That dry season I told you about a couple weeks back is nothing more than a memory now. It’s been raining here for so long that people can’t even remember when it began. Days upon days, one long and soggy line. The creeks are full and the grass is back; everywhere you walk makes a squishy sound. No downpours, at least not yet. Just that steady sort of falling water that starts out making you feel comfortable and ends up sinking into your bones. The ground is saturated now. I hear more rain is coming, the kind that keeps interrupting the radio with screeches and buzzes and warnings of rising rivers and washed out back roads.
Whenever these parts are hit with this much rain, invariably someone will mention 1969. Usually it’s an old timer, like the ones who hang around down at the hardware store or on the benches outside the 7-11. You’ll say hello to them and keep going for your new hammer or a bottle of Mountain Dew, and they’ll draw you in. Old timers like that have all the hours in the world to talk. And since so many of them have spent their lives coaxing food from the black dirt on their farms, weather is their specialty. Weather and memory.
“You think it’s wet,” they’ll say, “you don’t know nothing. You shoulda been here in ’69.”
I wasn’t, of course. I missed what happened here back then by three years. But I know many who were not so fortunate.
In August of that year, a tropical wave formed off the coast of Africa and swept westward along the 15th parallel into the lesser Antilles, where it became a hurricane south of Cuba. The National Weather Service named it Camille. It made landfall on August 18, crushing Waveland, Mississippi. From there Camille tracked north, through Tennessee and Kentucky. Then it veered hard right through West Virginia and into the Appalachias, where it ran smack into Virginia’s Blue Ridge.
That was August 19, 1969.
Nelson County, just over the mountain from us, suffered worst. The rains came so hard and so utterly fast that it defied human reason and nearly touched the Divine. Some even called it judgment for a people who had strayed from the Lord. Houses were swept away, cars tossed like playthings. Whole towns and families lost, disappeared. The very contours of the mountains were shifted and changed by walls of mud. In the end, twenty-seven inches of rain fell in less than five hours. The National Weather Service stated it was “the maximum rainfall which meteorologists compute to be theoretically possible.”
One hundred and twenty-three people perished. Many more were never found. To this day, their bones lie somewhere among the fields and vales. It was estimated that 1 percent of the county’s population were killed that day. Most perished not by drowning but by blunt force trauma, the water throwing them into the nearest immovable object.
The destruction and loss of life was so complete that Camille was stricken from any further use as the name for a hurricane. People here won’t even utter the word. It’s always The Flood. Nothing more than that needs saying.
Then again, maybe I’ll say a little. Because what gets added on the end of that nightmare across the mountain was the grace and kindness shown after. The government appeared en masse in the days and weeks following the storm to clean up and rebuild, but it was the untold thousands of volunteers who did most—the farmers and mountain folk and more church groups than anyone could count, people who knew those mountaintops and hollers well. My daddy and granddaddy were among them. They moved slow through all those shattered homes and marked the ones that had become tombs. They carried pistols in their hands because of the million snakes that had been washed from their dens.
For years Grandma kept a picture she’d taken of the sky on the day the Camille left on her mantle. It was black and white instead of color, but you could still see how black the sky looked, how evil. But you could also see as plain as day how in the middle of that picture the clouds had parted in the perfect shape of an angel to let the sunshine through.
It wasn’t the first time tragedy and hardship had visited this part of our world. It won’t be the last. But if there is any comfort to be had in such times, it is the same comfort that was found in the late summer of ’69—God is still there, still watching, and there will always be good people who will rush to your aid and help you repair what life has born asunder.