If you’re traveling on Route 42 through Sullivan County, Virginia, there’s a sort of tourist attraction you might want to stop and check out. The only “tourists” who ever venture to it are the small number in the know – out-of-towners with family in the area, newcomers – those types. Your type, I might say.
Heading north on that old two-lane highway, you’ll pass a small Baptist church on your right called Clear Springs. About a half-mile past it, you’ll see a little combination gas station-diner on the right, just as you’re coming around a sharp curve. It’s called J&N Gas & Eats. Stop there. You can get a fill-up with friendly, genuine southern service, and the food isn’t half-bad, either. But that’s not why I would have you stop there. That attraction I was telling you about? It lies in the woods up behind the station.
Pull your car over into the gravel parking lot and walk to the left side of the building. You’ll see the beginning of an old logging road going up into the woods. The owners of J & N keep it cleared off up to a certain point, but since you’ll be passing through in October, the entire pathway should be clear. Unless things have changed, there’ll probably be a PRIVATE PROPERTY sign nailed to a tree.
Go in the station. The place is run exclusively by the Jacobs family, owners of the land that the logging road runs into, so you can tell any of the employees of your intentions, which is “to go check out the pond” – remember that, okay? – and they’ll know what you mean.
Now you can proceed up the trail. It’ll take you on a winding course up through the hills, which are really striking in the fall. When you’re about a quarter-mile up in the boonies, you should see Unusual Sight #1. There’s an old wrecked car, at least fifty years old, lying on the hillside, rusting away. I never figured out where it came from, and never heard anyone else say, either. But it’s there just the same, as are several large stumps if you want to take a rest.
From this point, you’ll find the trail gets wider, but twists more, taking you on up through the mountains. Now, I’d say after about half a mile up from the car you’ll come to an old, deserted camp site to the left of the trail. You’ll know it by the rusted metal milk crate, the antique type, sitting in the center of a circle of rocks. It once served as a grill of sorts for the campers who used this site.
I know this needs some explaining, and that will come in due time.
Just beyond the old camp, the trail winds steeply around the ridge, turning a sharp corner that doesn’t allow you to see what’s beyond until you’re there. Go along this curve and you’ll likely stop dead in your tracks at what lies before you: a large, deep pond, right smack in the middle of the woods.
This, my friend, is Miller’s Pond.
Miller’s Pond is ten shades of gorgeous in October, with the freshly fallen leaves floating on the surface, and the crisp, blue autumn sky reflected through the bare tree limbs.
I know it will be hard to do, but draw your eyes away from the pond and look to the left embankment – you’ll see a concrete beam, about three feet tall, slanted at the top. It’s worn, chipped, and moss has overtaken the base. On the slant there rests a plaque, which is still legible, as the Jacobs family sees to it as they do the trail.
It reads like this:
“In memory of those young adventurers who dared not to idle away their time in the summer of 1962, choosing instead to set sail on a course for imagination on the surface of this body of water, a mirror with which to reflect God’s creation.
May they find peace sailing beyond our earthly shore.”
I recall what it says verbatim because I have read it hundreds of times. I even helped build the structure on which it sets, and I was there at the dedication ceremony in the spring of 1963.
Now, divert your attention from the plaque and look straight ahead. You’ll see something long, thin and dark protruding from the surface near the bank. You’ll probably mistake it for a tree limb, as most do. It is not. What it is in fact is a rusted clothesline pole. There was once a bushel basket hanging from the T-section at the top. A basket for the lookout…hanging from the mast. You see? You have found the Main Attraction. You have found the last visible traces of a shipwreck of sorts. Yes, that’s right. You have found the Killer Whale.
At this point you’re likely confused. I sent you nearly a mile back in the sticks…for a rusty old pole? Well, I admit it’s no Niagara Falls, but tell me where else in the country (and likely the world) you can stand on the bank of a pond within a few feet of a shipwreck in the middle of the woods? I suspect nowhere.
Now, your explanation, as I promised. It’s quite an unusual story; one that has become deeply imbedded in local talk over the last forty years.
The ruin of that camp you walked by was created by three young boys – the Ottoman twins, aged 12, and a Jacobs boy, aged 11 – around the summer of ’61. They camped out there frequently, sitting up late roasting marshmallows, telling ghost stories, and occasionally sneaking off a few cans of Old Milwaukee from the younger boy’s family’s fridge. Boys will be boys, y’know.
