Recently Jim selected an archived installment of Far Muse which pertained to the flood of 1996. Coincidently, I have a deadline coming up for an end-page story for the May/June issue of Vintage Truck Magazine to which the following is destined in a shortened version.
“Mulch ado about nothing” borrows heavily from “Remembering the Flood of ’96.” So no, this isn’t last week’s paper.
Dan’s trailer park was once a dusty, noisy riverside community in the low-lying river bottom below Dan’s office and general store. This was a close-knit neighborhood of ATVs, horseshoe tournaments and conspiracy theorists.
The land occupied a river peninsula that was directly in the crosshairs of the 2 hundred-year floods of 1996.
Oddly, the historic flood of 1985 hadn’t risen over the peninsula’s earthen dike – probably one of West Virginia’s many flood control measures from the Civilian Conservation Corps days.
Most of these flood control structures only worked part of the time.
This was no fault of their designers because West Virginia has 2 types of floods and it’s next to impossible to prepare for both.
For example, during the flood of 1985, larger rivers like our branch of the Potomac rose tragically to historic heights while towns along the smaller rivers and creeks remained untouched.
In 1996, the creeks and smaller rivers suddenly rose, inundating structures that had stood for nearly 2 centuries. Some of the tiny communities that were flooded in 1996 remain ghost towns to this day. Meanwhile, the larger rivers barely rose at all.
The floods of ’96 rose over the dike and nearly washed away the trailer park. As the owner of this property, Dan had the responsibility of removing and disposing of all the ruined trailers and sheds likely under the heavy-handed guidance of FEMA. West Virginia then decreed that the property could no longer be used in the manner in which it previously served.
What remained was a long, narrow pleasantly situated field along a once major east-west federal highway that was no longer all that important in this era of the Interstate highway system. Dan would mow the property once a year, usually in June at the new of the moon. That way, it was believed that the re-growth would be slow.
Never one to miss an opportunity to get free stuff, the Old Hippie (aka wife, Stephanie) arranged for me to collect the grass clippings for use as garden mulch. I was dispatched with a pitchfork and our 1954 Chevrolet flatbed.
If you’re ever feeling lonely, try pitching hay onto an antique truck along a largely forgotten highway where the sparse traffic moves at a relaxed pace. Cloyce, my “Rebel” neighbor and small-time mowing contractor, drove up on his Cub Cadet, likely on his way to another mowing engagement.
In long hair and a Confederate flag bandanna, he bore a terminal period fascination with the Jefferson Davis Administration.
“Ya know, that’s how the old-timers used to pick up hay.” he informed me.
(Hmm – much as I suspected ... )
“’Cept they used homemade forks,” he continued. “not store-bought ones.” (‘Cept?) “They’d take a hickory limb, split it into 3 prongs on 1 end and hammer wooden wedges ’tween ’em.”
It was just like being there. He hopped on the Cub and left.
An SUV with 2 middle-aged female passengers drove down into the field from the highway. A 3rd woman – not out of her teens, was driving. They had been touring the local distilleries and were on their way to the Virginia Wine Region. This is a familiar arrangement in wine country, the younger girl, under drinking age and thus forbidden by law to participate in the tasting would become their designated driver.
“My mom and Aunt June wanna sit in your truck.” the teen announced.
Aunt June called from the passenger’s; “Ya know, that’s how the old-timers used to pick up hay.” (’Deed, ya reckon?) Laughing, they climbed aboard the ’54 Chevy.
I couldn’t discern the content of their gleeful conversation. Apparently, they shared some family old-truck history. The turn signals came on – 1st left, then right and back again – as they took turns watching the flashing hooded glass arrow on their respective front fenders.
It’s always the turn signals – those period add-on accessories with their yellow glass arrow to the front and a red arrow toward the back – the driver’s only turn signal indicator. Everyone wants to see them blink. They’re on a separate circuit from the ignition so I didn’t mind.
The young girl stood on the driver’s side running board, peering inside with intense interest as her mother described details of the truck’s interior.
After a while, they thanked me and left. The sudden quiet was deafening.
Whenever we have a not-too-fancy antique truck stationary – or sometimes even still moving – the inevitable “buyers” appear. The young man walked down into the field from the highway, where he had been passing on foot.
His sway-back appearance of over-developed back muscles and under-utilized abs bespoke his likely occupation. He was an out-of-work “hod carrier” or mason’s tender.
But why is he out of work just as the construction season is starting? A rural construction worker is usually up the creek without reliable transport to work. Could he be caught in the cycle of no car and no money to buy one while he can’t work to buy a car unless he already has one? It happens.
“Nice old truck.” he offered in lieu of a regular greeting. “ I’ll buy it as is.”
I could just say, “Show me the money” and save a lot of time but I like to observe their technique. He had implied that normally he wouldn’t bother to consider an antique truck in this condition, so he was actually doing me a favor by considering it. Clever.
We concluded the usual formalities with a general figure. “Well,” he concluded. “I don’t have the money right now, but my brother owes me a lot. The next time I see you out here, I’ll have it.”
I’ve heard this so many times that “the brother who owes me” has attained urban legend status.
“Hey,” he called as he walked away. “That’s how the old-timers used to load hay.” (This historical fact was really starting to sink in.)
An older fellow seemed to appear out of nowhere. He was perhaps in his 90s if not beyond.
I recognized him as a friend of Dan’s. He told me how the river used to run full – right up to the banks and no more. “You could row a boat all the way to Forks of Cacapon,” he recalled. “Now you can’t float it in an inner tube.”
He further observed; ”We always got rain at the right time and the right amount; now it comes all at once or not at all.” he said as he made a sweeping gesture over the recently flooded property.
“By the way,” he added. “That’s the way we loaded hay when I was a boy.”
(OK, already – now I’m totally convinced.)
Done for the day at sundown, I started the old truck, put the transmission in low gear and set the throttle. I walked alongside the old Chevrolet to the highway enjoying the early evening breeze that rolls down from the cooling mountains and flows along the river.