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Life on river: 'Every day is a vacation'

Column by The Post's Jack Hicks

For Boat Dock Joe Engelman, living on the banks of Big Bone Creek with a billy goat who eats everything from chewing tobacco to blueprints is about as good as it gets.

''My father asked me when was the last time I'd had a vacation, and I said, 'Pappy, every day is a vacation for me,' '' said Engelman.

Engelman, 43, spends his summer days operating the Big Bone Landing Marina, and his considerable spare time with the likes of Billy (his goat), Boone and Ranger (his dogs), and Chief Little Foot and Mike Fletcher (his human associates).

''If you need to know something, ask Mike,'' Engelman said of Fletcher, a somewhat eccentric riverman who has spent the last several years building a state-of-the-art houseboat at the marina.

Fletcher and Engelman both worked under the tough, legendary riverman Capt. John Beatty.

''He told me he went to work for Capt. Beatty to get an education on the river, but the tuition got too high,'' Engelman said of his friend's reaction to Beatty's gruffness.

Engelman and Fletcher tell entertaining tales of the river, including those of Big Bone Island, which disappeared 20 years ago when the river was clogged with ice. Some say the island, a recreational oasis for boaters, was ''kidnapped,'' and will turn up some day.

Chief Little Foot, a Native American who works at the marina, is agreeable but not especially talkative.

Billy, of course, says nothing - but he makes his presence known in other ways. Eating a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency inspector's report is among them. Some people receive him well, and some are taken aback - among them the EPA man, a visitor who left blueprints on a truck seat and a fisherman whose large supply of chewing tobacco was within easy reach of the goat.

Billy likes tobacco in any form, including butts on the ground and cigarettes in packages, left in cars or on pontoon boats tied near the shore. The goat also has a tendency to snoop, often climbing into open car trunks and the interior of vans.

He has some other habits, too, such as taking naps in the road, sniffing and butting at gasoline cans, and wiping his nose on people's trouser legs.

''A friend gave him to me,'' said Engelman. ''Some friend,'' responded Joyce Hansel, who is also a regular at the marina.

Fortunately, Billy isn't mean, though he gets a little rough playing with his canine friends, Boone, a Labrador, and Ranger, a hound.

''He bullies the dogs,'' said Engelman.

Billy and the dogs roam free in the rural setting of the marina and once, when Boone and Ranger jumped off a boat and swam to shore, the goat jumped in and swam after them.

''I heard that goats can't swim, but this one does,'' said Engelman.

Unlike the dogs, who find a shady place to snooze in hot weather, Billy stays busy, investigating everything from garbage cans to tractor engines.

Engelman's own pace bounces from hectic to relaxed. On busy boating weekends like the Fourth of July, he's kept hopping - launching boats, pumping gas. Usually, he can kick back on weekdays.

Tending the marina isn't his only employment. The Fort Wright native works winters for a barge company, plying America's rivers on a towboat. Then, in summer, he returns to his trailer near where the creek flows into the Ohio River.

His summers at the marina no longer go uninterrupted, however. During 15 years on the river he has developed an expertise in loading and unloading hazardous cargo, so the barge company now requires his services for part of the summer months, too.

When he is gone to places such as Chicago and Pittsburgh, or little out-of-the-way places along the Mississippi River, the others from the Big Bone entourage stay back at the marina, enjoying the usually laid-back pace, but also having to deal daily with Billy.

Sometimes it's enough to get their goat.

Jack Hicks is a colunist and political writer for The Kentucky Post.

Publication date: 07-07-99
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