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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Yarns of a Kentucky Admiral

Hugh Rodman, USN

published by
The Bobbs-Merrill Company

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 2
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p13  Chapter I
In Old Kentucky

We have a saying in my native state, "Once a Kentuckian, always a Kentuckian." The reason is not far to seek. We are a clannish race, many of us closely related by blood and marriage, and by that which counts just as much — close family friendships which have existed for generations. Many of our forebears came from Virginia and we doubtless inherited their traits, not the least of which was the desire to acquire land upon which to erect our homes which were often copied after those in the Old Dominion.

Frankfort, my home town, the capital of the state, is picturesquely situated in a valley entirely surrounded by hills which rise three hundred feet above it. The Kentucky River flows through it in the shape of the letter S, dividing it into two parts, and the town itself occupies the level ground in the two bends.

In my boyhood days, these hills seemed mountainous to me and it was considered quite a feat to go to the top of some of them. On my first extended journey, a trip to Annapolis, I saw the Alleghenies and thought they were stupendous and grand beyond compare. My eyes were glued to the car windows in rapturous amazement. The mile-wide Ohio River seemed the grandest river on earth; the little Kentucky River at Frankfort became insignificant.

 p14  The Alleghenies took a back seat later when I crossed the Rocky Mountains, and they in turn went into the discard after I had ascended the Andes in South America several times.

And so the whole world, after all, is a matter of contrast, not only in its natural features, but in every other respect, and to me has been a never-ending source of wonder, pleasure and interest.

Most of my life has been spent in traveling, both at home and abroad, and hence I have a fairly comprehensive idea of the world at large. But in taking a retrospective view, I know of no more delightful spot and charming community than the Frankfort of my boyhood, fifty‑odd years ago. It was one of the fairly early settlements and, being the capital, seemed to attract people from all over the state, both professionally and socially, so that one's acquaintance became state-wide.

In the block or square in which I was born and lived, and in the houses facing it, there have resided several justices of the Supreme Court of the United States, three or four Cabinet members, some six or seven United States senators, almost as many members of Congress, five or six governors of the state, United States ministers to foreign countries, a number of generals, both in the United States and Confederate Armies, and four flag officers in the navy. Some of these families had lived there for several generations, and we were all more or less united by ties of kinship, marriage or otherwise.

Very generally speaking, in the old days a cruise was supposed to last three years, on the expiration of which an officer would be granted two or three months leave of absence to visit home. Though professionally  p15 and personally the sea and ships, with the incident travel, held a deep fascination for me, nevertheless, I was always keen to get back home to "Old Kentucky" after each long absence.

Once after an extended cruise in Chinese waters, we returned rather leisurely and called at quite a number of ports, sometimes stopping for a week or so in one place, which gave us ample opportunity for visits to the interior. Yet, when in the month of May, as we drove from Lexington to Frankfort, through the blue-grass section, with its shaded woodland meadows in which the finest thoroughbred stock was grazing, its verdant fields, well-kept farms and commodious homes, it seemed to me that I had never seen a more restful and pleasing panorama.

The Center of the Universe And Frankfort really was the center of the universe, as the following story will illustrate:

I had been invited to address the Chamber of Commerce of Cincinnati. The president in introducing me, stated that he had just learned that in spite of the fact that I was born and brought up in Frankfort, the present occasion was the first time in my life that I had ever spent a day in Cincinnati, and added jokingly that this was hard to understand because Kentucky was a suburb of Cincinnati.

I replied in the same vein by stating that I had positive proof that Frankfort was the center of the universe, and Cincinnati a distant suburb.

Shortly after the bursting of the dam at Johnstown, Pennsylvania, which resulted in the death of over a thousand people, my brother, Doctor Rodman, and I were discussing it in the presence of an illiterate old woman, a patient of my brother, who apparently was greatly interested. As the question of its distance  p16 from home was under discussion, we had measured it.

Old Mrs. S–––––, using the local vernacular and the diminutive for my name, said, "Hughie, how fur do you‑all call it to that‑air Johnstown what you‑all is talkin about?"

I replied, "Doctor Billy and I measured it this morning and found it to be over six hundred miles."

Looking me through and through with an incredulous expression, she said, "How fur do you call it to my house?"

"Three and a half miles."

"How fur is it to St. John's-in‑the‑Wilderness?" (A little church in the hills.)

"Seven miles."

"And the bridge across Stony Creek?"

"Twelve miles."

"Do you know when your Pa used to go fishin' at Bill Hutchinson's house on Flat Creek?"

