September 28

THE JOHNSTOWN FLOOD AND THE DAM THAT WAS IN PERFECT CONDITION

Travel to our hometown allowed me to visit with my sister The Johnstown Flood Museum.  I was thankful to hear more of the story and tried to write about it.

 

In Western Pennsylvania the Little Conemaugh

becomes the Conemaugh River which is a main tributary

of the Allegheny which like the Monongahela receives

overflow rainfall from the Allegheny Mountains.

 

From Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, passengers in 1840

were transported down interlocking canals and soon a dam was built

to supply water for the canal for visitors going back and forth

between Johnstown and Pittsburgh to the west

 

to hold the water from the mountain streams

to feed the canal when the rivers were low in summer.

That Memorial Day in the last week of May, 1889

the dam, they said, was in perfect condition.

 

Industrial barons and their families traveled

from Pittsburgh to Johnstown to hotel and cottages

that had been built up above the reservoir at

what they named the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club.

 

Fishing, boating and swimming were enjoyed by those members

who demanded privacy from the people who lived below;

they raced their sailboats and walked along the water

and the dam, they said, was in perfect condition.

 

One man sent his engineer to inspect the lake and its stability

and he wrote a report to the founder of the Hunting and Fishing

Club who insisted: “You and your people are in no danger;

the dam is in perfect condition.”

 

On the evening of Memorial Day, 1889, the rain began to fall in

downpours—cloudbursts thundered all through the mountains.

Families began to visit friends on high ground while others

refusing to believe the warnings scoffed at such foolishness.

 

Offices in Johnstown closed; some children played in the streets

while others moved to attics and watched the water rise.

Visitors to town from Kansas laughed at the talk of flood which

they could not imagine; they had plans after all to attend a wedding.

 

As a small crowd of workmen watched from above

suddenly twenty million tons of water burst through at its

weakest place tossing the nearest houses in the air like toys

then dashed them to splinters against the bluff.

 

Down the valley for fourteen miles the water raged

taking with it the houses and cattle and people who lived below

until it reached the bottom of the valley and smashed into

Johnstown killing almost three thousand people in a few hours.

 

Some were saved to tell the story of the dam that

flooded that valley:  babies flying through windows–alive;

the man who floated past his home three times, calling

to his wife not to spend too much on his funeral

 

only to return a third time and be deposited like Jonah

back on land to tell the story of the day he survived that

great body of water that came crashing down the valley

breaking out of the dam that was in perfect condition.

September 26

God is in Plane Geometry

Just finished reading a classic, October Sky by Homer Hickam, recommended to me by my sweet sister, a former junior high librarian.  I have a hard time recommending it to my grandchildren because of how casual sex is, well, so casual.  But it was an inspirational true story about dreams, perseverance, family tensions and love.  Homer taught himself enough mathematics (with the help of a friend) to actually build a rocket; he and his friends were known as the Rocket Boys. There is a  line in this book that intrigued me. The young man woke up one morning and said he knew, he just knew, that God was in plane geometry.  He didn’t elaborate about how he had prayed for help or really add any religious language; he just said what he knew.  There’s also a funny follow-up as Homer attempts to talk to two ministers in his West Virginia town about this.  (You really need to read this, or read it again.)  God is in Numbers and in the Word.

September 20

I’M ASKING

What did he mean, that man who asked me for water?

“If you knew who it is…you would plead and you would get – living water.”

What did he mean, and why did he seem to look into

my eyes and see everything about me?

I am exposed, and yet–

How did he know so much about me yet there was no

judgment in those eyes,

those eyes, brown lasers of mercy.

What did he say I could have—living water?

Never be thirsty again?

Dry?  Oh, yes I’m dry—parched, split, bleeding.

Could he—that man with the laser eyes—

A man, yes, but what kind of man?

Not the kind I’ve known.

Water my soul?  Quench my thirst?

He said to ask; that’s what He said—ask.

Well, I’m asking.

No, I’m begging.

If you can wash, cleanse, water,

Oh Jesus,

rain

down

on

me.

September 15

WHERE I’M FROM (with thanks to George Ella Lyon)

Many students in the U.S. are familiar with a delightful poem by Kentucky poet George Ella Lyon because she has allowed a template of hers to be copied online.  I just returned from a visit to my hometown where I visited the Johnstown Flood Museum, so maybe this is why I’m thinking again of where I’m from.

I am from a tee-totaler and a flag waver

I am from a drummer boy from Boston

            and a Pennsylvania farm girl

            salty tears lonely.

I am from pen pals and he proposed before they met

            and a match made with postage stamps.

I am from he always wanted two little girls and a white picket fence

            and she wished he’d not spend so much on flowers.

I am from a disabled vet with a broken body

            and Jesus is the Great Physician.

I am from “You’re not any better but you’re just as good”  

   and “Don’t play with fire or you’ll get burned.”

I’m from a two-bedroom house on Sunday Street and

            the Johnstown Flood which happened again. 

I am from steel mills and a city bus

            and Saturday rides to the downtown library.

I am from a writer-dreamer with no place to write

and the girl who was told “You don’t need college, you’re just a woman.” 

I am from both – the dreamer and the disappointed farm girl

who struggled to give me safety and opportunity.