Pit Stops on The Road Of Life


[Prerequisite reading is “The Day Before Agnes” ]

I ended up staying on East Northampton Street in Wilkes-Barre at the home of my neighbor, Gerry Missal’s, father, for five days in late June, 1972.  We would get as near to the flood zone as we could daily and sit on a hillside to watch the debris float by.  From the top of East Northampton Street on a clear day (absent any flooding) one could see Kingston across the river.  Lower down, only a few blocks from the water, everywhere we looked was a solid muddy brown as the mighty Susquehanna flowed swiftly by.  One-story buildings had vanished from sight and somewhere a battery-powered burglar alarm rang continuously around the clock.

Night and day the air was filled with the sound  of helicopters as an armada of choppers traversed the flooded Wyoming Valley.  Our aptly-named congressman, Dan Flood, had considerable tenure in the House and he wielded it ably.  When Dan Flood spoke, the Army, National Guard and whatever other force he decided to apply stood smartly and answered “Yes, sir!!”  The radio air waves were filled with live reports from schools and other evacuation centers listing the names of those who had found refuge in them.

Gerry, his wife, Sylvia, and I used the down time to plan what we’d do when we could finally return to our apartments.  I drove to an ATM and withdrew the maximum being allowed by the bank, $100.  I bought a few more clothes, chiefly  business attire, as a hedge against possibly having lost my entire wardrobe.  We heard an announcement that donated free used clothing was available at the Pocono Downs racetrack so we ventured there.  Having seen just the tops of two-story buildings above the flood, the Missals  rightfully expected they had lost everything in their first-floor apartment. They picked out clothes suited to cleaning up the mess.  I followed their lead and chose two pairs of jeans, a T-shirt or two plus, fortuitously, a solid black turtleneck sweater.

The periphery of the flood was manned by National Guardsmen.  Beyond providing security against looters, they also prevented residents from returning to neighborhoods before the city had had a chance to plow the mud from the streets.  By Tuesday, we could see that the river had receded to the point where we might get back to our apartments IF we could make it past the “gendarmes.”  On Wednesday, June 28, we made our move.  Our plan was two-fold.  Sylvia, a social worker, had been working the past few days as a Red Cross volunteer.  She rode in Gerry’s car in the back seat, directly behind him, proudly sporting her Red Cross armband.  If the gendarmes approached from the left side of the car, she had concocted a story as to what business she had to enter the flood zone.  I rode shotgun and was prepared to show them my Federal ID card as I explained it was imperative that I check out the flooded banking institutions.   As it turned out, we needed neither ruse.  As we slowed down, the gendarme was on my side of the car.  He took one look at my solid black turtleneck, turned and yelled “Priest !! Priest !! ” Gee, I wasn’t even Catholic. The others turned aside the barricades and we proceeded down the hill, giggling mightily at our good fortune all the way.  We hadn’t realized it until then but there WAS a Catholic church on East Northampton Street.  The guardsmen were used to seeing priests come down that hill daily and they’d mistaken me for yet another one of them.

When we had driven as far as we could, we parked. Gerry removed from his trunk his father’s wheelbarrow which he was going to use to haul out salvaged belongings.  We were probably 10 bocks from our apartments. From the effort it took to merely walk, I could see that Gerry would have one helluva time with that wheelbarrow.  The mud was nearly a foot deep and threatened to slosh over the tops of my Totes galoshes.  The scene was eerily silent as if even the songbirds had fled the river’s rampage.  Our senses were assaulted by the smell of rotten food in the Acme Market (see left side of pictures 3 and 4 below.)  As we approached our apartment building, from the visible waterline on the exterior, Gerry and Sylvia could tell that their worst fears were about to be realized.  It looked as though the water had completely covered their apartment.

Gerry nearly threw out his shoulder forcing open the wooden apartment door which had swollen from being immersed in the river for God-knows-how-many hours.  Inside, the devastation was obvious.  In their living room, the most notable item was their couch, a brute of a couch that would usually require four men to move it.  It was resting on one end, up against a wall, fully 15 feet from where it had sat pre-flood.  We, admittedly, uttered expletives as we said to each other, “who’d have thought that water was THAT powerful?”  In their bedroom we found a similar scene.  Furniture had been strewn around but at least the dressers had landed in a position that afforded us access to the drawers.  Like the front door, however, the drawers were wedged tight from having swollen and they proved impossible to slide open.  They had owned quality furniture and I believe Sylvia shed a tear or two as Gerry attacked the drawers with a crowbar he’d thought to bring along.  There was simply no way to remove the drawers’ contents outside of simply tearing out the front of the drawers and reaching in.  Clothing formerly hanging in the closet was strewn everywhere and Sylvia became the “triage nurse” as she sorted what could be saved by washing and what was a total loss. 

