The staccato cadence of the failing Cessna engine, sputtering and wheezing in a consumptive fit, caught everyone’s attention. Our class Valedictorian was just about to summarize the bright futures that lay ahead for some us gathered together that warm June afternoon. All eyes of the Longmeadow High School Class of 1972 turned toward the small plane as it suddenly appeared overhead, trailing an oversized advertising banner. Printed in heavy block letters across its surface read, “Congratulations Jeff Grant!” Jeff, a fellow classmate and son of the towns preeminent bagel baker, sat a few rows ahead of me looking like he wanted to disappear.
As if waving a fond goodbye, the Cessna’s wings tilted gently back and forth, its engine now silent as it glided in a downward arch across the cobalt blue sky. Disappearing in an instant over Blueberry Hill, it crashed in a smokeless crunch of twisted metal. Its wheels were still spinning round and around as rescuers led by Sam the Cop arrived on the scene. Now, forty-five years beyond, I don’t recall if the pilot survived or who the commencement speaker was that day. In less than 72 hours, I would be long gone, hitchhiking to Georgia with my pal Gordon to look for a summer construction job turning thick red clay, or carrying bricks for the new Sprayberry High School building in Marietta. Long before it would quadruple in size 25 years later to become one of Atlanta’s most sought after suburbs, the town was just a broken down pit-stop located 20 miles west of Atlanta. Like many communities south of the Mason Dixon line in the early 70’s, Marietta’s residents were doing everything they could to become relevant in the new South of Nixon’s America. As we would discover, that included keeping people like Gordon and me from landing at their doorstep for any time longer than necessary.
Over the course of the previous two years, Gordon and I would hitchhike to the Atlanta area every chance we had. This usually meant our winter and spring high school vacations were spent on the road. During our junior year, a mutual friend Earl* moved with his family to Marietta after his Dad was transferred to the area to start a new job.
Earl was never much of a serious student, and had struggled in the competitive environment of our college preparatory high school’s curriculum and strict New England standards.
By the time Earl arrived in Marietta he was considered a virtual genius by the standards of that isolated, backwater town. As it came to pass, Earl was allowed to skip most of his senior year, since he was academically miles ahead of his fellow classmates. This gave Earl the time to perfect his drug selling and bootlegging techniques. It also afforded the opportunity for Earl to nurture a blossoming reputation as a force to contend with in Cobb County police circles.
Earl was also a certified mechanic and self-taught gear head, all of which endeared him to his new southern friends. Most of these boys knew how to convert a rusted out wreck of a car into a road ready hot rod. Pretty southern women and a strong concoction of homemade white whisky, affectionately called Devils Piss, fueled their motivations and raw mechanical skills.
It was said that a combination of turpentine, red ant venom and ghost chilies were the main ingredients used to distill that lethal brew in back wood lots across the region. I can say with some authority that after one shot of Devils Piss the skin of your throat would curl up and run for cover behind your vocal cords, which had been suddenly paralyzed and mostly left for dead. Whimpering burnt voice boxes would emit pathetic screeching sounds, rising and falling from the throat, like a slowly dying jackrabbit caught in the clutches of a big horn owl. The impressive heat from the liquid built and subsided between sips, or until you passed out on the floor, or if you were lucky, onto a nearby Sears catalog sofa. By the time the whiskey hit your stomach, all hell could break loose including ones bowels if you had been so unfortunate to have eaten any of the cured meats or head cheese left out on the table in the hot Georgia sunshine.
By Wednesday after our graduation, Gordon and I were settled into our usual spot on Interstate 91 outside of Enfield, Connecticut facing south toward Dixey. I recall at the time there were vague considerations of weather we could encounter along the way, however our concerns were more tuned to getting rides than worrying about getting wet. What we didn’t know, or failed to completely understand, was that one of the most destructive hurricanes in modern memory, Hurricane Agnes, had just the day before crossed out of the Gulf of Mexico over the Florida panhandle and was on the loose. In the 24-hour period prior to our departure from New England, Agnes steamed across Georgia and the Carolinas before heading out over the Atlantic where she strengthened further. By the time Agnes turned a sharp left and crossed the coast south of New York City, Gordon and I were standing on the Interstate approximately 200 miles north of the action, kicking pebbles back and forth to each other by the side of the road.
Agnes, now a massive tropical storm, barreled across New Jersey and Pennsylvania before running smack into the heart of Ohio. More than 10 inches of rain drenched the area as it passed. Local rivers and streams swelled to record flood levels. As we made our way south, we were oblivious to the pending danger as there was little evidence of the massive destruction underway across 10 states. The sky above us was unsettled, but not enough to slow us down or create any concern on our part. We hopped rides down Interstate 95 south through Baltimore and DC, in record time, crossing into Virginia late that afternoon in the back of a travelling salesman’s Pontiac filled with samples. A few hours later, we were deposited at an exit ramp a mile south of the James River Bridge in Richmond.
Happy with our progress, we elected to carry on instead of looking for a place to sleep, even though night was quickly approaching. An hour passed, then another. Catching a ride was becoming less and less of a possibility. There were simply no cars or trucks on the highway passing in either direction. What we could not know, but were soon to find out, was that Hurricane Agnes was stressing all the major rivers and tributaries in the area. For hundreds of miles around us, the agitated waters were rising like mythical monsters from their natural courses, flooding towns and countryside for miles around.
After what seemed like an eternity, a Virginia State police cruiser appeared and slowed down beside us. The fully uniformed barrel chested officer, looking like a mix between a Canadian Mounty and a Doberman pinscher, rolled down his window and looked us over with mild amusement. On this day, our long hair and hippy dispositions appeared to be of little concern. On any other occasion he might have locked us up for vagrancy, indecency, blasphemy…or just for the hell of it. On that particular day, the trooper was on a self-described life saving mission, instructed by his superiors to pick up anyone he encountered along I-95 in the vicinity of the James River. Dozens of stranded travelers were transported in this fashion to a designated emergency shelter, housed in a turn of the century elementary school west of Richmond. I asked the trooper what happened to all the cars. He told us that a barge had broken loose in the churning waters of the Occoquan River 90 miles north in Woodbridge, Virginia earlier in the day and slammed into the Purple Heart bridge which we had crossed less than four hours earlier. In addition, there was a more immediate threat unfolding just a few miles from where we had been waiting for a ride. The James River had breached its banks and was flooding downtown Richmond.
As we drove off in the back seat of the State Police car to be incarcerated in the community storm shelter, we could only wonder what would come next. Less than thirty minutes later we had our answer. Sitting on a military issued cot in the shelter was the designated best man for a wedding planned for the upcoming weekend. His 67 Chevy, with Florida plates, was our ticket to salvation.
*Names have been changed to protect the innocent and not so innocent alike.