by Chris Fabry
I suppose you can sum up a man’s life with a few words. That’s what the newspaper tries to do with an obituary. And it’s what that reporter will try to do in her article. “Billy Allman . . . resident of Dogwood . . . lifelong dream to build a radio station . . .” She’ll do a fine job, I’m sure. She seemed kindhearted and the type that will get her facts straight, but I know there will be a lot of my life that will fall through the cracks.
I believe every life has hidden songs that hang by twin threads of music and memory. I believe in the songs that have never been played for another soul. I believe they run between the rocks and along the creekbeds of our lives. These are songs that cannot be heard by anything but the soul. They sometimes run dry or spill over the banks until we find ourselves wading through them.
My life has been filled with my share of dirges and plainsongs. I would sing jaunty melodies of cotton candy and ice cream if I could, a top-40 three-minute-and-twenty-second tune, but the songs that have been given to me are played in A minor and are plagued with pauses and riffs that have no clear resolution. I ache for some major chord, a tonal shift that brings musical contentment. I do not know if I will find that.
Throughout my life I have dedicated myself to God. I told him early on that I would go anywhere and do anything he wanted. No holding back. But as time slipped and the conversation has become more one-sided, that plan has appeared haphazard at best. God has seemed massively indifferent to my devotion, if he has even heard my cries.
I suppose I need to put this story down in an ordered fashion to make sense of the silence and to fill in the missing places of my own. Or perhaps I will be able to convince the people who know me as a hermit that there was some reason for the pain. Our lives are judged by a few snapshots taken at vulnerable moments, and I have decided to set my hand to recording the flashes I can recall, the ones revealing my motivations. The look on that reporter’s face as I showed her the disparate parts of my life made me want to put this down in my own words. But this is not really for those outside looking in. This is for me.
One of the neighbors described the morning of February 26, 1972, as a cold stillness. I woke up at the first sign of the overcast light. It was my tenth birthday, and as children will do, I did not want sleep to steal any of the good apportioned to me that day. I had invited three boys from my class to the first and last party my parents would ever offer. After that day, Mama never wanted to celebrate a thing, I guess. She had baked a cake the night before and I wanted a piece so bad I could taste it. I can still smell the cherry icing if I close my eyes and think hard enough.
I flipped on the TV to watch the only channel we got in the hollow. Too early for Johnny Quest or Scooby Doo, my favorites. It was some preacher talking about a prophecy of sudden destruction and how it would come like a thief in the night, like a woman’s labor pains. We should be prepared. We should cry out to God now before that destruction came.
At ten, I hadn’t committed many mortal sins, so there wasn’t much reason for me to think that his message had bearing on my life. But after the fact I wondered if what happened was because I was too prideful or had asked for too many presents. Children will do that—make everything about them, as if some decision they make will change the course of history. If I had prayed right then and there, would things have been different? If I had cried out to God for mercy, would he have changed the course of Buffalo Creek?
I turned off the TV and went to the front window, where the beads of water streaked the awkwardly cut glass and drifted down to the softening wood that tried to hold it all together. In the wintertime the wind whistled through those panes and ice formed on the inside so thick you could scrape your name. Now the water soaked the window through, and streams flowed down the dirt driveway to the road, washing the mud across it. The sight of that misty morning ran cold through me. It was as if the leaves had known better. They had escaped and left the trees looking like sticks on the silent hillside.
Daddy had left the house in the evening to check on the creek because it was up to the top of its banks. He came back to tell us a bunch of people had already gone to the high school because they thought the dam was going to break. The fellow from the coal company had assured everyone up and down the valley that nothing was wrong. We should just stay in our houses. Ride out the rain.
“You think we ought to get over to the school?” Mama had said.
Daddy rubbed his chin. “I think we ought to wait it out and see.” Daddy had faith in the company, but not as much as he had in God.
I noticed a muddy spot on the front porch that wasn’t there the night before, so I could tell Daddy had been back, but now I figured he was checking the dam one more time. There wasn’t much movement on the road, just a few cars spraying water as they passed. And then I saw him, moving faster than usual. My father had a gentleman’s gait. He never seemed in a hurry, sort of like my idea of what Jesus must have been like walking along in dusty Israel. He always had time to reach down and give a dog a pat on the head or to pull me close to him with one of those big hands. Like other people who make their homes on the sides of mountains, he took things in stride. He believed that a person in haste usually missed out.
But my daddy walked straight inside the house that morning without taking his boots off. The mud was everywhere, and all I could do was stare at his feet and wonder what had happened because Mama would kill him when she saw it. “Where’s your mother?” he said.
“Still asleep,” I said. “What’s wrong?”
“Arlene!” he shouted. I heard the bedsprings creak, and he turned back to me before he walked down the hall. “Get dressed quick.”
“Is it the dam?” I said.
“Yeah, it’s the dam.”
I threw on a pair of pants and a shirt over the T-shirt I’d slept in. Though they tried to speak softly, I could hear everything. I heard everything they said about me at the breakfast table each morning and everything they talked about in bed through the thin walls of that tiny house. At least everything I wanted to hear. Sometimes I didn’t want to hear a word from them because of the pain it brought about my older brother Harless.
