During 2018, Not a Pipe Publishing has accepted Kamila Shamsie's challenge to only publish women for one year. Beyond the nine (nine!) novels we'll be publishing, we'd also like to promote even more women's voices, so we'll be publishing short fiction here. If you would like to submit, check out the information HERE.
A Flood of Memories
by Ramona Scarborough
A sobering picture of life in 1940s America, made even made even more important by today's political landscape, this story is told simply, with no fuss or flounder, as it recounts the events of a tragic day and calls attention the value placed on the lives of people of color. Do not be fooled by the gentle lilting of the southern accent; this story packs a punch. -Sydney Culpepper, Assistant Submissions Editor
Deep water rolled lazy-like past our apartment house. We trusted in dikes.
Every spring, folks said, “The river’s pretty high this year.” But they were just talkin’.
My family had special reason to pay no heed to our whereabouts, on dredged up land smack dab between the Columbia River and the Slough. We’d moved from Carolina, where we barely scraped by. Most of the white men had gone to the war, so my Daddy landed a job in the shipyards and we could live someplace without people hollerin’ at us or worse. We had enough money for Mama to put ham hocks in with the beans and make cornbread drippin’ with butter.
Four, I was and my brother, Virgil, seven, when we moved to Vanport in 1944. When I played stick ball or jump rope on the street, I couldn’t even see the river, the dikes were nigh onto twenty feet tall or so. I had to stand on my tippy-toes and peek out the front curtains of our top story apartment window to see the water.
So you see, I was busy being a happy youngun’ with plenty a’friends and goin’ to school right along. We didn’t have no trouble, cause Mama made sure we stayed in the black section a’ town. School was a mix of white and black kids, but hate is a learned idée and some hadn’t been overcome by it yet. I never gave thought to us bein’ in a dangerous place.
Yesiree, I may be an older now, but I don’t forget the date-May 30, 1948. A sunny Sunday mornin’, we was eatin’ high on the hog, some grits and sausage and my daddy heard a bunch a people talkin’ outside. He got up and went downstairs.
When he came back upstairs, he had a paper in his hand.
“So, what’s goin’ on?” Mama said.
“Oh, I guess the river’s floodin’, but this here paper says the dikes are holdin’fine. They’ll warn us before somethin’ happens.” He waved the paper around, “Some high-ups in the housin’ authority says, ‘don’t get riled up.’”
Just like that, we fell back to eatin’. After helpin’ my Mama with the dishes, I went out to play. After lunch, I did the same.
I hear tell now, a little after four in the afternoon, the dike on the railroad side broke down and water came gushin’ out. I didn’t see the wall of water a comin’, it poured in behind our apartment and burst out onto the street. I was hollerin’ and so was a bunch of other kids. Virgil grabbed ahold of my arm and dragged me along toward the front of our apartment. Higher and higher, the flood was pullin’ me down. I was breathin’ hard and bobbin’ like a cork. Dirty water splashed over my head and I’d go clear under. When I come up for air, I spit it out as best I could. But Virgil never let go a’ me, not even when we started climbin’ up the stairs. Our daddy was running down toward us.
“Thank the Lord,” he said.
Mama wiped her eyes on her apron when we came into the kitchen. We put our arms around her. She didn’t care we was all wet. She smelled heavenly, like the chicken she’d been frying for supper.
“Stay here now,” my daddy said to us. “I’m going to go see if the Washington’s or Brown’s below us need help.”
Mama bit on her lower lip, “Be careful, Jasper.”
We shucked our shirts, pants and underpants. Mama toweled us off and helped us put on dry clothes. She put a blanket around my shoulders. Even though it was warm, I was still shakin’.
Daddy came back with our neighbors, Beulah and Otis Washington, who lived on the first floor.
The Brown’s had gone of a morning to visit their kin in Vancouver on the Washington side of the river. Beulah was crying.
“Everything we got’s all ruint, even them fiberboard walls is all soaked up with water.”
Otis, put his arms around her, he was tryin’ to comfort her. “Baby, be glad we ain’t dead.”
Daddy, Virgil and me looked out the window. “The water’s still a’risin,” Daddy said.
A man’s body was a floatin’ down the street. Nobody we knew, but you don’t fergit the sight ever. I didn’t want to see no more. I went to Mama and she rocked me back and forth in her arms like I was two instead a’ eight.
Now we was glad we hadn’t got a house like we’d wanted. The ones close to the ground was bein’ washed away. Both Daddy and Mama had complained about the stairs, but right now being high up seemed like a mighty good idea.
A boat came for us in the night. Daddy opened the window and handed me down to a big man. I didn’t want to let go a’ Daddy.
“I gotcha now, little girl,” the man said, putting his arms around me tight.
The boat rocked a bit and I screamed, thinking I’d be dropped down in the deep black water. One by one, us and our neighbors got into that boat, seemed awful small on the big river.
Even goin’ across to dry land was fearsome, waves lickin’ up against the sides of the boat like they wanted to swallow us down. We all made it safe, but some folks didn’t.
I’ve heard tell different stories. Some even say the gov’ment tried to cover up how many drowned. Somebody tol’ me when the river started gettin’ high that mornin’, they skedaddled six-hundred horses outa’ the race track to higher ground. I guess we wasn’t as important as those fancy racehorses.
The town we’d lived in for four years was under water. For a spell, we had to bunk in with Aunt Ella in the Albina district in Portland. We’d lost everything we owned. We moved just a few blocks away once Daddy got a job as a night watchman and we got back on our feet.
Even as young as I was when the flood happened, I never was as free an’ easy as I was before. For awhile, I dreamed I was back on the street, the water rushin’ in around my waist, creepin’ up my neck, ready to carry me away.
My Mama always read us the Bible. One verse makes me think of what happened to us that day so many years ago and how I feel now that I’m older. “For you do not know what your life will be tomorrow. Your life is like a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away.”
Ramona Scarborough is the author of ten books. Her stories and articles have appeared in over 80 magazines, anthologies, and online. During her childhood, she lived near the site of Vanport and heard stories of what happened. Vanport, a hastily constructed city for shipyard workers, many of whom were African-Americans, was destroyed in a flood on Memorial Day, May 30, 1948. The Federal Housing Authority issued a notice to tenants that morning informing them not to panic; they were not in danger there.