One night in early June after rehearsal, we watched people die.

The water was waist high; Paul, Fritz, and I had climbed out of Mary Olson’s Jeep after the last wave had crested over top of it. Standing in the fore yard of the silo at 6th and Omaha, torrents of water pulling at our clothes–did we hold onto each other? We struggled to a tree and hugged it, our hearts pounding hard against the trunk (and our trunks, too) as we turned to watch the Jeep lift off the ground, moving with the current float around the corner of the silo and out of our sight, Mary and Ken holding on to each other, a soggy, sad Pietà on the roof of her truck.

What now? It’s a jumble of memory and fear. Who said what? How were decisions made? In the deep water of the swollen creek* we made our way — was it hand-in-hand? — across the yard and to the red brick office building. Was it then that Paul climbed up on my shoulders and broke a window with one of our jackets wrapped around his arm? Or was that Fritz? No matter who it was I pushed them, they pulled themselves up into the safety (we hoped. we probably didn’t stop to hope, I believe by now we were not thinking, just acting, instinct stronger than intellect) of the office. Then the other went up on my shoulders and in. What about me? The water was high enough and the current strong enough that I climbed the wall to the window (10′ above me? 6′? who can remember?) and with either or both Paul and Fritz, their arms outstretched to me, they pulled me up and in.

While our own drama played in hyper-speed, that of dozens of others went by in slow motion; a car full of people being swept down the street, their arms outstretched, their mouths a rictus of pain, their eyes wildly searching, the car quickly submerged by a second tidal wave of water, and goodbye to all that suffering. Right there in front of us, we watched for the car to reappear, it didn’t. We stopped looking beyond our own fear and our own will to survive. It was disorienting, the dichotomy between our own lives and those passing before us; dizzying, swirling, a hypnotist’s black and white concentric circle of fear.

What about Mary and Ken? I don’t think we thought about what may have happened to them or even talked about it that night. We found them a few hours later after the water had receded up on top of a rail car around the corner of the silo, they’d jumped from the Jeep’s roof when it stuck momentarily against the rail car and then they watched as it was swept away and disappeared down the flood plain. It was found filled with mud a few days later a couple of miles from where we had escaped. Mary died a few years later in an apartment fire; to have lived through one conflagration just to be consumed by another seemed too perfect to have been pre-ordained, like a straight line in nature, it shouldn’t have been possible.

What did we talk about? How did we spend the next several hours in the silo’s office? I do know that by the time the flood had receded we had written a note to the business apologizing for breaking in that evening, giving them our names, addresses, phone numbers, if they wanted us to pay for the damage. No one ever called us.

How did we get out of there? How did I get home the next day? I was the only one of us who lived across the creek, it’s where we were headed that evening when nature decided otherwise; my mother angry with me the next day for not having called her after we were safe. But when was that? Did we walk back to Fritz’s house? Was that on 9th St. or 11th? Did we laugh at our adventure or had we taken a vow of silence? I remember the rehearsal before we left, an actor-pile of bodies squeezed onto a sofa (all that touching–it’s what makes non-actors suspicious of those who tread the boards, we never think of it as anything other than the truth. There is a joy in that, it’s best left unsaid–a secret handshake, a private language.)

What do I remember about Paul, the Paul you see in the photo above, acting the clown? He was a couple of years younger than I, he had a natural musicality–instruments and singing an extension of his buoyant personality. As far as I know he had no dark side, not then. And it was a short then. Just the one summer together, acting the court fools, entertaining children and perhaps a few adults, we never paid them any mind.

And such is my dilemma today. a mutual friend is cleaning out her closets…and in among her long life of souvenirs from other lives and times have floated up a photograph or two, a poster from the first year of the Rapid City Children’s Theater, all of which she’s sent me. The photo above in the last manila envelope. I haven’t thought about Paul in decades, even when I’ve mined these few years in this memorial experiment I call “The Photo Box”, he’s only been a supporting player, if that. But now, this time, for reasons I’m blind to for the moment, I want to reach out to him, but I’m reluctant. Our lives so close at one short intense time, and now so far apart. What good would it do either of us?

That’s the curse of the internet age, isn’t it? the ability to be always in the now, to be able to satisfy any urge at any time of day, information a finger tap away, a constant stream, really a flood of news, all of it available if you just reach out for that tree and hold tight, or you can watch it sink below the water line and float away.

*The Black Hills Flood of 1972, also known as the Rapid City Flood, was one of the most detrimental floods in the history of South Dakota. It took place on June 9–10, 1972[2] in the Black Hills of Western South Dakota. 15 inches of rainfall over six hours sent Rapid Creek and other waterways overflowing, flooding many residential and commercial properties in Rapid City. It also caused flooding of Battle, Spring, Bear Butte, and Boxelder Creeks.[3]

During the night of June 9, Canyon Lake Dam became clogged with debris and failed, resulting in 238 deaths and 3,057 injuries. Several bodies were never found. Over 1,335 homes and 5,000 automobiles were destroyed. The value of the damaged property was over US $160 million in 1972 dollars.

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© Robert Patrick, and Cultivar, 2008-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts, photographs and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Robert Patrick and Cultivar with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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