“I don’t like the looks of it,” he said. “Water is just about to the top. If that thing goes, it’s going to wipe this whole valley out. And everybody with it.”
Mama pulled on her robe and hurried down the hallway. “Is that what the company’s saying?”
Daddy followed her in his muddy boots. Since the company had let us buy the house, he had taken such pride in keeping it clean and neat. He even planted trees and bushes in front.
“I don’t trust Dasovich,” Daddy said. “He went through again this morning telling us not to worry. That he was going to install another leak pipe. But the top of that dam is like a baby’s soft spot. And if I’m right, there’s enough water behind number three to stretch from there to the Guyandotte and back again and cover this whole valley.”
Mama had the Folgers can out but she wasn’t opening it. The cake she’d made sat on a white plate with wax paper over it. Daddy looked at me. “Get your shoes on.”
“Where are we going?” I said.
“Over to the school. Put some clothes in the basket yonder. Just in case. And take it to the car.”
“What about the party?” As soon as I said it, I felt bad. The look on his face made me ashamed of being so selfish. But I couldn’t help it. And the tears came.
“Your friends will probably be over there,” he said. “It’ll be one big party. Then when it’s safe, we’ll come back.” He touched my shoulder and nodded toward my room. “Arlene, you get dressed and I’ll grab a suitcase.”
Mama put the cake in a hatbox, and I hurried to get the basket of clothes. I grabbed my Bible and Dad’s mandolin and put them between the underwear and T-shirts and jeans, then walked out on the porch and down the cinder-block steps. Thunder was under there looking at me. He was our little beagle who slept outside. Daddy would take him rabbit hunting and he said he was the best, but I liked it when he curled up next to me while I watched TV. Mama would let me bring him in every so often as long as he wasn’t wet and didn’t come begging in the kitchen. I would scratch his back and watch his hind legs go to running.
We called him Thunder because of that bellow of a bark. I bent down and looked under the porch. “Come on, boy,” I coaxed, but he kind of whined and his eyes darted left and right, like there was something beyond me that spelled trouble. Daddy came out of the house with the old suitcase my papaw brought with him when he stayed with us before he died. My daddy was born in Omar, and Papaw was from Austria-Hungary, back before it was just Austria or Hungary. Papaw always said the West Virginia hills reminded him of his homeland. He took to mining like a duck to water, though I think he would have lived longer if he’d have just farmed.
Daddy brought out the suitcase in one hand, and in the other was a drawer from the desk with all of our pictures. On top of the drawer was a hatbox holding the cake Mama had made. “Open the door,” he said, and when I didn’t get to it fast enough, he grumbled and set the suitcase on the car and popped open the door and put everything inside. “Get in. Quick.”
Mama came down the steps holding Harless’s picture against her chest. She had a look on her face that was pure worry. Mama was an uncommonly beautiful woman of the hills, with long hair that she cared for every evening with a pearl-handled brush her mother had given her. After she brushed it out, she braided it, and I remember it swinging down her back as she made breakfast in the morning. Daddy always said she had the hair of a Tuckahoe Indian maiden, and Mama would smile, but it was true. Her great-grandmother on her daddy’s side had been from the tribe during the days when white people were offered money for Tuckahoe scalps.
Just as Mama made it to the car, there was a sound that echoed through the hills I will never forget. It was like hearing a car crash behind you; you knew exactly what it was, but you didn’t want to turn your head and look because you knew there was going to be somebody dead back there. I heard stories later of the people who were higher up the creek and what they saw after the upper dam broke and overwhelmed the other two. Daddy had said the company didn’t have engineers building the dam, just a drawing of what it should be, and they turned the guys with bulldozers loose. All the waste from the mines was piled up as high as they could get it, but not packed down like it should be. When all that rain mixed with the water used to clean the coal, it made a lake filled to overflowing—132 million gallons is what they said later on. That’s what was coming toward us, but of course we didn’t know that for sure right then.
Thunder barked and ran out from under the house. I jumped out and yelled for him, but Daddy grabbed my arm and slung me back. “Stay in there.” He whistled for Thunder, the high-pitched whistle I could never do, and the dog turned and looked at him, then kept running toward the creek like he was after a rabbit. Daddy hopped in the car and started it up.
“Don’t leave him!” I shouted.
“He’ll be okay, Billy. Calm down.”
We made it to the blacktopped road and headed down the valley, but as soon as we did, Mama looked at Daddy and said, “Other, what about Dreama?”
Daddy gave her a stare that said she was asking too much. “She brought those kids over last night,” Mama said. “The car’s right there by the house. She won’t know.”
Daddy turned our Chevy Impala onto a dirt road that was nothing but mud and slipped and slid up the embankment. Mama asked what he was doing and he wouldn’t answer her until he reached the tree line and set the emergency brake. “I’ll be right back.”
For some reason I still don’t understand, he reached back and squeezed my leg. “You be good,” he said.
