Dog days along the Yadkin River bank
By Buddy Gettys
For the Salisbury Post
In ancient times, when the night sky was unobscured by artificial lights and smog, different groups of people in different parts of the world drew images by “connecting the dots” of stars. The star pictures are now call constellations.
One such constellation created by our European ancestors was the outline of a big dog called “Canis Major.”
Canis Major normally contained the brightest and most dominate star in the sky, Sirius, dubbed by our ancestors as the “the dog star.” But a strange situation occurs with this star between early July and mid-August. Sirius rises and sets with the sun. Ancient folks believed that Sirius added heat to the sun, creating a stretch of hot, sultry weather. They labeled that period of time “dog days.”
The boys growing up in Dukeville near the power generation station during the mid- to late 50s didn’t know or care about constellations and Sirius, but they knew when dog days arrived. It was the muggiest part of the year and always the time when they roamed the banks of the Yadkin River, finding new adventures and swallowing memories that have hung with them for a lifetime.
During those days, the frog pond may have been the favorite spot in the village. It was a place where the river backed up through a culvert under the railroad track. The water pooled at the culvert, creating a great swimming hole, and then spread for acres. At night, the mosquitoes hatched on the undergrowth and the cicadas sang from the weeping willow trees. In late morning, voices and laughter would break the stillness as Corky, Bill, Larry, Doug, Wormy and I could be seen running up the track shedding our clothing along the way and jumping buck naked into the water.
If a train came by carrying coal to the plant, there would always be one or more boys “mooning” the engineer, who would often toot the whistle and wave. There was one particular engineer we thought must have had a terrible accident to his hand because he only waved one finger.
The power company owned a pump rail cart they normally left outside the fence. This is a vehicle two people pumped up and down to move up and down the track. Understandably, with so much engineering talent at the plant, the vehicle had been modified, removing the pumping device and installing a gasoline engine. Also, it was understandable that we would learn how to start the engine … and did. Some nights we would take the cart up the track toward Spencer. But we never learned how to change gears. That required a special wrench. So when we reached our destination, Ron and Dan would normally get off, pick up the cart, turn it around and we would head back to the village, passing the old swimming hole.
There were tales about out-running trains and leaping into the river, but I never experienced any of that. The vehicle was heavy, requiring a lot of sweat to move it and certainly a nighttime swim in the frog pond was in order. However, sometimes after a long, hot day, we would just sit on the riverbank and listen to the frogs croak and watch the moonlight bounce off the ripples stirred by a tiny breeze. We told stories about what might be behind those willow trees, or what might jump up out of the water at any minute, or spirits that could be creeping around the riverbank. This kind of talk would have some of the gullible guys bug-eyed, with muscles ready to spring at a clap of hands.
The boys were also owners of a boat. We obtained it as the result of the annual spring flood. This was back in the days before Alcoa controlled the river, and all types of things would end up downstream between the months of March and July. There were sometimes small construction shacks, building materials, uprooted trees and a lot of trash. During dog days one year, following a late spring flood, we came upon a wooden boat washed up into a thicket. Tiny birds were hopping and chirping in the underbrush as we ran and jumped into the boat that was half full of water. A large snake crawled out and flopped over the side. Corky said it was a copperhead … so it was. We named the boat USS Copperhead, patched the bottom with tar paper and hung a sail made from one of my mom’s sheets. Then we borrowed some paddles from a boat behind the plant and took over the river. Blackbeard would have hired all of us.
I remember one of the quiet times with the boat. It was a night when the air was still and hot and heavy. The river was wide and calm. A full moon illuminated the ripples caused by the slow movement of our paddles. The lights from the plant twinkled in the water. I was there with my friend Wormy. We were afraid we might lose sight of the riverbank and get lost in the darkness. We watched the silhouette of trees along the shoreline, then came a clearing, and our tent that poked up in the darkness like a small Giza pyramid. We caught catfish and threw them back. We talked about baseball, school, the Boy Scouts and the girls who lived in the village. We ate our sandwiches we had packed and then napped in the boat before heading to our campsite.
I also remember several times we sank the boat because of overload and had to pull it out of the river with a rope. I don’t think we ever determined the true capacity of the vessel. The number of boys on the boat was determined by how many were there. We were always aware of the big dredge boat just past the plant we could swim to if necessary.
Then there was the “Belly Wash” next to the machine shop, a place where the employees took a break from their jobs and we took a break from the river. There were all types of vending machines with drinks, cakes, candy, etc. One particular Nehi machine was really cool. It had drinks lined up in slots. The process was to slide your favorite drink along the slot to a trap door device, deposit a nickel and the trap door would release so you could pull the drink out. We didn’t have many nickels, so we learned to carry an opener that popped the caps off the bottles. Then straws that were available at the machine were used to suck the drinks from the bottles. The vendor was accused of putting empty bottles in the machine. That all ended one night when we looked up and saw Mr. Cox, the plant superintendent, taking names.
I loved the river. Many days, I stood for hours along the water’s edge in stifling heat and cloying humidity, barefoot and no shirt, skipping pebbles across the still water. Occasionally, while reaching to the ground for pebbles, I would pick up an arrowhead and stuff it in my pocket. The arrowheads were there to teach me about the history these waters had seen for 400 hundred years or more.
From Indian trading paths to the ferries … to General Nathaniel Greene’s crossing in 1781 … to that one-armed Confederate general, Zebulon York, who drove the Yankees back to town and foiled their effort to destroy the railroad bridge … to the hunting grounds of Daniel Boone and the burying of Tom Dooley after his hanging in 1868 … to the soldiers who guarded the plant and bridges during World War II and so much more. But it was our river in the ’50s and on many lazy hot summer days, we watched the old Yadkin slip by, unaware of all those people and events that this river had known.
Dog days remain the warmest period of summer. However, scientists figured the heat is not due to added radiation from a far away star, regardless of its brightness. The heat is from the sun and is a direct result of the earth’s tilt. Maybe God ordered that tilt to challenge the Dukeville boys.
Writer’s note: This story is 99 percent true. The name of the boat was changed to USS Copperhead because the real name was not printable in a newspaper. Also, some may wonder about our safety. All I have to say about that is we could swim better than the fish. Our access to the plant is absolutely unheard of today under laws and corporate rules, and should be. However, in those days, making electricity, playing baseball, maintaining your property and civic projects were all connected. Kids carried hot meals to their dads at work. My paper route included delivery points like the control room, boiler room and turbine room and machine shop.
Buddy Gettys is a former mayor of Spencer and writes on occasion for the Salisbury Post. His dad worked at Buck Steam Plant for more than 40 years. Buddy worked summers there while attending school.