No matter how many “fun” activities are planned on the Susquehanna River bank during events such as RiverFest this weekend, those of us who were here in June 1972 will always know the river has potential to be anything but fun.
And with good reason.
Early-morning sirens, ravaging waters, stinky mud, the loss of treasured possessions — devastation — are memories embedded in our minds from that terrible day — June 23, 1972. That was the day whenthe river rose to never-before-seen heights, burst through the protective levees and spread to one mile across the valley we called home.
Homes, businesses and people’s ways of life were not just altered, they were lost.
So forgive us if we don’t frolic by the river this weekend. Pardon us if we fail to celebrate the goodness of our urban stream. Mark us absent while we remember just how much we fear what happened 41 years ago and almost did again nearly two years ago. Heavy rains and rising river levels drive us crazy and always will.
I went through it. I lost my Plymouth High School 1966 District 2 championship basketball jacket. Red with black leather sleeves, it was a real beauty. Pictures of my mom who died four years earlier — gone. Along with most family photos.
My Little League scrapbook. My classic 1960s record albums. My dad’s heroic war records and medals. My mom’s cookbooks and recipes. My 1968 Wyoming Valley West High School yearbook. My childhood. My memories. A large part of my life swept away by that river. Washed all the way to who knows where.
I remember being awakened by a voice amplified through a bull horn telling us — all of us — in a very convincing tone, to get out of our homes and to head for higher ground. My dad and I went to his sister’s. Like so many others, we never returned to our home.
The struggle to return to something normal was just starting. Either live with family or friends or enjoy the comforts of a HUD trailer. The choices were slim, but inconvenience was the least of our worries.
Jobs were on hold, if not lost. The good people of Wyoming Valley were extremely resilient. They fought back. That river beat them up pretty bad, but they wouldn’t be defeated.
So people cleaned up. They gutted their homes and buildings, which were already stripped of their character. Walls and ceilings were removed. Mud was shoveled from basements and first floors.
Piles of people’s lives were stacked out front for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to gather up and take to landfills — burial sites for all that was everything to everybody.
In Plymouth — Old Shawnee — much of the downtown was hit. As people filtered back to their homes to assess the damage, others volunteered to help them clean up. Hundreds of people would show up daily to be sent out to do the same thing — shovel mud, rip out walls and ceilings, throw out furniture and occasionally offer comforting words to the homeowner or to look for a missing pet. They did it religiously, exhibiting a worth ethic and level of compassion second to none.
If you were lucky enough to be paid for your work, you’d get 20 bucks a day.
These men and women — some of them flood victims themselves — wanted to help their fellow townsfolk to rebuild their homes and their lives. It was group therapy at its best. People were distraught, heartbroken and scared, and together they managed to do far more than federal funds could ever do. But the money helped, too.
Gradually, people either returned to their floodplain homes, or they opted to seek higher ground. That alone was a difficult decision — to leave the only place you’ve ever called home for a new beginning in a new neighborhood in a new town. And that’s before you decided on where you would seek employment because your old employer was either weeks or months away from reopening. Or relocated out of the area. Or out of business.
These were not the good old days. The summer of 1972 was as difficult as one could be for thousands of flood victims.
So it’s no wonder most of them aren’t all that interested in celebrating the river or watching a dragon boat race. June, 1972, was anything but a festival. It was a time we want to forget, but can’t.
It’s been said time and again that those of us who were knee-high in the mud during the aftermath of the Agnes Flood can still smell that stench. It’s true. I know I can, and the closer I get to the Susquehanna, the easier it is for that smell to return.
And when the smell hits, the memories follow.
The River Common is beautiful, and as under-used as it is, it’s a great asset and should be used to market our area to attract new residents and businesses.
But don’t expect many 1972 Agnes victims to be at the river as part of the welcoming committee.