Paintsville's Grunts Rucksack, a veteran and military surplus store that has recently undergone changes and expansions, is now displaying an unusual exhibit centered around a Navy trunk from 1918.
The trunk belonged to a young man named Calvin Clark of Prestonsburg, who died at the age of 19 from the Spanish Influenza, according to Doug Salyer, owner of Grunts.
“I brought it back to the store and opened it up and there was some loose stuff up top, but most of it was packed inside this bag, everything marked with R.C. Clark. On the bag is a mailing tag that reads, to R.C. Clark Prestonsburg, Kentucky, and it was packed and shipped by the U.S. Naval Hospital in Hampton Rhodes, Virginia,” said Salyer.
The trunk was discovered by someone who noticed it was a military trunk and contained Clark's personal belongings in stunningly preserved condition. Among the items found inside were Clark's letters, including one he wrote shortly before passing away in the medical ward. The trunk also contained items belonging to Clark's son, who also passed away.
“A woman by the name of Kimberly Artrip contacted me — she found this on the curb. Someone had taken this from their house and was going to just let the garbage man come and get it,” said Salyer. “She came to the store and told me she saved it and it was in her garage. She asked me if I'd be interested in taking it to use for a display.”
The exhibit is a tribute to Clark and his service as a local veteran, but it also aims to bring attention to the trunk in the hopes of locating someone who knows who Clark was or perhaps finding some of his relatives. Salyer put the trunk on display after researching Clark and narrowing down his identity after finding him on the Veterans monument in front of the Prestonsburg courthouse.
Salyer hopes to find a family link to Clark and to get a photo of him to further solidify his place in history. He believes that Clark's story, which involves a pandemic that killed a young man in the Navy, is something to which many people can relate, especially in light of the recent COVID-19 pandemic.
“So I began to research, I narrowed it down after reading all of his letters, I realized right in front of the Prestonsburg courthouse on the veterans monument, there he was, Rubin C. Clark. I put it on Facebook and asked everyone to help me figure out who this guy was and someone was able to locate his death certificate online,” said Salyer. “We just went through COVID and the United States lost one million people. He died from the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918. He died of pneumonia. He was in the Navy for four months and died at 19.
“COVID touched everyone. Clark’s story is something the average person can relate to. He was a young man who died of a pandemic that was so similar to what we just went through,” said Salyer.
Clark's personal belongings include a child's sized pair of baseball pants, believed to belong to his son, a hat, a child's pair of boots with a classic 1902 teddy bear, and a single locket of hair. The exhibit is open to the public at Grunts Rucksack in Paintsville.
Anyone with any information can contact Grunts on their Facebook page.