June 15, 1972. A time of hope and excitement. I’d scored a faculty position at the Scranton Penn State University Campus, my husband Mike took a position as counselor in Hazleton. We split the difference and moved to Kingston, on and across the river from Wilkes Barre, PA. Kevin was four. Our foster daughter, Miriam, was 15.
The apartment was a modest sized three bedroom, facing south, perhaps 20 yards from the levee looming 40+ feet, sheltering us from the placid Susquehanna River. We were on the second floor. Miriam and I took our time unpacking, hanging curtains, arguing over where to put the plates, how to position the bookcases. We didn’t have much back then so each thing was precious and required careful thought and placement. The pictures and books and records took center stage. I still hear the melodies that Miriam played incessantly—Carly Simon was her latest obsession. Kevin had his books and the cat and seemed content in his world.
Mike was sent home from work on the 20th, everyone was sent home. The waters lapped at the base of the bridges, choked with trees and whole houses that had been ripped from their foundations further upstream. Wavelets lapped at the tops of the levees. We walked those levees, taking turns, on watch. The neighbors downstairs moved all their belongings up to our apartment. Like us, they’d just moved in and everything was still in boxes. We thought we were safe on the second floor.
We were wrong.
The pounding on the door came at 5:45 a.m. Fire police screaming ‘Get out. Get out. Get out.’ We had a couple of bags packed. Cat food and a litter box. A cooler with some food. A couple stuffed animals for Kevin. We jammed ourselves into the VW Beetle, 2 kids, a cat—and made a run to the west, uphill through Kingston. We got shuffled to a school auditorium to wait and see. It didn’t take long.
Twenty minutes. That’s all we had, twenty minutes. The levee breached right next to our building and released a wall of water, mud and debris. Within minutes it was covered, gone. The gasoline storage depot just south of us went next, the monster tanks floating on their sides, spilling their contents, leaving the surface iridescent and stinking. A tractor trailer was driven through the K-Mart just up the block. We never saw the bodies but we heard about them, the cemetery close to our complex. Small relief that.
It took days, a week, then more and we still couldn’t get back into the area to assess the damage. I don’t recall exactly when the tears came. My father was ill, too ill to bear the stress of all of us descending on him but he was the one who comforted and we kept it between the two of us. We never mentioned it again.
Mud. Slimy, oily, slick, horrendous mud. Ankle deep or worse. Some people pawed through the debris trying to find a precious bit of furniture or a memento of a life now vanished.
The smell accosted the senses—the rank odor of despair, anger, fear, hopelessness. You never forget that smell. It is worse than death.
The Red Cross was there and I will forever be grateful for their helping hand. The government was overwhelmed but the Small Business Bureau did what they could. Renters without assets fared poorly in the equation. We found a used mobile home miles away.
Our lives were never the same.
We still, Kevin and I, feel unsettled when heaven’s floodgates release. We live on a hill now.
We will always live on a hill.