Sunday, July 19, 2015

Rerun: The Garrison Avenue Flood of 1961

The following is an excerpt from a longer piece. The subject matter is my experience as an almost-four-year-old girl who watched a devastating flash flood that killed 22 people.

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 
higher ground!" 

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 
passed out.

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

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