Suffocating through the extreme heat of the past weeks, my mind drifted back to a different time and place when weather conditions were dramatically opposite those we now experience. I grew up in Winona, Minnesota, a small town skirting the Mississippi River. She is often referred to as “mighty” both for her power and for the 2,318 miles from source to final destination - the Gulf of Mexico. The Algonquin-speaking Native Americans named the river “Father of Waters,” (misi-big, sipi-water), and it’s earned its status in the family.
Those of us along her route had little concern about too much summer sun. Ours was fear of flooding that breached dikes, dams, and levees. The destructive power of the Mississippi threatened towns throughout its cross-country journey to the Gulf, and in 1927 it flooded 23,000 sq. miles, killing 250 people.
Growing up in a placid river town, solidly Midwest down to its soul, tornadoes and floods were feared like wildfires and earthquakes are in America’s far west. They also disrupted the monotony of everyday life for teenagers trapped in a culture where routine and politeness are core values.
I was a senior in high school, stuck in a too-small house, and bored to tears when a massive storm hit our corner of the state. Word spread that the Mississippi threatened to flood its banks, and volunteers were needed. Over protests from my grandmother that I would probably drown, I ran through the rain to the Salvation Army Center where we piled into white vans that ferried us to the edge of danger and the peak of excitement.
Rain poured down like it was dropping from buckets instead of clouds. We scurried from the vans to tents where Salvation Army people in wet blue uniforms barked orders and handed us sandwiches and little cartons of chocolate milk to deliver to voluntary crews filling sandbags, hoisting them over their shoulders and racing to stack them like bricks onto the steep riverbank. The rain was so relentless that, throughout the afternoon, we could see the river rising over the newly laid sandbags.
The downpour kept us drenched. Umbrellas and raingear were useless. Throughout the day, we listened to the squawk and crackle of shortwave radios that issued continued dire warnings. It was a 12-hour day of excitement and purpose and not being stuck in the house.
On the trip back to home base, we listened intently as the van's driver (a Captain in the 'Army') regaled us about the virtues of his rank and ride. He said the van was nearly “unstoppable”. That even Civil Defense “wouldn’t dare” try. He demonstrated the features of the flashing lights on the dashboard and cranked up the siren for us. All the while, the windshield wipers frantically tried to keep up with the pounding rain. For a naive and bored teenager, it was exhilarating.
Although they called the event a “500-year flood,” the Mississippi frequently exerts its awesome power. And it doesn’t take a disaster for people living under her reign to bow in homage to her swift, unpredictable currents. As I grew up in her presence, I learned to think of her as a deity of nature – at once life-giving and life-taking. Most of us lost a friend to her dark underwater torrents. Sometimes it was a ski boat screaming along the ribbon of river that flew out of control, taking a young life in the pursuit of fun. Other times, the river claimed one of ours without explanation.
I recall when the older sister of a boy (who was an object of my admiration) died in an accident so unlikely that it defied understanding. An anchor rope on the family’s boat caught up on a submerged object, and the young girl reached over the side to cut the rope with a fishing knife. The knife slipped from her grasp, hit a wave, bounced back, and severed her 17-year-old jugular vein.
Indeed, the river gave many of us our first experience with death. It caused us to doubt our faith, to think in puzzling philosophical ways when we would have preferred planning what to wear to the Friday night dance. But the Mississippi was a neighbor with multiple personalities. She gave us endless hours of recreation, took us to sandbars where we experienced the rites of youthfulness miles away from authoritative adults. It was there that we tested our upbringing, our solid Midwest virtues drummed in by no-nonsense parents.
The river was freedom. She was adventure. In winters, we skated across her milky white surface. We laughed, raced, twirled, and fell in puppy love. And some of those years, a skater broke through the crystalline surface and drowned.
In the summers, she gave us boating, skiing, and fishing, a kiss on a sandbar – more growth, discovery, and loss. But random displays of dominance are never enough for the Mississippi, and from time to time, she delivers mass destruction lest we forget who is in charge.
Those devastated by the dissonant concert of sky and earth are not surprised. We never doubted the power of a great river to give and to take away. There is no truce with Mother Nature. We have no bargaining chips, no favors to call in, no power plays. We may not lose, but we will never win.
Dear readers - thank you again for letting me share memories with you. You reading - keeps me writing! And I'd love to hear from you - feedback is always welcome!
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