The time period was the late 1980s. My job title was Head Girls Basketball Coach. I had a good group of up-and-coming players who also doubled as GREAT young ladies. I decided it was time to take them on a long trip over Christmas to help them bond. There is nothing like a seven-hour bus ride to accomplish that task. I carefully selected two eastern Kentucky schools to play after Christmas. The schools were Millard and Feds Creek. Both were located in Pike County. We planned to leave the day after Christmas.
The day of our long awaited trip finally came. As was custom, I usually shared the bus driving duties with my assistant coach. We were to leave at seven in the morning. I had the bus warmed up and loaded with equipment and players. No assistant coach in sight. Finally at about 7:10 a.m., Mr. Assistant wheeled his little Sonoma into the front of the school and parked. Within seconds, he had grabbed a small duffle bag from his truck and literally dove into the seat behind me and said, “How about you driving for a while and I will take over later?” Well, you see Mr. Assistant was between wives at the time. Apparently, he had been on a scouting mission the night before. I am not sure what he was scouting, but it must have been an all-night trip, because seven hours later he raised his head up and said, “Are you ready for a break?” That was about the time I was crossing the Pike County line. Like I have always said, “There is no substitute for good help.”
The first thing we did upon arriving in Pikeville was check into the Best Western Hotel. I wouldn’t find out until years later what went on at that hotel while we were there. (Stay tuned for details) We were fortunate to have some fine chaperones follow us up in a car. Dorris McGill, Jean Butts and Linda Keller were the three moms who made the journey. After checking the girls in, Assistant Coach Gary Mitchell (not the one mentioned earlier) and myself set out to find the schools where we would be playing. Millard was easy. It was just a few ridges over from Pikeville. Millard was a small community, sort of a sleepy version of Cerulean. I recall a school, store and jail. We went into the store to ask directions for our next destination, Feds Creek. When we approached the first set of locals, they seemed bewildered. Even though they lived in Millard, they either couldn’t or wouldn’t tell us where Feds Creek was. Finally, after analyzing the situation, the store keep told us how to get to Feds Creek High School. To our dismay, it was only five or six miles from where we were. But it was rugged travel. We were told there was only one way in and one way out. When we got there, the first thing that I noticed was the baseball field. It had a railroad track running directly through right centerfield. Talk about having trouble keeping your eye on the ball! Their gym was tiny but beautiful in its own way. It had about three rows of bleachers on each side coming up from the floor. Then there was a balcony on both sides that consisted of four or five rows of seats with the last two hanging over the floor. The coach there told us that fans would often times hang over the court and spit tobacco juice on the opponents or officials, whichever they disliked the most. In its day, the gym was probably a palace. Unfortunately, its day had come and gone.
Speaking of days coming and going, on our first morning in Pikeville we awoke to three inches of snow. Thanks to the sun and good road crews, conditions improved enough for us to make it to the game at Millard. We went on to defeat Millard and then do the same to Feds Creek the next night. There were many highlights on the trip. First, there were the two varsity victories we picked up. But most importantly, there was the cultural and educational experience that the girls gained. We spent time in the beautiful mountains and talked to the local people. We ate at the No. 1-rated restaurant in Feds Creek, The Viking Grill. Of course, it was the only restaurant in Feds Creek. While there, we shot some pool in the basement of the Grill while being warmed by a coal-burning furnace. Also, we traveled a few miles to Breaks Interstate Park where the three states of Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia come together. It was there that we got to witness families gathering their drinking water from a spring. There were at least five families filling hundreds of plastic jugs and loading their pickups down. We also had the opportunity to ride over to Grundy, West Virginia. It was there that I saw my favorite sign of the trip. It was a large homemade sign made out of cardboard. It was prominently displayed in the center of the poolroom window. It simply said, “UNLOAD YOUR GUNS BEFORE ENTERNING.” It goes without saying that we did not venture into that establishment.
As there usually are, there were many other memorable moments on the trip to Pikeville. Perhaps the most stunning is the one that I found out about several years later.
Sometime in the latter part of the 1990s I was reading the book Above Suspicion. It was the true story of FBI Agent Mark Putnam. Putnam was assigned to the Pikeville Post in eastern Kentucky. Agent Putnam was using a mountain girl as an informant. As time went by, he had an affair with the girl from the hills of Pike County. Putnam was eventually transferred to Miami. Putnam would occasionally travel back to Pikeville. Things went very sour between Putnam and his mountain lover. To sum up the story, Putnam murdered his mistress. The book told how he was torn over what to do with the body after he committed the murder. So he checked into the Best Western in Pikeville where he normally stayed. He kept the body in his trunk there for a couple of days in the freezing weather. Then he traveled high into the mountains, where he dumped the corpse into a ravine where no one would ever find it. As I fervently read through the pages of this ordeal, I nearly leapt out of my seat. The days Putnam was at the Best Western, with a body in his trunk, were the exact same days we were there. Stories from the Pikeville’s past like this one are why Pike County was once called the most dangerous county in the world.
Ask any of our players from that era and they will have memories of Feds Creek. It was an unforgettable time in my life and the lives of our players.
OT: Weather permitting, I am taking our boys basketball team to Belfry for a Christmas Tournament this year. Belfry is located in Pike County.
Double OT: We will be staying in Williamson, West Virginia.
Triple OT: Some members of the infamous trip were players Janay McGill, Stephanie Humphries, Kim Mitchell, Denise Christy, Christy Samsil, Crystal Woods, Robin McCraw, Lawanda Bacon, Kim Boyd, Jennifer Butts, Susan Sloan and Gina Keller. This is a partial and semi-accurate list as time fades the memory.
Quadruple OT: Coming soon, the column “Coach for Life” and hopefully my book Keys to the Gym.
Enthusiasm Makes the Difference
(Mike Wright is the head coach of boys basketball and cross country at Trigg County High School. For the time being, emails concerning Coach’s Corner can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.)