River Story

This week, news reports show riverbanks in Missouri overflowing with water. People up and down the river, in little towns like Hannibal, Clarksville, or Oakville (Iowa) are sandbagging. The reports come across on my browser through Yahoo or the New York Times. Sometimes there are graphic photographs, taken from helicopters, that show the beautiful force of water working against the folly of man’s effort.

Many of the interviews recall the Great Flood of 1993. Some say this flood might force a name change, to just the Flood of 1993, because this one might be even greater.

I remember that flood.

I had a new car, a ’93 Saturn SL2, and it carried all my worldly possessions when I drove it into Columbia, Missouri in August 1993. My destination was the University of Missouri, and in particular, its photojournalism program.

I had a lot of baggage.  I thought you had a good meal if you had a large Combos.  I thought it was somewhat shameful to put aluminum siding on your house.

What made me drive there was simple: I wanted to be a photojournalist.

I-70 was clear all the way. The highway is built on high ground as is most of the town where the University of Missouri has been established.

I guess the high ground was an amenity about my otherwise disastrous apartment.  Although it only cost $230 per month, it took $120 per month to heat and cool it.  As my apartment was conveniently located right next to the Interstate, I could hear the hammer of jake breaks all night.  My phone number shared all but one digit with the most popular pizza delivery place in town.

The reason to be there was to take photos. We had a photo lab. It was a place to develop black and white film, to stare at wet prints, to tell your friend to “burn in the blacks,” and to stroll out at midnight for a Boulevard.

The flood was the only story that summer. As a newbie, of course, I had no pictures of the flood. I did have a bunch of pastoral scenes from Newfoundland. They were pretty. They were not “news.” News was what we were seeking, divining, prospecting for.

News is what the older students could show in their trays. The second years had spent the summer hitching rides on aluminum fishing boats. They knew how to keep condensation out of an F-3. They had gotten tetanus shots.

My jealousy was complete and full-throated.

I was kicking myself for not showing up in June. What was I doing driving around Atlantic Canada? I wanted to get stranded overnight in Missouri Electric Co-op hall. I wanted to see sandbags piling up on the edge of a cresting river. I wanted to make the picture that would explain the unassailable force of rising water.

Well, that’s a lot to hope for. More subtly, of course, I could see that I was in store to experience a new kind of learning. I had spent years writing expository papers on things like literary criticism and historicism. It got me a great job waiting tables. A lot of these kids had the same background, of course, but now they had something new to give them a reason to forget all of that. The flood was a BIG STORY, my first.

Of course, the mistake for a young journalist is to view the entire world within the frame of your story.

I remember the day I drove out to talk to a farmer in Hallsville about his field of crops, now under water.  We sat in his kitchen.  He sat in a stuffed cloth chair, one leg supported by concrete blocks.  The room was full of things that should have been outside, where the ground was now submerged.  Things like axes or
gas cans.

He stared at me. He had overalls, a heavy face, and an old Ford truck.  I asked him about the truck.

“Fix it or repair daily,” his son interjected.  The gaunt son wore thick sideburns.  There was a harmonica in his pocket.

“Sir,” I said to his father, “what will you do now?”

He settled into his chair.  A moment passed, then another.  I could tell he had nothing to say. The flood was over, the water was receding and the damage was done. What was there, really, that would change things? He didn’t have insurance, and he had a big mess to clean up. The big story was that his little farm was lost. I wondered if he was going to instead ask, “why were you up in Canada when the water was rising? That was when you should have been here.”

His son wanted to talk. Not about those crops, though, but about his idea for selling shares to city folk in organic produce. He handed me a copy of Eliot Coleman’s New Organic Gardener. We walked around the fields.  We drove into town.  We played pool and had chili dogs.

I kept looking for the story that I had been sent to find, about the wet crops, but here was another in front of me, maybe just as eternal: the son, trying a new way that his father can’t understand. Sometimes the current inside a person has nothing to do with the stream, or flood, of physical events that surround their own life.

That day I failed, because I didn’t get a farmer story.  I learned something,though, about another person’s dreams.  I brought my own heroes along with me, but he showed me the reverence he had for his own.

I was new to journalism and it was okay that I didn’t have a story.  As I spent more time in Missouri, I came to understand that my teachers wanted to combat the “big event” coverage.  They wanted to inculcate in us a desire to draw out the stories of people.  They wanted us to push against the pre-ordained interpretation.

— —

Since we’re talking about water: This is the first fortnight of the summer for swimming lessons. Rosie is learning to hold her breath underwater this week. John is jumping off the diving board without a floatie. I went to witness the last day of lessons yesterday.

“I am so happy that I got to show you my under the water,” said Rosie. She exults, flexes her arm muscles, and screams.

Today we built a shed in our backyard.  I don’t know why we didn’t do this a long time ago.  Now we have a place for everything.  It is 8 feet by 12 feet, with 6 foot sidewalls and a lock on the doors.  It has a finished floor, a foundation of cinder blocks, and ventilation in the ceiling.


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