I didn’t want him to go. But there was nothing I could do. I just watched him slip and slide down the hill, almost like he was trying to make us laugh, his one hand over his head, his other hand around the cigarette he was trying to keep dry.
“Lord, protect him,” my mother said as she watched. She was always praying out loud like that. Just a sentence here or a sentence there that led to a running conversation with the Almighty on everything from baking banana bread to saving somebody’s marriage. I imagined my daddy was doing exactly the same thing because he had the same kind of relationship with his Father in heaven.
The rain was still coming, running down the window, so I rolled mine down to get a better look, and that’s when I saw Thunder coming up the creek bank barking and sniffing along the edge of the water. I yelled at Dad to get him, but he couldn’t hear me. He kept sliding toward the house until he got to the porch. That’s when we lost sight of him, but I guessed he was knocking on the door and trying to wake Miss Dreama up.
About that time a car came along honking its horn and that car was just going lickety-split. As the car raced on, I heard something upstream, and through the trees it looked like a semitrailer was moving fast along the road, except it was an actual house that was coming down the valley like a child will move a toy in the dirt. I stared at it, fix-eyed, my voice caught somewhere inside.
“Oh, Lordy, here it comes!” Mama opened the door as fast as she could and started hollering at the top of her lungs. “Other! The dam’s busted! Get out of there!”
She took a step and fell flat on her behind in the mud and slid. I got out and tried to help her, and when I looked up, Miss Dreama’s house was splintering from the wall of water that crashed down. It surged onto the other side of the hill carrying part of the town with it; then it switched back and that black sludge slammed into the side of Miss Dreama’s place and lifted it right off its foundation, turning it a little. It was then I could see my father with a little one in each arm, trying to keep his balance. Miss Dreama screamed and Mama screamed and then I couldn’t hear a thing. It was like some switch just turned off. I turned away because I couldn’t bear to look and caught sight of Thunder just before the black water engulfed him.
My father’s face was determined and stoic as he tried to step off the porch while the house moved, but it was swirling fast, like the house in The Wizard of Oz. It was all he could do to stay upright. And I thought if he could ride it out, maybe everything would be all right. Maybe if I closed my eyes and prayed, things would be okay and the whole crew of them would step off onto dry ground. But there was nothing dry in that West Virginia valley.
Mama got up and slipped and slid back to the car. When I just stayed there, watching, she picked me up by the arm and almost tossed me into the front seat with her. She started the car and held her foot on the brake as we slid backward toward the raging water, and then I heard my own screams. The car slipped sideways and she turned the wheel sharply so we drifted straight. Miss Dreama’s house was moving faster now. I glanced at my mother; she was doing all she could to stop us but we were being drawn like a magnet down. Daddy had been right to put us up near the tree line and if we had stayed there, we would have been okay, but I never blamed her for what she did. She was doing it out of instinct, out of desperate love.
The car slid down and the water met us. I call it water but it wasn’t really. It was as thick as gob and just as nasty. A black mix of mud and coal sludge and trees that had been ripped from the bank moving in a torrent that only God himself could’ve stopped. Once it was loosed from the number three, there was nothing that was going to stop it until it reached the Guyandotte. The black mess was all over the window and coming in the backseat. Mama opened her door and tried to grab me, but she fell out and I was pulled back by another wave that swept over the car, caught fully in the weight of the water that treated houses and trailers like my toys. The car door closed and my birthday cake had fallen and mixed with the brackish water. I screamed for my mother, who ran along the bank—though it had been someone’s backyard only a few minutes earlier. My breath came in fits, just gasps, and for a moment I thought about the preacher and the sudden destruction he had predicted.
“Help me. Help me. Mama! Help me!” I cried to God and Jesus and my mother and yelled for my daddy, but I couldn’t see anymore and the coal sludge was filling up the car behind me. The back of the car slammed into something that I later learned was a telephone pole that hadn’t been swept away yet, and through the windshield I saw another house coming toward me, moving with the water like a boat. Then the car rose up like it wanted to stand on its trunk and I fell into the backseat and saw the open window. I knew right then this was my chance, my only chance to escape what was coming.
From that day to this one, when anyone asked how I survived, I have told them one story. That it was my birthday. That I didn’t want to die. That something rose up inside of me that was equal to or greater than that flood, and that was the human instinct to survive. And not only did I jump out of that car into the swirling water and get to solid ground, but I grabbed my daddy’s mandolin on the way out. Most people who heard me play never knew what that instrument went through. It was probably the only mandolin that survived the Buffalo Creek disaster, but I don’t know that for a fact.
I was sitting in the mud, too close to the water that looked like cement, when Mama got to me. She hauled me back up the bank to safety and then collapsed in a heap, bawling and rocking back and forth and saying, “I thought I had lost you. I thought I had lost you. And I prayed that the Lord wouldn’t take everything.”
It wasn’t long after I got out of the water that a trailer smashed into our car and took the telephone pole with it and all of it went rolling down the valley like dirt rolls off a car when it’s washed. It was just gravity and force and pressure doing what God intended when he made this old world. I was an eyewitness to the whole thing.