The Great Flood Of 1993 has brought to mind long-forgotten times of the Flood of 1937 in Paducah, Kentucky. I was in the First Grade in 1937, loving school, and hating to "miss just for a little rain
My sister Doris was working for a lawyer downtown, and that lawyer Mr Katterjohn took the impending flood seriously. My dad thought everyone so fearful of the flood was being an alarmist-- after all, he had lived near Paducah most of his life, and no serious harm had ever been done. Mr. Katterjohn brought Doris home from work in his big car, loaded down with groceries and necessities if we couldn't get out of the house-- "don't worry about paying me yet--we'll worry about that next week."
Doris then went to spend the night with friends who had a big two-story house across town. Before bed-time, Daddy showed us what little danger we faced, by dropping a long broomstick down from the porch --the water just came up a little less than a foot. I awakened early Thursday morning to the sounds of furniture being dragged across the floor Daddy was "scaffolding" the better pieces by placing dining table leaves across two chairs, then with Mother's help, stacking dressers, Mother's antique organ, a chifferobe, up as high as they could--when this hard work was completed he went out the back way "for a walk and look-see."
[Remember this is through the eyes of a 6-year old.] Pretty soon he came back-- a big truck was parked in the alley out back. Daddy carried me; the truck driver carried Mother; we carried no luggage, just wore our coats with sweaters underneath, and Mother clutched a quilt -- this was February- We stopped at the schoolhouse. Other families were already there--we spread the quilt on the floor, and crouched on it. There was a lot of apprehension and rough talk going on. Now my dad was never a prude about cursing-- if he were angry; but if he heard someone else cursing around his womenfolk he always lost his cool.
He walked the floor for a while and then walked out--soon he came back with a young farmer, Terry Shelby, from Kevil -- Terry had driven his pick-up in to Paducah to see if he could house a couple --Daddy asked him, "How about a couple and a baby?" Highly insulted, big-mouth Helen exclaimed "I'm no baby; I'm almost 7!" Even so, the three of us went with Perry to their home in Kevil. I remember while there, having my first (and only) horse-back ride. I cannot remember how long we stayed there -- I do remember some of us being glued to the radio, listening to Red Cross messages for news of farnily and friends.
My grandmother Ella Wolfe and uncle Russell Wolfe lived in a two-story house on South 6th Street, across the street from Kolb Park --they refused to leave, even when the order came from President Roosevelt that Paducah had to be evacuated. Soon we heard on the radio, "Mrs Lila Wolfe wants her daughter Mina Bebout to know that she and Russell are safe and dry in their home," They had moved most everything upstairs, filled jars and the bathtub with fresh water, and remained. Daddy went on a Red Cross flat-bottom boat trying to persuade them to leave-- what if the foundations washed away? "No --we're staying put!"
Soon the word came on the radio, "Doris Bebout wants her family to know that she is safe at her aunt's in Nashville." Evidently the family she was with had been able to get out before the roads toward Nashville had been closed, for when we had wanted to go there Dad was told it was impossible. As soon as the road was open, we got on a Greyhound bus for Nashville. What rejoicing when we arrived at Aunt Kate's! I found out only recently that Aunt Kate had been so worried about us, that her husband's niece's husband, Keith Von Hagen, had driven to Paducah to try to find us and bring us to Nashville.
The big five-bedroom house was already filled to overflowing - besides their usual crowd of sisters-in-law, they had a couple of refugees besides Doris; I think their name was Baird. Lena Baird said something like "We don't have any room!" Aunt Kate, usually so polite, friendly and mild, said "There's always room for my brother and his farnily!"
What fun I had there! As I have told you before, Aunt Kate and Unk bought their old home place, and always had relatives living there There were five bedrooms - two of Unk's sisters, Aunt Hattie, whom I (and everyone else) dearly loved, and Aunt Addine (whom I liked pretty well and others merely tolerated), his brother's widow, Aunt Ollie (loved almost as much as Aunt Hattie), and her son Bob, only a few years older than I. Aunt Ollie and Bobby had moved there upon the death of her husband and Unk's brother Hugh White. Bobby was the pet of the house, of course, and came as near to being Aunt Kate's own as anyone. Aunt Ollie went to work for the electric company, and Aunt Kate took on the job of Bobby-sitting. He was great fun for me, always patient in playing with his little cousin. His death early in WWII at Iwo Jima was the end of an era for the "White House".
I keep getting ahead of my story and away from the Flood. There was a little shopping center about two blocks away, on the Pike, that fascinated me -- imagine having a ten-cent store so near! Unk would give me a nickel and tell me to bring back a nickel's worth of mixed toys. Or sometimes Aunt Hattie, who worked as receptionist for one of the big downtown hotels, would take me to town with her to go shopping She would introduce me as her "little refugee niece" from Paducah, and everyone would be so sweet to me.
Mother and I stayed in Nashville at the White House for over a month. As soon as Dad could wade in with hip boots, he went back and tried to salvage what he could, and destroy what he couldn't save. Soon Mr. Katterjohn called Doris to come back to work, saying he would send for her. But Dad didn't think Mother and I could come yet -'til he cleaned up. I still have some of the photographs he saved. The books were lost, as was much of the furniture. The wood furniture we used the rest of his life; he had washed and glued and repaired what he could -- we used to refer to much of the furniture as having "permanent waves" due to the veneer's waviness. What dishes and "silverware" that thieves hadn't carried away were washed and shined
Occasionally now, I will go into a space that has a musty odor and "floods" of nostalgic memories go over me --that muddy dirty river water smell was unforgettable. When I think of the hardship and heartbreak that were my parents' and Doris' I want to cry. They had lost everything in the Great Depression, coming back from Albuquerque, New Mexico, in a car packed to the brim with necessities, mostly for a small baby, and gradually accumulated a few pieces of furniture, partly from relatives, and then when Doris started working, she was able to buy a few more things.
Remember this was when there was almost no work available for anyone -- Dad was able to clerk In a grocery store for maybe $15 a week, and what food they couldn't sell. Mother was not able to work, barely able to be cooking, washing and ironing. They kept their chins up though, and certainly I didn't see their heartaches, although I'm sure Doris saw more than I.
My heart really goes out to these victims of the floods today; and I wonder if they are experiencing as much pain as my family did.
Helen Bebout (C) 20001