Certain events in life are pivotal, because they force an alternative reality upon you – a cloak or mantle not easily shrugged off. I seethe when I hear people bandy around the phrase “new normal.” Reality doesn’t change, it can’t. Our perception of it can -- and does very frequently.
Normal is a word that implies consistency of action or the continuous interaction with a series of repeatable, somewhat pliable events.
Summer is just as normal as winter is, regardless of temperature changes that may shake us up a bit.
When my hometown (Kingston, Pa.) got hit by Hurricane Agnes in 1972, that was not normal. We lived two blocks from the river, and the water crested halfway up our second story. I was working up in the Poconos at the time and walked into the office after hearing the news and said to my boss Jay Josephs: “I need to go home and assess the damage and check on my family”. His response (which almost got him slugged) was: “Well, if you think that’s more important than this.”
Since the phone lines were down and many of the roads were washed out, it was difficult navigating my way back. The first image that stopped me cold as I came down HWY 115 was a landscape filled with buildings half flooded and half on fire. That was a showstopper right there. I could not navigate home at that point in time. There were no roads, no bridges.
Flummoxed, I returned to the Poconos. I had no phone in my shack. The three girls that lived next door to me took messages, and the one waiting for me was from my mother. I spoke to her and headed back down 115 again to the home of a man friend of hers in Bear Creek Village. He was a kind enough person, but I knew he did not have a clue about the toll that was going to be collected on his soul from being involved with my mother.
Over dinner I got the story. My mother’s perception of reality was distorted as best. She had no warning alarm in her brain to trigger the fight or flight response* (She was permanently set to freeze). The city had notified everyone that a very loud alarm was going to be broadcast when the levee two blocks from our home was about to be breached, and that would have been the last warning to get out of Dodge pronto. She ignored it. In her mind, nothing could possibly happen.
Her and my brother Scott were standing waist deep in water on our second floor screaming for help out the window. Fortunately, a rowboat came by and rescued them. Her car in the garage was totaled. Scott was only 13 at the time so he had no say in the matter, although he did try to convince her to abandon the house when the siren sounded.
When the waters subsided and we were permitted to return home, we assembled a four-man task force to attack the muck in the house. As soon as I called my friend Bruno in New York and told him what had happened, he jumped in his car and drove down to help. That is a friend. Before we could return to the home to assess the damage, we had to make a side trip to our local airport for inoculations against cholera and typhoid fever. We dutifully offered up our arms, not realizing they would both be sore for a week, and removing water soaked this and that from our home would be far more painful than we had imagined.
When the flood waters hit, it backed up the sewers. Every home in the vicinity was full of raw sewage, making an unpleasant task nearly unbearable. Nothing could be salvaged, and that included five years of negatives and prints in the basement. Thinking back now, I probably could have saved almost everything with a Herculean effort that would have required about 1000 square feet to individually rewash and dry every print and strip of negatives. Hanging film up to dry after processing is not a big deal, two clothespins and a length of cord six feet off the ground is all that was required.
But that film gets cut up into seven image strips before being placed into glassine sleeves for storage afterwards. That would require 10 clothespins per roll and enough space to hang miles of cord. It was untenable so I stood silently as we hauled five years of work up from the basement and tossed it into a dumpster. The carpet had to go, along with all the furniture. Water-soaked carpet is very, very heavy, so I took a razor knife and cut it into three-foot squares to carry it outside.
We started each day exhausted, spent, and in pain. Had it not been for Bruno’s presence, I’m not sure how it would have played out. After the furniture (hand carved decorative pieces we imported from South Korea five years earlier) and carpet had been removed, we began taking our frustration out on the walls, they were next. There was no drywall back in the day, all walls were made of plaster, and they had to go, because the insulation behind them was soaked in human waste. Maybe the sledgehammers we attacked them with helped us to vent a little…
Our next-door neighbors opted for a different solution, they simply drilled holes in the bottom of the walls above the floorboards, hoping enough air would circulate to dry the insulation. Their surprise came that winter when they turned on the heat for the first time. The dried poop that was still behind their walls came alive again, filling the house with a smell too horrid to imagine.
After the waters receded and the streets were once again passable, tourists and two legged vermin started filtering into the town. The tourists arrived in air-conditioned black Cadillacs. Everyone wanted to see the carnage firsthand. I was waiting for them. As they drove by with their tinted windows all the way up, I started chucking canned food at them from our front yard. None stopped to complain.
HUD provided us with free trailers to live in, nestled on our front yard. If living in a house was difficult with my mother and brother, stuffed into a small trailer was brutal. Carpet baggers from down south saw the opportunity and crawled up in droves to ‘help’.
My mother was a total basket case at this point, unable to think rationally or form a plan for rebuilding our house. The smart people were the ones who accepted the governments offer of pre-flood value for their homes. Those guys took the money and ran, and never looked back.
It took two years to rebuild. The so-called contractor my mother hired fleeced her for every penny she had and stole anything of value from the home. And, they did it with a smile. It is unimaginable to plug in a portable stereo to find no sound because the contractor had opened the components and stolen the speakers. Of course he denied it, but what were we to do? He nickel and dimed us until we had no more change to offer. I begged her to walk away and take the cash. She had become one of the walking dead we now see on TV every Sunday evening.
It was not my house. I had no say, so I left. Two years later the town was completely rebuilt, and no telltale signs of any catastrophe were visible. What was interesting to note was that during the reconstruction period, neighbor helped neighbor; no one had to bear the physical or emotional pain alone.
And then, as quickly as night turns into day, the friendships severed themselves, most people returning to their former personalities, ones devoid of anything beyond a nod or a feeble ‘hello-how-are-you’.
Perhaps the incident damaged these people beyond repair, maybe fear of the unknown – which for some uncanny reason always comes at night (almost all of our earthquakes out here, the ones that literally scare us out of bed, occur in the middle of a deep sleep), created a cleft inside one’s brain, a dark area full of doubt and uncertainty.
The moment of triumph that is felt after having briefly pushed back nature to a stalemate evaporates with the next cool breeze. Perhaps the best we can do is walk away with is a sense of humility and the knowledge that if we could do it once, we could do it again.
* The traditional fight or flight response actually has five options: Fight, Flight, Freeze, Posture, Submit.