Appeared in the September 2011 issue of The Southern Genealogists Exchange Quarterly


Bt J. G. Braddock Sr.

This is a genealogy article only to the extent that my branch of the Braddock family tree almost became a mere stump with only my name, birth date, and death date on it one August morning in 1949 a few days after my nineteenth birthday instead of having the five limbs, each with sub-limbs, that now branch from it.

At the time, I lived with my mother and step-father on Folly Beach, a resort island near Charleston, South Carolina.  Not long after I had arrived home from my all-night stint serving hamburgers at McNally’s Grill, a man knocked on my mother’s door. He introduced himself as Johnny Fortenberry, a shrimper from Cocoa Beach, Florida, who was going to trawl the waters off Charleston. He had been inquiring around Center Street, Folly Beach’s main drag, about someone who might be interested in being his deckhand. Someone mentioned my name. As the hourly rate he offered exceeded what McNally’s paid and I would have more time in the evenings to hang out with my friends, I readily accepted. He instructed me to be at the dock by five the next morning.

Upon my arrival at the appointed time, he informed me he was having problems with the gasoline-powered engine of his trawler, the Mary Jane, and for me to come at five the next morning. When I arrived the next morning, he had the engine running, but sounding a little ragged. The Mary Jane, a typical trawler for that era, had a 55-gallon drum strapped to the outside each side of the cabin, each filled with gasoline to allow an adequate supply for extended outings. As my first assignment as a shrimper, he had me load blocks of ice from the dock into the trawler’s hold for keeping shrimp we would catch from spoiling. He told me to hurry it up because the out-going tide was rapidly draining the series of creeks leading out to Folly River. I quickly complied with his order, and we were soon motoring down the narrow creek, which was flanked by tall marsh grass. After a couple a hundred yards, the creek widened where it made an abrupt left turn. Just before reaching the turn, Johnny scowled at me, “You left the damn ice tongs on the boat! They belong to the dock!” He swung her around in the wide turn and returned to the dock. I jumped off as he went by the dock, laid the tongs down as he turned her around, then jumped aboard as he came back by.

At least a six inches more of marsh showed above the water as we sped back down the narrow creek. Mud banks submerged on our first run were now breaking the surface, causing him some tricky maneuvering to avoid them. Going into the turn full speed, the boat slued too far to the right and ran aground on a still-submerged mudflat. He glared at me as he gunned the engine, first in forward, then in reverse, to no avail. At that precise moment, a trawler coming up the creek from the Folly River appeared. As its captain threw a rope with which to pull us off, he made a joking comment questioning Johnny’s ability to steer the boat. Now, Johnny really fumed, but made no reply.

We made it on out into the Folly River without further incidents before the creek became too low and he turned her westward. We began following the buoys marking the river’s channel that would take us to Stono Inlet. The inlet ran past the west end of Folly Island into the ocean. After a short distance, he instructed me to take the wheel and keep the boat headed toward a certain marker several hundred yards ahead while he worked on the still sputtering engine. He took a pair of pliers and ducked through the open transom just below where the wheel was mounted. I watched him put the pliers on the cap of one of the sparkplug wires and twist it back and forth, trying to make the cap fit snugger around the plug’s tip. Shortly, he came back up into the cabin and turned the wheel slightly. Pointing to a clump of marsh grass on a distant bank, he said, “See the marsh grass ahead?” I nodded. “I want you to keep her—” Before he could finish the instruction, a cabin-wide sheet of flame leapt from the bilge and through the transom and past the tips of our noses to the ceiling. He yelled, “Get the hell out—” BOOM!! A spark plug had arced, igniting the heavy gasoline fumes in the bilge. Instantly, we were being propelled backward through the open cabin door. Etched on my inner eye is a vivid image of me passing, upside down, on one side of the boom and seeing him passing, upside down, on the other side of it. We bounced off the stern and into the water. He immediately yelled for us to climb back aboard and extinguish the flames. Not having any better sense, I followed him up onto the stern. As I stood in my tracks and watched him run to the front of the cabin where two extinguishers were mounted, I suddenly became aware that flames feeding off fuel residue were licking the outsides of the 55 gallon drums. As I watched in terror, he handed me an extinguisher and yelled for me to spray it on drum on the left side of the cabin while he used the other extinguisher on the drum on the right side.

