By Amy Wilson
Photos by David Stephenson
WILD CAT — At dawn, the Mouth of the Beech Creek River is a deep jade green. The ground that rises up all it is the unmistakable color of wood shavings. The sky above it is cloaked in a still frozen fog. Visible in dark patches, freshly turned earth, ready for planting.
Still, the roosters down at Larry Owens’ compound are noisily gearing up for their big every-morning-doodlefest, beaten already to the punch by the gee-whiz daffodil bulbs which have forced their greens up and their yellow petals out to greet this day.
It’s March Madness in Little Wild Cat, a town of maybe 75. That might not count the whole Combs family that lives over in Big Wild Cat, says Chris Davidson, who is out in his camo-gear this morning, thinking of bagging a few squirrels, and isn’t up to doing a census.
Big and Little Wild Cat are separated by Honchell Bend which catches a curve on Ky. 11 and folds down and away from the road into a veritable well of Wild Cat past. There’s the behemoth sawmill and the roadside commisary that served it. There’s the white boarding house where something like 50 men used to bunk when the lumber was coming in and railroad ties and mining posts had to be made on the QT.
Zella Webb’s house now sits on just barely higher land than her Grandmama Margaret’s which washed away from this site in 1947. They found the house in Bollings Bottom, yonder ways, but, by then, everything was gone and, well, that’s just life lived this near to a river.
The great advantage of the proximity of the water used to be that “all the neighbors used to come here to get water,” says Zella, as she pries off the lid and laments the now-broken pump. Of course, the Webb home has city water now but Zella does miss the taste of the well water which — come, look — comes up along the squarely laid limestone walls still perfectly white after all this time.
As a little girl, Zella was one of 11 children but, she swears, she was the only one who swam in the river. When she heard her mother calling for her to come up to the house, “she’d knew where I’d be. I was supposed to bring the switch with me on my way up.”
Even after all that, Zella says Wild Cat “couldn’t have been no better place to be raised in.”
Zella did leave for a long time to raise her own kids and she had no thought of coming back. But when given the chance to buy the old homeplace back from her daughter, Sheila, “I said, There are no bad memories there. I love this river. You get your butt back there.”
Sheila, who has boy children, left behind the basketball goal and the swing set back behind the house. The swing set is blue and white. The basketball is weathered. The blue morning sky is the limit.
From Zella’s house, you can hear the river tumble gently over the rocks. You can hear the scant morning traffic. This is Wild Cat’s version of the dribble-drive, it seems. Quiet, without ostentation, watched by all the wildlife that Kentucky can muster in this corner of the world at this hour. That’d be hawks and sparrows, muskrats and — the locals are certain — wildcats.
That’s how Alton “Shug” White figures the town got its name. He’s just sure there’s still a mess of those cats around “screaming like lost children.”
You hear them and you know to get going in the other direction, Shug says. “They can work on a dog,” he offers up, shaking his head in dismay, taking another puff on his Hav-A-Tampa Jewel.
William Sharp, whose grandmother, Sophie Walker, was the last postmistress of Wild Cat, now owns Sharp’s Grocery and he will attest to the truthfulness of the still lively wildcat population in the area.
The rest of Shug’s stories are not so easily verified. Seems Shug, a lumberman, tumped a bulldozer over and down the river bank a few years back. His head was torn open badly and “my guardian angel came to me and he said, we got to get you outta here. I said, I can’t drive outta here.”
That’s when the guardian angel helped him back into the seat and got the air conditioner or the heater working (Shug tells it both ways) and waited for his son to come back to find him some four hours later.
As he was “fixing to walk into heaven,” Shug told his angel to tell Jesus that he would like to do an honest day’s work in heaven “because I don’t like to be idle.”
The deal was about done before Shug was dragged back to life, courtesy of a $7,000 helicopter ride to the University of Kentucky.
That appears to have sealed the now existing deal between Shug and UK in terms of lifetime allegiance as now Shug is able to go on and on about the way the Cats beat Tennessee in the SEC tournament and the dangers of “pouring it on.”
And about the fun of what is coming up, for the Cats and, in life, for of us.
There’s no great moral to Shug’s story other than this maybe: Sometimes Wild Cat seems like heaven. And, if it’s not, it’s still a place with considerable marvels.