"Yes; that is exactly twenty miles from the court house."

"And how many times as far as that is it to Johnstown?"

"Let me see — about thirty or thirty‑one times as far."

"Hughie," she said, "you're a liar; thar ain't no place in the world that fur from Frankfort."

Hence our logical (?) conclusion that Frankfort must be the center of the universe.

Uncle Jim In my childhood days both my father and mother owned slaves, as did every one in the South; but in spite of the fact that ours were well treated, slavery was abhorrent to me, and it is hard for me to realize now that negroes were ever held in bondage. One of  p17 our slaves was Uncle Jim, who had been purchased in an adjacent state. A more kindly, gentle, faithful creature it would be hard to find. Many an evening, in the absence of my parents, I was left in his charge and from his lips heard the old‑fashioned darky stories of Brer Fox, Brer Ba'ar and the other "critters," which to my childish imagination were idealistic and true. These stories no doubt stimulated my interest in natural history, which became somewhat dominant in after-life. Many of his yarns were practically identical with those of "Uncle Remus" which have been so wonderfully portrayed by Joel Chandler Harris.

One of the best negro stories I have ever read is entitled Aeneas Africanus, and describes the wanderings of a faithful southern darky in his search for Thomasville. It always reminded me of a similar incident connected with Uncle Jim.

For good and sufficient reasons resulting from his activities in aid of the Confederacy during the Civil War, one of my uncles had to take refuge in Canada. It was necessary to get a certain amount of money to him. The money was converted into gold and given to Uncle Jim, who was told to ride on horseback to an adjacent town some twenty miles distant, and deliver both the gold and horse to my uncle's son, who would carry it to his father in Canada; and he was carefully instructed not to divulge his mission to any one. At the end of about six weeks the old man returned. Having failed to find my cousin, and in the absence of my father, he buried the money in tin cans in the garden.

On my father's arrival the old darky produced the money in fear and trembling and stated that on failure  p18 to find my cousin at the rendezvous, he had ridden on and on, asking those whom he had met where the town of Canada might be. But no one seemed to know, so he had returned home; evidently crestfallen at his failure.

When the money was counted, it was found to be fifteen or twenty dollars above the amount consigned. When he was told rather seriously that it was incorrect, the old man would have turned pale had such a thing been possible, but he declared he had not tampered with it.

Seeing his evident distress, we put him at ease, and under pressure he admitted that he had added the extra dollars because time and time again he had tried to count it and had as often failed. Fearing that he might be suspected, and unable to understand how anybody could accurately count so much, he had added his own few dollars to be sure the sum would not fall short. It was pathetic, yet faithfulness personified.

On one of my visits home on leave I found a young negro girl about fourteen acting as waitress. She must have been captured in the brush, for she was all but totally ignorant of the ordinary conventions of polite society, or of the duties in which she was being trained. Without the slightest intention of being disrespectful, her manner at times was assertive, to say the least.

I had lived away from home so much that the negro dialect, though familiar to me, was in a way novel and entertaining; and Emma's language was beyond compare more pronounced than any I had heard for many a year. How on earth any one could crowd so many negatives into one short sentence  p19 is beyond my comprehension. I had had an egg for breakfast, and directed her to bring me another; but evidently the egg crop was running short, for on her return from the kitchen she delivered me the following message from the cook:

"Mister Hugh, Aunt Silvie, she say dey ain't no mo' out dere no mo'n cep' 'nuf fur dem whut ain't had none yit." Her enunciation was like the patter of a machine‑gun.

"De Ten er Hearts" Later, Emma was employed by my sister​a in her home, and had been instructed in her duties in answering the front door-bell. My sister was the wife of an army officer and when one of her previous army acquaintances was ordered on duty in Frankfort, he came to call. When he rang the bell Emma appeared.

Said he, "Does Mrs. W––––– live here?"

"Ain't you got no ticket?" Emma asked with an air of importance.

"I am very sorry to say I haven't," he replied, recognizing that she meant a visiting card.

"Den you can't git in," and she closed the door in his face.

She related the conditions to her mistress, and was told to return at once and ask the gentleman his name and whom he wished to see.

In compliance, but still with an air of assurance, she said, "Miss Pattie, she say she wants ter know what yo' name is an' who yo' wants ter see."

Recognizing the "Miss Pattie" as Mrs. W–––––, the caller said, "Tell Mrs. W––––– it is Lieutenant Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Harts.

