Fate is a funny thing. You just never know when its going to kick in. June 15, 1972 was my ship out day to go to Great Lakes recruit Training Command. Graduation had only been a short period before that date and I was very busy for those few days tying up loose ends before starting my great adventure. On the 14th, I finished putting my clothes away that I would not need and down in our basement I finished loading up my collection of magazines and love letters from the girls I had dated in high school.
I thought I was being pretty clever since I figured out a hiding place inside of a built in wall cabinet that my Dad had built years ago. The selected place was about 24 inches off the floor and completely out of sight on a shelf that had been installed at an earlier time to hide various and assorted contraband that a typical 17 year old in 1972 would want to keep from the eyes of his parents.
What I was completely unaware of was on that same day a tropical disturbance had formed over the Yucatan Peninsula which would very quickly change the course of history and have an impact on my family that lasts to this very day.
I boarded the plane on the 15th and was seen off by Mom and Dad and a very teary eyed girlfriend. Oh you should have seen the prideful looks as I joined the other young men off to serve our country. Viet Nam was still an active conflict and each of us knew that until the day it ended we may be called on to participate. The plane ride was great with the helpful flight attendants (called Stewardesses back in those days) casually forgetting that we were probably all underage. I had never had a cocktail before in the open light of day so that was quite exciting. I do believe I even had several cigarettes that had been smuggled on board. This “being on our own” stuff was already bearing rewards.
As we were flying towards Chicago O’Hare, two forces were gathering that would set the tone for the next few months. The first was a collection of Petty Officers and Chiefs that would be greeting us at the airport to welcome us into their Navy. The second was an increase in the strength of that tropical disturbance in the warm waters of the Caribbean to a full tropical depression and later tropical storm. The intensity of both forces continued to grow as we left the plane and into the loving arms of those waiting sailors and Chiefs. In a very short order, some of us who had partaken of those drinks soon began to regret the decision. Its almost as if the Stewardesses knew what was in store for us.
We waited in the large arrival area for all of the flights to arrive from various other airports that night. As hour slipped into hour, it occurred to us that even in the best of scenarios, we were going to arrive at our first destination rather late. Most of us agreed that it would be the right thing for the leaders to take that into account the next morning. After all, common sense would dictate that we would all be better prepared to face our first day with a bit of a sleep in.
The bus arrived at the camp at about 3:50 and we all fell into the unmade bunks we found. It was pretty cold as I remember it and I think most of us slept in our clothes. The Petty Officers who brought us there disappeared without telling us how to get linen so we just kind of made due with whatever we could find. Sleep came quickly but not quite as quickly as the lovely wake up call at 0430. Lots of banging and clanging and more regret for those illicit drinks on the plane. Off to the chow hall, single file, no talking, eyes straight forward, take all you want, eat all you take, pretty much a demeaning way to start what was to hopefully be a real adventure.
As the other storm churned in the southern waters near Florida, it continued to strengthen and gained a formal name; Agnes. It was really the first storm of the season and a very rare June one at that. Typically storms come later in the year and are characterized by a slow dance across the Atlantic through the various island nations before visiting the US proper. Agnes had a mind of her own however and by the 19th of June landed on the Florida Peninsula as a category 1 hurricane.
The hurricane was not much to look at when it landed but a number of things were going to happen over the next few days that would make it memorable to many people. It continued its path through the center of the country and then fate kicked in. The storm merged with a non-tropical low on June 23, with the combined system affecting the northeastern United States until June 25
The combination of the two storms created a slow moving rainmaker that flooded the entire Mid Atlantic region causing much death and destruction. Many areas actually experienced a 500 year flooding event and were completely unprepared for the affects nor the aftermath.
It didn’t rain that much in Great Lakes that month. We were quickly swept up into the routine of future men of war. I can’t say I was really focused on home at all since each day was a challenge in its own. There were radios in the barracks and we listened to them at night. But this was long before the days of CNN and the Weather Channel so none of us were aware of the scope of the storm battering the mid section of the country.
The suburbs of Pittsburgh where we lived is a hilly area and our home on Duncan Station Road was half way up a very large hill. We were pretty well above any river surge so even the large amounts of water that flooded the surrounding areas shouldn’t have impacted us. However, I was about to learn the existence of an elevated water table that became swiftly overburdened by the excessive rainfall. That water table had already been saturated by a heavy spring rain season, so Agnes did her best to top it off.
The natural flow of that water table pushed larges amounts of excess water right into our basement. When the folks finally discovered it, it was already almost waist high and would required an external pump to remove it in the days to come. Here is where Agnes and fate intertwined to cause me some fairly embarrassing moments and would provide fodder for family gatherings even to this very day.
As the water lifted inside the basement, my cleverly hidden stash came floating out. I can only imagine the looks of surprise on my parents faces as Miss April came floating by in all of her glory. Miss May would probably float well on her own if I remember correctly, but her image still created a bit of consternation for my very Presbyterian Dad. And worst of all of course were the very explicit well written love letters from the girls I had dated in high school.
Thankfully, my parents were actually pretty forgiving once the shock wore off. Dad and I had a heart to heart talk after boot camp and I never again kept any of the love letters no matter how safe I thought they would be.
In retrospect, I will always wonder what in the heck I was thinking by even keeping the things I kept. Its not like I planned on reading the notes again and every month after that new images would be published for years to come. But I suppose it was a life lesson that I would get to remember for years to come. My older brother Chuck uses it in an occasional sermon to this very day.
Agnes taught a lot of people a very hard lesson. As we sit waiting for this hurricane season to officially start, I wonder how many other people remember to be ready for the unexpected?