As always, this is raw and unedited. And it has a happy ending, so hang in there.
One of my most vivid childhood memories are the
events surrounding the Magazine Hollow flash flood
of July 19-20, 1961.
Dad was medically discharged from the Air Force and
purchased a Volvo and a little white house on
Garrison Avenue. I’m not sure when we moved in but
I know we were there by April because of the
Easter photos of Fritz and me standing in the yard.
Mom was heavily pregnant with Scott (although, of
course, we didn’t know who Mom was pregnant with
at the time). She was due in two weeks.
I loved to play at the creek’s edge, catching
salamanders and plopping rocks into the water –
experimenting with the sounds they made when
dropped at different heights and angles. Nancy,
a ten year-old-girl who lived next door
in a ramshackle house that had been converted
into a gambling den, was my best friend and
favorite playmate. Nancy and I played on the
edge of, and sometimes in, the creek that ran
behind our houses. We played the usual little
girl games – pretending to be mothers with our
dolls, making mud pies and sharing giggles. My
mother disapproved of me playing with Nancy.
Nancy was sweet and gentle and loving to me and
I continued to risk a spanking when I snuck out
to play with her. I had no way of knowing Nancy's
stepfather sexually abused her and that my mother
wanted to protect me from both the knowledge of
the horrendous deeds and the possibility of
falling victim to him. All I knew was I felt
lonely. Mom paid a lot of attention to Fritz,
who was only sixteen months old, and she slept
a lot. Mom said it was because the baby growing
inside her made her feel tired.
I don't remember Nancy's mother at all. I only
retain the faintest memories of her stepfather.
He was a disheveled man who wore layers of dirty
work clothes. I recall him always wearing a hat
like all the other men at the time, but his was
dirtier and somehow sloppier than the other men’s
hats. He was older than my parents and Nancy's
mother and he walked stooped over. Nancy’s house
was rundown and I remember a metal Pepsi
thermometer on the left side of their front
porch, closest to our house. Men stopped by to
play cards and have a few beers before lurching
down the shabby steps and wandering back up the
July in West Virginia is a hot, humid and
miserable time of year. The night of the flood,
there was a summer storm in the air. I always
loved storms – still love storms, in fact. I
was in the maple bed Mom brought from her
parents’ home when she married Dad. It had a
single carved maple leaf on the headboard.
Each night after I'd knelt and said my prayers,
I’d trace the curves and angles of that leaf
until I fell asleep.
I’d been asleep for several hours when
something woke me. I sat up in bed and
adjusted my eyes to the room’s dimness.
Nothing seemed unusual. Fritz was in his crib
across the bedroom from me, asleep. My hobby
horse sat just out his reach. Looking to my
left, I could see Mom and Dad sleeping on the
fold-out bed in the living room just beyond
the front door. There wasn't much light, but
the moon was full and there was enough
illumination to see the shadowy outlines of
my parents. I could hear Daddy's familiar
snores. There were sounds of thunder crashing
and when the lightning blazed I could see the
reins on my hobbyhorse like it was daytime.
It was after one of these lightning crashes
that I saw the king walk through the front
door. I watched him, fascinated. I couldn’t
remember seeing anyone pass through a solid
door before. He was tall like Daddy and he
wore a loose robe that touched the floor.
There was a sash or rope at his waist. He
seemed to glow like the glow-in-the-dark toys
I'd have later on in life, except he glowed
clean white instead of sickly yellow. He had
a moustache and a beard, and he wore a crown.
The connection I made at the time was that he
looked like a king on a playing card. He stood
in the doorway of my room. My parents were
still asleep on the sofa-bed just behind him.
I was unafraid and intensely curious. I
sensed he knew I was watching him as his warm,
loving eyes met mine. A gentle smile came on
his lips and without speaking he conveyed to
me that much would happen this night but I
wasn’t to be afraid. I would see and experience
much but everything would be all right. I
immediately felt a spirit of calm and peace
come over me and I don't remember him leaving
or my falling back to sleep.
Someone beat on our front door, over and over,
until our family woke. There was a deafening
roaring sound outside that added to my sleepy
confusion. I heard a man’s voice yell, "Get out!
There's a flashflood. You have to leave now!
No time to get dressed. Get out now. Go to
Mom’s fingers were swollen due to her
pregnancy and she wasn’t wearing her wedding
rings. I remember her screaming she had to
find her rings. Dad yelled for Mom to come on,
to get out. Mom couldn't swim and the water was
already five feet deep outside and rising fast.
Mom screamed at Daddy to forget about her and
"Save Ginger! Save the children." The two of
them argued over what to do and who should
leave first. I remember looking out my window
and seeing an endless sea of darkness beyond
our front porch.
Dad scooped Mom into his arms and struggled
across what had hours earlier been our yard
and beyond, the road. Standing at the front
doorway I saw cars tumbling end over end,
boards and unidentifiable objects, but the
only sound was the deafening roar of the
water. There was no earth in sight. It
seemed our little house was sitting in the
middle of a tidal wave of dark water.
The man who came to wake us was a neighbor
from higher up in the hollow. His name was
Joe. Joe was about nineteen. He’d always
been kind to me and I trusted him. I felt
safe when he scooped me into his arms. It
seemed quite the adventure just to be awake
in the middle of the night. I almost didn't
mind the cold muddy swirling water as he
waded down the stairs to ford what used to
be our yard. Everything was unrecognizable –
just the very tops of the tall privacy hedges
stood in the middle of a wild roaring river.
