in the Canal Zone, Gayle Sanders, in Surprise, Arizona, and Vinson and me — still kicking around the Beattyville waterfront, looking for the tree house.
It was nostalgia such as that detailed above that led me to spend last winter writing my novel, “That Summer of ’45.”
And although it’s fiction, my boyhood days were remarkably similar to those of one of the book’s main characters, J. Tom Sycamore. I did move from the central Ohio town of Ashville to Beattyville in 1945, just as Sycamore had moved from Ashville to the fictitious village of Hooperville that year.
The 315-page book, which came off the press three months ago, is labeled a boy’s adventure story, but the greatest feedback I’ve had from those who have read it are people in the age group 50 to 70.
You can order the book from amazon.com. I still have some first edition copies I can ship you from home. To get one:
Send a check made out to me for $26, which includes postage and handling, to G. Sam Piatt, 50 First St., South Shore, Ky. 41175.
Include a note saying who you want the book signed to and the address you want it mailed to.