I looked down at the extinguisher. To my fear filled eyes, it looked no larger than a tube of toothpaste. Still standing in the same spot at the stern to which fear had immobilized my feet, I pulled the handle out and started pushing it in to spray its contents at the ever-growing fire on the drum—some 20 feet away. My hands shook so badly that I could not get the handle to push straight in. I threw it over the stern after two futile pushes and followed it into the water. Apparently, Johnny had not fared any better than I. He hit the water an instant later.

We began swimming for the closest shore, the one opposite Folly Island. I was a good swimmer but was falling behind Johnny. Then, I realized I still had on my rubber-soled canvas shoes. I kicked them off and caught up with him. We looked back after a ways and saw the Mary Jane, borne by the wind and tide, coming right behind us and gaining on us. Already swimming as fast as we could, we thought she would surely overrun us. I’ve never liked oysters, not even to look at, but for an instant I overflowed with love for them—the Mary Jane ran aground on a submerged bed of them, bringing her pursuit of us to a halt.

We gradually made our way through and around several exposed and partially exposed oyster beds and up on to the narrow beach of the river’s shore and flopped from exhaustion. Sitting propped up on our arms with our legs protruding into the water, we took stock of our injuries. We both had our eyebrows burned off and the front of our hair singed. On the boat, Johnny had been shirtless and shoeless and had his pants legs rolled up almost to his knees. Consequently, the skin of his feet, lower legs, arms, and chest had all appearance of the ragged, red skin of a boiled new potato. My left arm, which had been outstretched toward the wheel when she blew, was blistered. Hypnotized by the sight of the inferno savagely engulfing the Mary Jane, we were, at first, oblivious of the severe pain of our burns.

BOOM! BOOM! Almost simultaneous, both drums exploded, sending spinning twin balls of flame skyward. Johnny patted one pocket of his soggy pants and then the other. “I left my damned cigarettes on the boat.” After a moments silence, we burst into laughter at the absurdity of his remark—the pack would have been a mass of wet pulp had he brought them. Besides, he would have had no way to light one.

After our laughter subsided, Johnny’s face waxed serious and he looked at me intently. “I was ready to throw you overboard after you left the ice tongs on board, delaying our departure and getting me laughed at by another shrimper. But had you not delayed us, we would have been a good mile out in the ocean when she blew. It would have been a long swim to shore. We might not have made it.”

Suddenly, the wailing of a siren filled the air. Across the river on Folly, we could see Folly’s fire truck speeding down the island as it passed each street that ran perpendicular to the river. This absurdity—what good would the fire truck do with the burning boat sitting in the middle of the river—brought another round of laughter from us.

A shrimp boat arrived from down the river and began slowly circling the burning hulk. We stood up and began yelling. The boat headed toward us, but the water was to shallow for it to get closer than fifty yards or so to our perch. We had to work our way back through the mud and oyster beds and into water deep enough for them to pick us up. Now that the initial excitement and trauma had worn off, we felt the full searing pain salt water inflicted on our burns. Mr. Tapley, owner of the rescuing boat, and his deckhand looked down at us with horror filled eyes. “We didn’t see you at first and thought you had perished in the fire.”

They carried us to a dock on the Folly Island side of the river. From there, we were transported by ambulance, sirens screeching, to the hospital emergency room in Charleston, eleven miles away. Johnny had third degree burns on the parts of his body that had been exposed to the flames. He was hospitalized. I had second degree burns on my left arm. The doctors dressed and wrapped it and gave me a shot of morphine to relieve the excruciating pain.

It was well into the middle of the afternoon by the time I got back to Folly. I didn’t go directly home. Instead, high on the morphine, I went up on the pavilion on the front beach and spent the rest of the afternoon recounting to everyone I knew every minute detail of my exciting brush with death. When I got home, Mama, with her back to the door ironing while listening to a soap opera on the radio, asked, “How was your first day of shrimping?” I answered matter-of-factly, “All right, but I don’t think I’ll go back again.” About that time, the soap opera ended and the news came on. In the first item of news, the announcer told about the explosion of a shrimp boat in Folly River and gave the names of the injured. Mama, turned around, looked at my bandaged arm, and began screaming, “My baby! My Baby! You almost got killed!” Hearing that she really cared about me made all the frightening experience and pain worth it.

Johnny got out of the hospital in a couple of weeks and came knocking on our door. I answered it, and he began telling me he had another boat and wanted me to be his deckhand. Mama overheard the conversation and started screaming, “You get out of here, you s. o. b.! You almost killed my baby, and you’re not going to get another chance."