A Torrent of Kindness
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A Torrent of Kindness
Author of "Oldest Living Confederate Widow
Tells All" and the forthcoming "The Practical Heart."
from the New York Times October 2, 1999

y hometown's traffic signals are blinking underwater. You can see brown river currents go red, yellow, green.

This intersection's sole conveyances: foam rubber couches, a Chippendale side-chair I swear is my great-aunt's, beach balls ----plus one flood-liberated coffin. I see it, bronze, the narrow end foremost, sharking due east submarine-like, moving right along.

Since Hurricane Floyd, local police advisories warn: "Do not try to secure drifting coffins yourself. Phone us with their last known whereabouts. (Embalmed bodies do not constitute major health risks)."

Not compared to everything else.

Two weeks past the first stunning surge, the rains still come. Most all the childhood homes I played in -- even the house where I experienced what I believed to be the first French kiss ever invented by humankind -- now stand darkened under water.

Rocky Mount is, alas, a river town. Now, literally. It was built to utilize one waterfall that energized an 1840's cotton mill, and its poorest black residents and some of the richest white ones still live in sight of the Tar River. It's usually so friendly, so "don't say-nothin' ," that our local joke has fondly teased it as "the mighty Tar." Never make fun of anything.

A child studying the map will worry how North Carolina juts, inviting, out into the Gulf Stream -- some masochistic taunt and dare of Southern hospitality. Where would every hurricane choose to spend its inland holiday? We natives date our lives this way: "Before Hazel," "After Fran." Storms here make tree surgery nearly as profitable as brain surgery. The usual wind damage at least has a short attention span, grazing hard at our salad bar but basically
just picking. Floyd's waters, more democratic, have noticed everything, and from the bottom up.

Our mild river rose so quickly: folks who went uneasily to bed at 11 P.M., worried over the black water flirting with their porch's bottom step, were wakened at 3 A.M. by the sound effects record of a torrent; found their whole first floor submerged.

To dive from a great height can be daunting to people over 50. To dive into dark water off the roof of your nest-egg home, to try and swim to safety, means a terrible contest: should you resist your own death or never again trust the assurance we call Home

What makes this even scarier, black water itself is pure pollution -- from bloating livestock, sewage, the chemicals washed free of warehouses, factories. You need tetanus and typhoid shots to even wade in it. (To even look at it long.)

Our town's overtended side streets and watchful sweetness are, the local Latin teacher tells me, "as altered by Before and After as, say, Pompeii."

Eastern North Carolina, forever isolated -- a day's drive between all major places -- was only just beginning to find a belated half-prosperity. This flood will press our region even farther back into its stubborn 19th century. Major industry must rebuild or move at last to Mexico. If Mom and Pop stores and farms were always provisional here, they're now literally sunk.

But local department stores, as soon as the insurance boys say those magic words, "total loss," give away their clothes! Folks with washing machines do their part and pass clothes right along to the thousands in sudden need (and in last night's pajamas, now smelling like the entire history of North Carolina hog farming).

We stand around a lot. Without access to television and radio, we are now no more than what we owned, and simply what we say we are. A leading citizen is reported missing. Rumors insist that the ice truck parked behind Nash General Hospital -- the one guarded by the National Guard? -- hides 150 corpses piled under service station ice.
Really. Without electricity, we can't even benefit from being, our first time ever, the lead item on Dan Rather's list of earthly woes.

Help! Our sky is full of buzzards and of Army helicopters. Need and media here, so unbecoming. We feel awful. But, TV-less, we can't know how we look.

This late in our century, we're inured to real squeamishness. And yet, so safe, we can't help wonder how we'd do during something really terrible.

Wearing department store hand-me-downs, us locals must look rough; but many have behaved in ways quite worthy of our 60 sunken church steeples. The Bible Belt doesn't expect a landscape quite so Plagued. Was it our growing that tobacco, Lord? Don't we, God-fearing to start with, get a little extra credit? We now deserve some. There's little
left but self-respect. Still, That part's dry, safe.

We have found: when those people jeopardized are our friends and neighbors, whatever class or color, when we see them stranded screaming in treetops, and if we happily own a boat that hasn't left our garage for eight months, and if there is gas sloshing in its outboard, we still know -- not why this happened -- but what to sort of do.

Heroic response has somehow simply risen to the storm's high-watermark. When a student representative on the board of the University of North Carolina passed his baseball cap around the table, after a plea for flood victims, that cap came back full of folding money and a check for $100,000. So much voluntary food arrives, mounds of cans make Stonehenges of our mall lots. Even the bank that holds my mortgage sends this unbidden: "If [Floyd] has caused you a severe financial hardship . . . our officers are available to discuss new possible payment options."

We Southerners invented the phrase "the kindness of strangers" (one of our boys did, anyway.) But nobody ever talks about -- the strangeness of kindness. I mean the curious intuition that lets one person imagine what might, right this second, help others the very most.

Such odd in-kindness offers what little is left here of quantum joy. True story: Since pets could not be taken into rescue boats, they were left on roofs. Soon as the winds stopped, one man circulated around our schoolhouse shelters; he jotted the (first) names and addresses of such stranded animals. Aided by his motorboat, a fishing net and a whole heap of kibbles, he set about retrieving pets.

Imagine a fiberglass craft Evinruded along, loaded with collies, mutts, caged canaries and three indolent Persian cats decidedly unpleased to be this wet this publicly, sneezing in broad daylight, generously not looking at each other. Animals forgot their usual warring; all in one boat, they aimed a single direction, forward, toward whatever land, holy land. (Each would soon significantly lift the morale of owners who'd otherwise have lost everything.)

Princeville is the oldest incorporated black township in the United States; and its dam finally broke. The older homeowners, proud people, had ignored all early evacuation orders. They hid. Most elderly people fight anything that feels too institutional, and they're naturally suspicious of group activities involving bullhorns.
These folks believed the water must go down. They'd prayed over it. Once the neighborhood was considered cleared, many holdouts were left to climb onto their kitchen tabletops. As bilge rose several feet an hour, they took final suicidal refuge in their windowless attics. Folks soon found themselves trapped up there by 22 feet of sewage water.

True story: One young man somehow guessed the old-fashioned ways of such stay-at-homes. He climbed into a rowboat, paddled out among Princeville's rooftops. He bellowed unofficially, not "Your attention please, all citizens must . . . " He just screamed, "Where are you?" And whenever he heard muted hollering, he tied his boat to that
roof's edge and yelled for occupants to back way off; he chain-sawed straight through shingles. He grappled aged residents -- head-first-- free of their own suffocating homes. Then they all arked off to the next house and the next . .

In our millennial paranoia, we suspect that the Book of Revelation's last days are now quaking up among us, fault-finding. If you're scared the world is ending in fire, reconsider. May we, the waders of North Carolina, (all these snakes!) half-reassure you? It'll probably be water. But, even in this catastrophe's toxic wake, we're inching
toward the high ground of a glum communal hope. Some 19th-centurywillingness to act is yet there, if called upon.

People are still imagining each other so they can rescue each other. A strange, radical thing, kindness.
May we continually pray for a citizenry that, epic as the horrors visited on it, still finds itself able to row right off, to guess a quiet neighbor's whereabouts, to save that neighbor. Heaven keep us afloat and worthy of saving each other. And, as a nation, kindly keep us worth saving.

(And, incidentally, Lord, when was your last vacation?)

More about author Allan Gurganus

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