Wiping the sleep out of my still half-closed eyes, I stumbled down into the den already aware that no electricity meant something had gone wrong during the night. My eyes lit on Daddy, who sat in his big recliner, and immediately, my stomach sank, and my heart jammed into my throat, beating like a drum inside my ears. His furrowed brow cut through the grimace on his face, and I knew we faced bigger problems that Sunday morning than a power outage. I quickly glanced over to Mom as she stood over the hot Franklin wood stove eyeing the sizzling sausage. As usual, her face gave nothing away.
Before the words, “What’s wrong?” could even leave my mouth, I knew. I knew, for at that moment I turned my attention to the heavy rain coming down, just as it had on Saturday, and I remembered the worried words passed around among Daddy, Paw, and Maw as Big Helton Creek crept out of its banks. This morning, though, Daddy sat mute, so it was Mom who turned around and said matter-of-factly, “Half the driveway slid out into the road last night.” Then she added, “The phones are out of order, too.” Those two things together meant that we couldn’t call to check on my grandparents, and we couldn’t get a car out to go check on them or anything else at the foot of the hill.
Mom turned back to her cooking and told me to go rouse Libby for breakfast, such as it was. Back in our bedroom, I shook Libby awake and told her the news as we slipped quietly into the kitchen for breakfast before tackling the challenges of the day.
As we ate our breakfast in silence, each of us seemed to be thinking about what devastation that this 6th of November in 1977 would bring and how we would cope with it. Feelings of panic began to overtake me as I realized that I had no clue how I would get back to Emory & Henry College that afternoon. I knew Dad and Mom were thinking about that and a whole lot more. The food and coffee must have strengthened Daddy’s resolve because he spoke up for the first time that morning.
As he and Mom talked, plans firmed up. First things first: we needed to know that Maw and Paw were okay and to assess the damage to the farm. So, after breakfast, we donned our rain gear, and all four of us headed outside to find that when the driveway slid out, it took the erosion-preventing line of pine trees with it, and they now stuck out of the muddy soil every which way. Some lay to the side, some stood upside down with the roots hanging down like an umbrella, and some, amazingly, stood straight and tall as if they had grown that way all along. There was nothing to be done for it today, though, so we moved on.
Slipping and sliding on the wet leaves that carpeted the ground, we took the shortcut through the woods down to Maw and Paw’s house. As we exited the woods, what should have been Big Helton Creek slipped into sight. For all the world, it looked like a violently raging river had completely swallowed up the creek. Big Helton Road no longer existed, and the water swept through Maw and Paw’s yard. It licked at the shrubbery but fell short of the house. We arrived to find Maw and Paw standing on the porch looking out over the water. Water had seeped into their basement, but the house was dry.
As we all walked through their neighbor’s field and yard to reach our own barn, the extent of the damage slowly revealed itself. In field after field, flood waters had left a trail of flattened grass and trash in its wake. A large mudslide cut a whole section out of the hill above our meadow, taking the fence out with it. But it wasn’t just fields and fences that sustained major damage.
Most all of the little community of Helton was laid out and torn apart by the waters that weekend. Downed power and telephone lines littered the ground, and large stretches of Highway 194 had disappeared, leaving no trace. Bridges fared no better. Along with the highway and the bridge across the road, the waters also took a good portion of our barn with it as it tore through the valley. The roof of the upper portion was hanging low, missing the walls that had supported it just the day before.
As we surveyed the results of Mother Nature’s anger, I, more selfishly than I ever wanted to be, continued to worry about my own troubles. The roads on both sides of us were simply gone, and I could not see a way that I would be able to get back to school in time for classes on Monday.
Maybe if I had been anything but a freshman (and a pretty new one at that), I would have handled that thought a little better. As it was, I had not yet learned to study or organize myself well enough to absorb the lecture and study time I would miss by not being there. College was extraordinarily difficult for me that first year, or I guess I should qualify that to say that getting the grades I wanted and my parents expected was extraordinarily difficult for me that first year. School, studying, and grades took precedence over everything else for me then, and I just didn’t think I would survive my classes if I couldn’t get back. I should have known, though, that Mom and Dad would be there for me even in the middle of their own crises.
In the middle of all the logistics of trying to plan for how to start repairing the damage we had sustained, my parents, my amazing parents, first started making a plan to get me back to Emory & Henry! As an adult and parent now, I realize daily just how much I took Dad and Mom for granted.
Daddy learned by word of mouth from neighbors on where the nearest working telephone was, so he walked the approximately two miles there and started making calls. At the same time, Mom helped me pack up just what I absolutely had to have from the laundry I had done on Friday when I got home. It was almost noon when Daddy got back, but he had a firm plan.
He and I started out walking across our hill and down the valley as the crow flies until we got beyond where the highway had washed out. A neighbor on that side of the flood picked us up and took us as far as the road lasted until it was washed out again. We walked again for a short distance to where the father of one of my high school classmates picked us up. He had graciously offered to drive us in a very round-about way as we avoided road outages to another E&H classmate’s home in Volney, Virginia. Daddy and my friend’s father made their way back home as I made my way to E&H with my classmate and her father.
I wish I could say that I knew what Mom and Dad went through that next week, but, alas, I cannot, for as they and neighbors all through the Helton community worked together to begin repairing the damage left behind by the Flood of ‘77, I was safe and secure back on campus attending classes and studying as hard as I could. Over and over since then, I’ve come to understand just how much I took Mom and Dad for granted.
Of all the images that swirl through my mind of that weekend, the strongest one is not of the raging water or the damaged barn or the washed out road. My strongest memory from that flooded weekend is of a father who turned his back on everything yelling for his attention and, instead, gave all that attention to a daughter he loved as they hiked together over those steep hills to do what needed to be done for her.
Note: My memories of this flood are very clear, but as I attempted to find more information about the November 1977 flood, I was struck by how little I found. That led me to doubt some of my exact details, but I have written the story as I remember it.
One online discussion dated it in 1978, but I remember it being my first year of college, and that would have been 1977. I am not 100% sure if the worst of the damage occurred on Saturday or Sunday of that weekend, but I am pretty sure it happened during the late night hours of Saturday, November 5 and early morning hours of Sunday, November 6 . I think this, too, because Mom would have worked on Saturday; she would have broken her neck trying to get there, and I have no memory of her not going to work as usual on that Saturday.
Historical weather data from the website
seems to support the premise that the flood occurred this way. It states that the greatest one day precipitation for the Idlewild community of Ashe County was 8.15 inches on November 6, 1977. If it rained that much in Idlewild, it rained enough to flood badly in other Ashe County communities, including Helton. There is not an entry for 1978 on the website.