Pit Stops on The Road Of Life
AFTERMATH OF AGNES
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
up—“My start with SBA”
Ronald E. Hontz
33 Whitcraft Lane
cell phone (717) 309-1402