Head for High Ground

Head for High Ground August 3, 2022

My grandfather told the best stories.

He told me all about the family, and the nutty adventures they had. He himself was one of seven children and he fathered seven children, so there were lots of stories to tell. They start to run together in my mind and I am desperate to write them all down before I get to be much older myself. I can’t tell them to you the way my grandfather did, because I’m not as talented a storyteller as he was. But I try to be.

He told me about the summer of 1969, when they were all up in the mountains of Pocahontas County, West Virginia, and the hurricane hit.

Hurricane Camille made landfall on the coast of Mississippi as a Category Five, killing hundreds. Then she worked her way inland, quieting down until she was no longer a hurricane but a massive tropical depression dumping buckets of rain. And there was my family, right in her path. They didn’t predict hurricanes very well in the sixties. Of course, I don’t know if my family would have canceled the reunion under any circumstances. They treated it like a religious obligation.

Hurricanes don’t usually make it to the mountains, but Camille was relentless.

Storms that break in the mountains really break suddenly, without warning. You can’t see a front coming in because the mountains form a wall, blocking the horizon. It gets more and more humid under a circle of blue sky until suddenly the storm is on you and there’s nowhere to hide, and then it pours. Trees go down. The lights go out. There’s nothing you can do but get out early or wait to be rescued– and that’s for a normal summer storm. This was a hurricane.

It rained all day and it rained all night, and then all the next day. At some point that night, my grandfather got the word that the dam had broken and the water was rising out of control. The whole park was in danger of flooding. I don’t know who told him this. There aren’t phones in the cabins there and certainly no television. I think it was a park ranger who drove down from the admin building and warned him. At any rate, he got the word: “The dam’s busted. Head for high ground!”

Grandpa and one of my great uncles– I think it was Uncle Ben, a veteran– got to work. They woke Granny and the children. My mother and her sisters were still in their short babydoll nightgowns, the ones they always wore to bed because Grandpa thought long nightgowns were a fire hazard. Grandpa and Uncle Ben stuffed them all into the van and hit the gas. They headed for high ground, but first they headed all around the park, rescuing the family.

They drove to Aunt Patty and Uncle Bear’s cabin, deep in the woods in a different part of the park. I don’t know why Uncle Bear was called Uncle Bear. He doesn’t look anything like a bear. But Aunt Patty had nicknames for everyone, and she named her husband “Bear.”  I didn’t know Bear’s real name until I was in my twenties. In any case, Patty and Bear and their children were sound asleep in a cabin that was separated from the road by a creek, traversable only by a wooden bridge. The creek was getting so high there was danger that the bridge would wash out, stranding them.

Grandpa got out of the van and crossed the bridge; he knocked until Uncle Bear came to the door, extremely groggy.

“The dam’s busted,” Said Grandpa, drenched to the skin. “We’ve all gotta head for high ground.”

“The dam’s busted and we’ve all gotta head for high ground?” said Uncle Bear, a highly respected math professor and the deepest sleeper I’ve ever known.

“That’s right.”

“Okay. See you in the morning.” He started to close the door.

My grandfather shoved his way through and alerted Aunt Patty, who didn’t answer the door in her sleep like Bear. Eventually, they got Patty and Bear and their children into the van. Everyone got into the van. My mother and aunts were giggling with excitement as the pajama-clad cousins joined them.

“It’s no time for giggling, girls!” insisted Uncle Ben, and they headed for high ground.

Thankfully, high ground is something that mountains have in abundance. All the roads in Pocahontas County lead uphill in a corkscrew design.  They all slept in cabins on higher ground that night. Eventually it stopped raining.

By the end of the week-long family reunion, the water had receded enough that the children could go out and wade near the other cabins. The bridge hadn’t gone out at Patty and Bar’s place, somehow.

My grandpa was regarded as a hero for his efforts, and that is right and just.

It’s not the only way he was a hero to me, but that’s another story.



Image via pixabay

Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross, The Sorrows and Joys of Mary, and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.

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