But these particular boys were not so average, really. They were easily bored with the small-town world they’d been brought up in, and when they got bored they could come up with some of the craziest ideas to pass the time.
That particular summer, ’61, they were convinced they could build an airplane out of an old soapbox derby car and scrap parts from a car engine. Of course, everyone knew it couldn’t be done, except them. In about two weeks’ time, right up there by their campground, they had fashioned together what at least looked like a small airplane, with an old fan blade serving as a propeller and two long pieces of tin for wings. The “control panel” was a speedometer and odometer yanked from a junk car, and there was a Plymouth steering wheel and a Buick gearshift in there, too.
Anyway, having taken the time to build the thing, they naturally wanted to try to fly it. I honestly don’t know what they thought would happen – they’d take off into the wide blue yonder, I guess – but on a warm, clear morning in August they pushed their plane up atop the ridge overlooking the pond. The youngest of the three, the Jacobs boy, decided he would be pilot. That or the older boys decided for him.
Either way, he climbed into the seat, and the twins gave him a hefty push to get him going. Only he didn’t take off into the blue like he’d planned. He flew, all right – straight into a cliff facing. And later his mom flew, too, rushing him to the hospital with a mild concussion and broken arm.
After that incident, the younger boy’s parents grounded him; the twins’ did likewise (something they rarely did). The three of them didn’t return to their stomping grounds for the rest of that summer. But as they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder, and it wasn’t long before one of the twins turned his high-powered imagination away from the sky and toward Miller’s Pond.
The trio had always included the pond in their woodland adventures – fishing, catching frogs, and sailing toy sail boats. But not a one of them could swim. Perhaps it was from this fact that their next big plan was cooked up.
They decided to build a sailboat, not a toy but a real one they could ride, and could sail across the pond without fear of ending up drowned.
Over the course of the winter of ’61 – Christmas vacation in particular – they planned. They gathered materials to build with, storing it all in the twins’ basement and the younger boy’s shed.
A long, light wooden crate would become the hull. It had once belonged to the twins’ older sister, serving as her toy chest. It was a big chest at that – about eight feet long and probably three-and-a-half feet wide, I’d say.
An old metal clothesline pole – the one that can still be seen today – would serve as the mast. On it would be harnessed a bushel basket that had been thrown out by the market for some reason. It’d make a fine lookout post, even if it was too flimsy for any of them to actually sit in.
The winter of ’61 passed into the spring of ’62, and come April the trio could be seen assembling their boat outside the shed outside the Jacobs boy’s house, smartly nailing old sheets of tin to the sides and bottom of the toy chest for added durability.
Atop they nailed a piece of plywood, shorter than the chest, leaving a gap at the back. This was their hatch. See, I told you these kids were inventive!
Over this was placed a thin, square piece of iron of unknown origins; something they dug out of the junkyard. Now they could “batten down the hatch,” so to speak, and stay on the pond during bad weather.
And when they were done, they had a crude, rectangular – but likely floatable – boat. They christened her the Killer Whale, smashing an empty bottle of Upper 10 on one of her corners to make it official.
Finished, the Ottoman boys got their neighbor to set the boat on his wagon and haul it up the logging road with his tractor.
The Killer Whale did indeed float! Over the remainder of that summer, everyday it seemed, those boys were out on Miller’s Pond. But in their minds, I suspect, they were somewhere in the middle of the Pacific.
A few times, Mr. Jacobs had come looking for them around sunset, and had found the three of them still on the boat. When summer vacation began to grow short, the Ottoman twins took to spending a few nights a week camped out in the boat. The Jacobs boy wasn’t allowed. They threw in some blankets and pillows and hung a lantern, but I still fail to see how they found comfort in a crate.
Mid-August was upon the children of Sullivan County before they knew it, and attached to it was another school year. I’ve come to believe that there’s a determination in the hearts of all children to make this last day of summer vacation the most fun day they’ve ever had, and the trio were no different.
They spent their day dragging boards and logs up to the pond; a dock was being built for the Killer Whale. By evening it was done: four logs set into the mud of the shallow east end of Miller’s Pond, with boards atop. A dock for their boat it was, at least in the eyes of youth.
That night, the two Ottoman boys decided to spend one last night on their boat. That Jacobs boy, despite his begging and crying, had to stay home, what with a new school year starting the next morning. When he asked his mom why the twins got to, he was given a critique of their parents’ lack of ability in “raisin’ young’uns up right.”
