FROM THUNDER TO BREAKFAST Chapter 4 — A Day Off
Firefighter Hube Yates had the day off on February 13, 1931. It was a Friday. He had gone tooling around on his Harley-Davidson up into the Cave Creek, Camp Creek and Seven Springs area north of Phoenix. He took his dog, Sam, with him in the sidecar.
Before the day was over, the weather changed. It began to drizzle and then snow. Hube had an extra old jacket in the sidecar so he put it around Sam and buttoned it up. “There he sat like a funny little man with a grumpy expression on his face.”
They headed for home, where Hube left his dog, then went to the Fire Station.
“I found all the guys standin’ around in a big huddle. It looked like they had been waitin’ for me.”
The Salt River was at flood stage. Someone was marooned on the island above Joint Head Falls. Hube remembered that an old man built a shack out of paper, tin, and whatever junk he could find. He could walk to his little piece of earth when the river was dry, which was most of the time, but on this sleeting, freezing cold night, it was no place for a squatter, or anyone else. Someone had heard him yelling in the morning, but attempts to shoot out a rope by personnel from the Navy Recruiting Station didn’t work. The swimming instructor at Tempe Normal School (now ASU) refused to help.
By evening, people were standing on shore in the dark, waiting for something to happen. Nothing did, until Hube and Lester Barnum, his officer, drove to the site in an old Moon car. “There were people out there by the hundreds. The hail was beatin’ down on the cars like somebody was throwin’ rocks.”
A spotlight shone on the scene. A man hanging onto a swaying tree limb was about to be washed over the dam.
Hube couldn’t understand why someone had not swum out and rescued the man. Obviously it was up to him. He doffed his clothes and made several attempts, thwarted by a Sheriff who ordered him to put his clothes on. Hube complied. He had to. “I was shiverin’ like a leaf in a windstorm. I had handed my clothes to some guy I knew, went up the bank and forced myself through the crowd.”
On his way he saw a rope on the bank, undressed again, took the rope and stepped off into the ice water. “The air was so cold that the water felt kind of warm. About eight or nine feet out, the current picked me up. Bridge timbers from the new bridge they were buildin’ up above came tearin’ by. Even a drowned horse went by.
“The current banged me down about a hundred feet and slammed me into the gravel bank against the trees. I couldn’t carry that big old rope. And who did I see when I crawled out? The Sheriff! Oh, did he chew me out. He followed me back to the car. Nobody could see me if he’d leave his light off of me.”
He knew by that time that he needed both hands and both feet to swim the rapids.
A window-sash cord would work, he said. A man from Tempe said he had a whole skein.
He got the cord, Hube undressed again, tied a knot in it, put the end of it between his teeth, the rest over his shoulder, and eased off into the river.
“I swam to about five or six feet above the old man. When I came down to him I didn’t have the slightest idea of what to do with him. I just didn’t want him to die out there with nobody tryin.’
“He was above the water from his armpits up. If he’d been down in the water he wouldn’t have been so cold.
“The spotlights on the bank looked like stars shinin’ through the hail. I reached down and picked the man up. I was out there at least an hour and the only thing he said to me was, ‘You did make it, didn’t you, lad?’
“I saw something in the light in the water. It was a little old box he had made to mix mud in to patch his shack. It was about six inches high, probably four-and-a-half feet long, and about two-and-a-half feet wide. He had an old skid chain wired to the front of it. When his island got under water, he just stepped in this box. It supported him a little bit, and when the tree went down, the chain was hung up in it. There he had stayed all day in water up to his armpits.”
When the box started to float away, Hube reached over, grabbed it and put the old man back in it. Then he wound a cocoon of half-hitches around him, below his arms and around his waist. “I wasn’t sure he was goin’ to get back alive, or me either. It was so noisy just above the falls that you couldn’t hear yourself think. They were hollerin’ at me all the time from the shore. I could hear them screamin’ for me to get off. There was more water comin’.
“Well, I wasn’t goin’ to swim over there and then leave that old man. I just quit listenin’ to them.
“I tied the rope on to the end of the box. I was afraid to turn it loose because he would go over the falls. I kept feelin’ the knots with my lips in the darkness because it was so cold I could hardly feel anything with my hands.”
He yelled for the men on shore to pull the rope.
“The old man was about froze and was humped up in this box. He tipped forward like a fishin’ plug goin’ down to the bottom of the river. Cold shivers ran up my back. I jumped just as hard as I could jump as they were pullin’ him away. I got to the box and grabbed the ropes and pulled back as hard as I could. It rared up and he went out of sight in the darkness, just skippin’ like a sea-sled. He took a buggy-ride!”
At that point that there was nothing more for him to do but go home.
“I crossed my fingers and eased out into the river. I finally got to shore and felt the gravel beneath my feet. They couldn’t see me comin’ out of the river because it was so dark. I’ll bet I crawled through three hundred people, stark naked. I got over to this blamed old Moon car. When you opened it the lights went on. I was in a thunder of a fix. I just fell in. The only thing I had in there was my undershirt. Where were those guys who were still draggin’ my pants and shirt? It was noisy in there because of the hail. Lights began to come on, and here I am tryin’ to huddle up in there and cover myself with my undershirt.”
He yelled to people opening the car door, “For thunder’s sake, will you please turn the blamed lights off of me.” It was not a question. It was an order.
“Then a woman crawled in with me. She was kind of whimpering. She said, ‘I just want to ask you a question.’ She wanted to know if I made it over to the man.” Then she asked, “There was no way in the world to get him back, was there?”
“Yes, mam,” Hube reassured her. “He was back before I was. He’s probably in the hospital by now.”
She screamed and cried. It was her father.
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(Note: This is an excerpt from a chapter of Author Gene K. Garrison’s menoir about Hube Yates titled From Thunder to Breakfast, available in hard cover, paperback and on Kindle.)