And the impertinent little wretch, with a grimace, slammed the door in his face and returning to her mistress, said:

 p20  "Miss Pattie, Ah's done dooed whut yo' tole me; when Ah ast dat man whut he name was, he tried to make er fool outer me an' say he wuz de ten er hearts, so Ah ain't let him come in."

At any rate, when matters were finally straightened out the lieutenant got a promotion, for we raised him to the rank of King of Hearts and let it go at that.

One quite privileged character was an old darky who had belonged to one of our family. He was absolutely illiterate, but loved to use big words.

When the Fourth of July came around, knowing that some of the darkies called it Emancipation Day, I said, by way of starting a conversation, "Uncle Ben, what is the day of the month?"

"Why, Mister Hugh, don' you know dis is de Forf ob July?"

"Yes, you darned old black rascal." (He full well knew that was a term of endearment.) "But what do you darkies call it?"

"Ah hern some whut call it de Emination Day."

With a look of perplexity, I said, "The Emination Day?"

"Yes, suh, dat's it."

"How do you spell it, Uncle Ben?"

The old negro's face showed embarrassment for a moment, then lighted up as he replied, "Ah ain't quite sho' how yo' does spell it, but Ah 'specs yo' spell her putty much the same way as yo' did dis time las' year; but she don' come on de same day ob de week, jus' sho's yo' bawn."

A Convincing Comparison One day when John, a darky on the place, was mowing the grass, I saw him jump and grab a stick.  p21 When I asked what was the matter, he replied, "Dar's er great big snake."

"Don't kill him," I said, "until I see what kind it is."

Finding it to be not only harmless, but very useful, I told him that it was not poisonous and wouldn't bite him. He replied, "Mister Hugh, yo' mout jes as well tell me der ain't no ha'nts (haunts, spirits) in er graveyard as ter tell me dat dat ar snake won't bite an' ain't pizenous."

I enjoyed that which seemed to him to be a convincing comparison.

Just one more reference to my home in Kentucky. One day while in Washington I dropped into the Cosmos Club, which is largely patronized by government officials and other savants, to remind an uncle of mine that he had an engagement for dinner at a certain hour.

My uncle had some little reputation as a scientific stockbreeder, and when I found him he was in the midst of a discussion with a well-known zoologist concerning the crossing of zebras with asses and horses, with the view of producing strength, endurance, form and beauty.

The conversation then turned into a discussion as to whether or not animals had instinct or reason. Hoping to put an end to it and get my uncle to keep his engagement, I remarked that I might easily throw some light on the subject.

As Interpreted by a Dog Since both he and one of the others present, who was a Frankfort man, were familiar with my home and its surroundings, I asked if they remembered a little dog there, which was very intelligent and could do a  p22 number of tricks. They nodded and I continued, "One day I gave my small nephew some dry powder. After moistening some of it and shaping it into a cone, he took the remainder and proceeded to lay a meandering train through the grass, leading up to the cone.

"For a time the dog seemed to take quite an interest in the proceedings, but after a while, since nothing seemed to develop, he lay down in the grass, put his nose between his paws and apparently went to sleep. Unfortunately, he had chosen a place for his nap almost upon the train, and when it was ignited by the youngster and the flame flashed past him, it burned his nose.

"I noticed that always afterward whenever I would strike a match to light a cigarette, the dog would slink away, evidently reminded of the time when he had been burned."

That started a discussion as to whether the action was the result of instinct or reason, but I interrupted and said, "Just a moment, please; let me finish."

I continued, "One day, as my wife and I sat on the porch, we noticed the dog hurrying and scurrying around the lawn in curves and circles, barking and pretending to be playing at attacking something hidden in the tall grass. Suddenly he stuck his tail between his legs, sneaked up on the porch with a sort of 'Et tu, Brute' look and lay down beside us.

"I remarked that I would be willing to wager a small amount that the dog had seen an old match on the brick pavement immediately under us, and, to corroborate it, jumped down to look for it.

"Just then a toad, with which the dog had evidently been playing, hopped out of the grass, and through the thin abdominal membrane of his belly  p23 showed the glow of a lightning bug, which the dog had no doubt interpreted to mean that the toad had struck a match on him."

They did not hurl an ink‑well at me! To my astonishment, they took it seriously. At any rate, before further discussion could be resumed I accomplished my mission, and my uncle got home in time to keep his engagement.

Thayer's Note:

a Pattie Rodman Wright (1853‑1922); she had married Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Walter King Wright: he was briefly stationed at Frankfort in 1896. The lieutenant in the anecdote was stationed in northern Kentucky from 1895 to 1898.

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Page updated: 22 Dec 17