Evening turned to dusk, and throughout the county girls and boys reluctantly came inside, had their dinner and then their bath, and laid out there things for the dreaded morning. As they closed their eyes and tried to shut out the worries all kids have before that horrific First Day dawns, a hard storm blew up. It was as though nature herself were telling the children that yes, summer break was over.
And on that depressing night, the Ottoman boys lay wide awake inside the Killer Whale, listening to the rain pelt the boat’s tin sides. Perhaps their adventurous minds spun images of Japanese fighter planes firing upon a battleship at Pearl Harbor.
If the sound of the rain was comparable to gunfire, then the sound of the giant limb cracking in the wind above their heads must have resonated as the explosion of a torpedo. Maybe they didn’t have time to think this at all.
The Killer Whale was tied on each side with rope, one side to a post on the new dock, the other to the big oak the boat was floating directly under. It was from that tree that the terrific crack! of the breaking limb came. Seconds later that limb crashed across the boat.
The plywood upper deck split down the middle and caved inward; the planks of the crate superstructure splintered, the tin siding popping loose and bending outward. All of this destruction occurred in the flash of a second, and in another flash the Killer Whale was forced to the bottom of Miller’s Pond by the weight of that limb and the damage it caused. Sad as it is, I’m afraid it’s also true: those young boys were sent to the bottom, too, trapped under the weight of the limb. Really, they were likely crushed, if you think about it. I don’t like to.
When morning came and the boys didn’t come home, Mr. Ottoman trekked up to the pond, a whipping in mind no doubt. What he saw was…nothing. The boat was gone, as though his sons’ imaginations had taken over and they really had sailed off on the high seas.
The dock had fallen in. One of the log supports was still in place, and a lone two-by-four floated nearby, but other than that, nothing. It was then Mr. Ottoman noticed the rope tied to the tree. It extended down into the water, and was taut, obviously tied to something.
He knelt down on the mossy bank and gave the rope a few good, hard tugs. It gave, sending him onto his back. Up with the other end of rope, the knot still laced through a hole in it, came a tattered scrap of plywood.
Everything came together then with horrifying clarity.
Mr. Ottoman yelled and plunged head-first into the still, dark water. His palms at first gripped only silt, then his fingers grazed wood. A limb. His open palm brushed across the sharp edge of a piece of tin, drawing blood. The boat! The boys!
He surfaced, yelled in agony, and dove back under, desperately trying to heave the large limb off his sons’ boat. His sons’ coffin.
It’s said, and I believe it, that when Mrs. Ottoman found him, Mr. Ottoman had driven himself to exhaustion. Collapsed on the bank, mud-caked and bleeding, he cried and simply pointed into the water.
That afternoon, a couple of locals with diving certificates were finally able to roll the log off the crate. The bodies of the Ottoman boys were retrieved, and they now rest in the Green Hill Cemetery.
And the Killer Whale still rests in Miller’s Pond, that rusted pole marking the spot, like the hand of a drowning person breaking the surface a final time. A morbid comparison, I know, but one I cannot help making every time I see it.
The following spring, I helped my father construct the concrete memorial marker that now stands by the pond. Mrs. Testerman, the librarian at Dagger Creek Elementary where the Ottoman boys had gone to school, wrote the lines that are on the plaque. Not exactly poetry, but the feeling is there, all the same.
Now, you may find yourself wondering about how I know so many details of this story, or why I have made it a point to get you to Miller’s Pond. You see, the Jacobs family from which the younger boy came from, and the same family who now owns the land the pond is on, is my set of Jacobs. Perry Jacobs, as you well know, is me, and I was that Jacobs boys I’ve been speaking of.
I do hope you will visit Miller’s Pond when you come this fall, and see the beauty of the Virginia autumn reflected in her glass surface. Perhaps I’ll join you there. I’m sure that plaque is due for a good cleaning.
And if we become lost in thought looking out at the pond, let us promise not to break the process, for imagination is the most precious gift, one we as older people must work to cling to. I have certainly worked to keep mine, nurturing it as a precious seed, for in always remembering what it means to imagine, I know I will never forget my friends, who knew all too well.
Author Brandon Whited is a young writer from Southwest Virginia. His work has previously been published in the Clinch Mountain Review, Bewildering Stories, Death Head Grin, and Weird Year.