We’d just passed the hedges when I looked
over Joe’s shoulder and saw Nancy in the
moonlight holding onto a porch column. The
Pepsi sign was at the same level as her head.
Her eyes were dark hollows in an eerily pale
face. Nancy’s arm fluttered into the air in a
slow motion wave as the raging waters ripped
the ramshackle porch away from the house and
she disappeared into the darkness. I screamed
for Joe to save her. There was nothing Joe
could do. My feelings of helplessness and
anguish were so intense I’ve blocked the
memory of most of the rest of that night.
When we reached the relative safety of the
house on the hillside directly across the
street we were naked, as were most of the
other people there. Women and men moved in
the darkness, some with flashlights, some
with blankets, and others with clothing to
cover the refugees. All the while rain poured
down and the water raged through the hollow
just a few yards below where we sat. Mom
screamed and wailed once she realized no one
had saved Fritz, who was still in his crib
inside our house. He was only a hundred feet
away, yet an ocean separated us.
Forty years later Mom still wept when she
remembered how the other women murmured how
terrible she was for leaving her baby behind.
She had no choice; Mom was 5'1" tall and
weighed 115 pounds eight months' pregnant.
My father was 6'1" tall and weighed 170 pounds.
My mother was pregnant and couldn’t swim.
I believe Dad made the best decision he could
at the time, which was to save his wife and
their unborn child.
After Dad got Mom to safety he tried four
times to get back across the road and into
the house. Three of those times, a rope was
tied around his waist and fastened to a tree
to keep him from being swept away. Eventually
the men on the hill side of the water dragged
him back in and made him stop because they
feared he would drown from exhaustion.
A neighbor lady gave me a large shirt to cover
myself with. I vaguely recalled seeing it
hanging on a clothesline once when Mom and I
went for a walk. I don't remember my mother
crying or my father collapsing from exhaustion
and anguish at the loss of his firstborn son.
I can't remember seeing all those people
walking around with flashlights and blankets
and clothes. Those are my mother's recollections.
I woke up in a strange room with bright
sunshine so intense on my face I had no
choice but to rise. Looking around, I had
no idea where I was or how I got the shirt
I was wearing. I didn’t immediately remember
the flood. I walked into a narrow dark hallway.
There was a brighter area at one end of the
hallway, like the proverbial light at the end
of a tunnel, and I walked toward it. I don't
know if my ears were full of water or if I was
in shock and my faculties returned to me in
stages but the sequence I recall went like this:
The light grew brighter as I walked down the
hallway. I soon could make out voices. A woman
passed behind me walking faster than I was and
she hurried to the front door. There were
several people in the living room talking
quietly but animatedly and they all glanced up
at me in surprise as I followed the lady who
had passed me in the hall.
The storm door was still open a bit and I
hurried out onto the porch behind her. Just
as my foot made contact with the muddy wooden
slats of the porch, she poured water from a
glass gallon milk jug onto the porch. The
coldness snapped me out of whatever dream-state
I'd been in, and the pressure in my ears
stabilized. At once I could hear clearly and
recognized my surroundings. I knew I was on
the porch across the street from our house,
and I looked in the familiar westerly direction
for home. The neighborhood was muddy and strewn
with branches, lumber, and garbage. Where our
house should’ve been was a jumble of
unrecognizable boards and pieces of metal. I
learned later a trailer that had washed off its
foundation, slid down the hill and crushed our
house hours after we'd gotten to safety.
Disoriented and afraid, I searched for my
mother. There’s another blank place in my
memories during this part of the day. My
parents filled me in. Here’s what they told me:
Mom prayed unceasingly for the life of her son
and her unborn child. While Dad carried her to
safety, part of a chicken coop that was tumbling
wildly through the water struck Mom between her
legs, leaving a huge ugly bruise and nearly
drowning both my parents before my father somehow
found his footing. The neighbor boy, Joe, handed
me off safely to someone and tried to go back for
my brother Fritz, but the rapidly rising water
had become too strong for him. He and Dad rigged
a rope to a tree to try and make it across to save
Fritz but the current overwhelmed Dad and he gave
up in despair and exhaustion. Dad was made to lay
down, his nakedness covered a blanket. He slept or
Hours later after the sun came up, the water
subsided enough that Dad and some of the men were
able to go across the street and climb inside our
house. The mournful party climbed through a window,
searching for the body of a fourteen-month-old
baby boy. Imagine how stunned they were to find
Fritz floating around on his Kant-Wet mattress,
singing, with his chubby little baby fingers
playing in the muddy water over the side of his
crib mattress. The only damage he suffered was
diaper rash from having a dirty diaper on for so
long. The local newspaper even ran a story about
the miracle, "Little Shaver Gets Close Shave."
(This Charleston Gazette article references them
finding my brother floating on his mattress:
Less than an hour after they retrieved my brother,
the trailer on the hill slid off its foundation,
rolled down the hill and crushed what was left of
our little house.
Searchers found Nancy's body trapped up under
the porch of a house way
down the hollow. The young man who saved us, Joe,
had moved his family to higher ground before going
door to door and saving most of the families in
the hollow. In a cruel twist of fate, the house
where they’d sought refuge was flooded and most of
his own family died. The irony doesn't escape me.
I think of Joe as a hero -- Joe, whose 19-year-old
boy face is engraved forever in my mind's eye.
Nine souls were lost in our little hollow
that night, and twenty-two in the Valley.
My parents believed me when I told them about the
king who'd come into my room and reassured me that
night, and I often think of him. I know everything
will be fine. ~~ Ginger Hamilton