I left them behind in their misery and ventured upstairs to see what I’d lost.  The muddy steps were very slippery and I bent forward on all fours and proceeded slowly.  One bright sign was that each step seemed to have a little less mud than the one below it.  The carpeted landing outside my door had no mud at all but was 100% soggy.  Like Gerry’s door, mine required shoulder power to open and, even then, would open about halfway.  Sidling inside sideways, I quickly discovered the impediment.  A large dictionary, formerly on a bottom shelf, had floated behind the door and had wedged itself between the door and the wall.  Around the living room walls a dirty brown line indicated the river’s maximum height—about a foot.  My 9’ by 12’ circular, braided rug was quite muddy and would have taken a crew to lift so I quickly decided  that the landlord could have it.  To my dismay, my eyes settled quickly on my greatest loss, my record albums.  They’d been stored on a bottom shelf below my stereo.  The Tijuana Brass, The Beatles, Billy Vaughn—everything I’d collected during my years at King’s College was now a soggy mess and, likely, beyond salvation.  My stereo speakers appeared lost, too.

The kitchen saw only minimal loss.  The leaf for my table had always leaned against a wall and still did but its laminate surface had curled up, peeled away from its particle board backing.  That would be the landlord’s, too.  The table itself had metal legs from which the mud could easily be washed.

There was no loss in my bathroom and all my clothes in the bedroom still hung where I left them.  The 1’ of river water hadn’t reached them.  My mattress and box springs weren’t harmed but I would need to replace one piece of  particle board at the foot of the bed.

I left that first day with just a trash bag full of clothes and two of my record albums that I intended to test play at my brother Cliff’s house in Sweet Valley.  Albums are plenty heavy when dry and, when wet, they are super heavy.  If these two were ruined, the landlord could have the rest.  I would get my buddy Jess Peiffer and his pickup to help me haul out my furniture at a later date.  Gerry had his wheelbarrow full of clothes and Sylvia had rescued her bicycle.  Despite our losses, we still managed a bit of “whistling past the graveyard.”  Sylvia had brought her camera along for insurance purposes, so Gerry and I posed for a few candids along the way out of the flood zone.  We even attempted a play on the famous “Spirit of ‘76” by creating out own “Spirit of ‘72” but we were short a drummer—she was snapping the pic. (See  picture 3 below.)

 Gerry Sylvia and Ron 

Jess and I waited about ten days to return as I was unlikely to pass the gendarmes a second time with my “priest” alibi.  We’d wait until the city had plowed all the mud and gave the official OK to return.  I really can’t recall exactly where we took my furniture, but it took two slow trips to Sweet Valley with it piled on the snowmobile trailer pulled by his pickup.  I took the two record albums, as planned, to my brother Cliff’s house and threw away the soaked cardboard covers.  I gently rinsed the records in his kitchen sink filled with Palmolive liquid.  It wouldn’t hurt your hands, I reasoned, so it wouldn’t harm vinyl either.  I patted them dry with Bounty towels and then took them to the console stereo in the living room.  The tone arm descended on the first one and immediately went zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzip—straight to the center of the record !!  “Dang”, said I, “I can’t see any dirt in the grooves”, so I tried the flip side with the same result.  The second album fared no better and I gave them up for lost.  Luckily, I went to Cliff’s house again before Jess and I went to pick up my stuff.  My sister-in-law Shirley practically screamed at me “Ronnie, DON’T throw out your albums !!  The kids have taken the needle out of the stereo !!”  I hadn’t even checked that possibility. 

The albums have had a miraculous life.  Jess and I held a “record washing party” in his backyard using a garden hose as we listened to WARM play Harry Chapin’s “Taxi”, America’s “A Horse With No Name” and other hits from the summer of ’72.  After drying them, we’d stack them flat with only a sheet of newspaper between.  I left them with my Dad in the little two-room shack where he lived behind Glenn Morris’ garage—a shack that had no insulation whatsoever.  For the better part of the next four years they endured dust and extreme heat and cold as I was away on disaster duty with SBA.  When I settled down again in 1976, I bought new inner sleeves for each and labeled the sleeves with a black Magic Marker.  It was totally amazing but, TWENTY YEARS later, I took a few of them to my DJ pal Greg Stucki at WSOX-FM in York, PA.    Greg was able to lift from them radio-quality oldies that he then played on his station !! As this is written, in 2006, I still have them and I’ll play them again as soon as I replace my surge-zapped turntable.  My will leaves them to my pal Theron Jeffery.

Gerry and Sylvia Missal moved on to the Boston area after the flood.  Gerry found another position teaching high school science and Sylvia again found social work.  Jess and I stayed with them one night during our 1975 tour of New England but I haven’t seen or heard from them since.  Perhaps they’ll Google their names and find me by way of this web site posting.  Jess got married in 1976 and I still visit him whenever I get back to Sweet Valley.

Next up—“My start with SBA”

Ronald E. Hontz

33 Whitcraft Lane

Shrewsbury PA 17361

(717) 235-5791

cell phone (717) 309-1402

e-mail: Sweetvalleykid@gmail.com