A Long, Dry Season
by Eric B.

Late in the summer of 1972 our family went on a vacation. We lived on a hill in upstate New York overlooking a long, narrow valley and a town called Big Flats. Big Flats was settled very early in the 19th century by the Minier family, who still owns the grocery store where most folks shop on Canal Street. It’s an old farming town. Until the mid-20th century the main crop was tobacco; thus the name “Big Flats” referred to long stretches of tobacco flats which filled the Chemung river valley.

It was ironic that we lived on a hill in Big Flats. Ironic and lucky. The valley part of the town was in a flood plain, with no dikes. And in June of 1972 a hurricane-turned-tropical storm called Agnes stalled along the northeastern seaboard causing rain to fall on the valley at 1" per hour for many hours. Big Flats, the surrounding towns and most of southern New York and northern Pennsylvania were flooded very badly. In Chemung County a house or two actually floated down the river taking out bridges. In neighboring Steuben County the city of Corning, which had dikes, flooded so quickly that some people working at the Corning Glass Works plant had no chance to get out and were killed.

Power was out for days. We had one bathtub full of water to boil; and though our house on the hill was safe, we looked down into the valley to see a brown lake dotted with the small islands of the unlucky. It was total devastation and heartbreak. And so several weeks later, with the mud, stench and depression showing no sign of an end, Mom & Dad just threw us four kids in the car and took off.

We were not exactly a vacationing family. Our friends often went to Disney World, Myrtle Beach or places out west that we had never heard of. Sometimes we went to Pittsburgh or Ohio to see relatives. So that’s what we did, go to Pittsburgh. As we made the four hour drive we saw houses on their sides, trailers wrapped around bridge abutments, open coffins. To us kids it was fascinatingly incomprehensible. To Mom and Dad it was heartbreakingly horrible. To all of us it was notice that the difference between a “have” and “have-not” is the blink of an eye.

In 1972 Pittsburgh was still a steel town which stunk of sulfur and exhaust. The old ethnic neighborhoods were at best quaint, but more often dreary reminders of Andrew Carnegie’s somewhat fickle “benevolence”. But in Pittsburgh that summer, life was normal. I remember being within 10 miles of the city with the car windows open, drawing sulfur air into my lungs like it was some kind of sweet lilac perfume, because I knew that at the end of the road was a fat, laughing old-country aunt or uncle in a row house with a hug and a pot of kielbasa. To this day, when I smell something bad I expect there will be something good farther down the road. And I know the value of a vacation.

Nashville has been very dry this summer of 1999. New York and Pennsylvania have been drier. Crops are shot. Water has been rationed. There will likely be no color in the trees this fall. They are too dry. On Thursday of this week (9/16) there was a fire in Percy Warner Park. Percy Warner Park, perhaps the largest and prettiest municipal park in the country with its miles upon miles of forested road and trail, is where I, Mike and many of our running friends go to laugh, snort and recharge. Nashville is growing hurried and congested; and PWP is the only place in Nashville where I feel like I am home. To lose it would be devastating.

So far this year we’ve already lost Barbara, a running friend in her 50's who died of cancer. Last year Bill, health nut that he was, dropped dead at a triathlon, which was a month or two after tornados cut a swath through downtown Nashville and four months before I had to go to court with my landlord to fight an silly illegal eviction. I lost two kitties within a year to feline leukemia. The woman formerly known as my girlfriend of 5 ˝ years took off and moved to Kansas (with the last cat). My Mom has high blood pressure and diabetes. My Dad's goin' deaf. Our old friend Mike B is moving away to Macon, GA. The president I voted for twice made me feel like a bloody fool. Everything in the stock market right now is so overvalued and vulnerable that none of us may ever get to retire. People are being slaughtered in East Timor, and Kosovo, and Colorado, and Texas...

...it's been a long, dry season. Know what? I’m going on a damn bike ride with three of my best friends. Reports say the air quality in the Smokies is now as bad as in Atlanta. Hah, I’m looking forward to it! Know what else? It finally rained last night.