The following story was submitted by Michael a One-Year-Volunteer with CAP.
One of the ladies who lived in the house on which we were working with Disaster Relief in wake of the ice storm was saying: “And they’re calling for rain tonight and tomorrow, into Saturday night, with heavy rain and flooding Sunday night, and more rain Monday morning.”
I recall one of the speakers at our Christian Appalachian Program orientation saying: “Who would put their life on hold for a year, for next to no money, with a bunch of people you don’t know..." and pausing before adding, “during a pandemic.” You can add ice storm and flooding to that equation. When it rains, it pours. Well, in the inimitable words of Maura from the Bronx, that’s enough of the savior complex. Amen.
At our briefing during the first week of March as CAP rolls out its Disaster Relief plan for flood victims, we are told : “Did they tell you about the 88-year-old gentleman they found floating in the river unconscious?”
That is code for Clarence Gilliam, as tough as nails, is safe and recovering and that there is a silver lining in every cloud.
This is Clarence’s story when the rains came and the river rose the last days of February and the first day of March 2021.
“It was up to his chest, about 4 feet high on the first floor,” daughter Debra Gilliam says about the water that already had flooded her father’s basement and his beloved sweet potatoes. She tells me the family story as we take lunch on the tailgate of the truck I drive for CAP. “My brother spoke with him like he always does on Sunday morning,” says Debra, who like her brother Steve lives in Georgia, “and my father said the water was up in the Bottoms (of Rockcastle River) but he said he didn’t think he was in any danger.
“My brother gets alerts on his phone for the weather (in Kentucky where their father lives) and he started worrying and he couldn’t get in touch with Dad. Steve stayed up all night. Monday, he called, said, ‘I’m really worried and I’ve got to go up there.’" Debra continues their story,“The neighbors found him (her father) floating in the river. He was collapsed; he was unresponsive.”
Debra says all three roads leading to higher ground from Horseshoe Bend where Clarence lives, adjacent to Daniel Boone National Forest, in a town that used to be called Lamero before “it lost its zip code and was incorporated into Livingston,” were closed. “The neighbors took him up by truck and then they took him up by boat to meet the ambulance,” Debra says. “They literally cut everything (clothes) off him. His body temperature was 80 degrees. He was minutes from dying. At least that’s what they told me. He was in hypothermia at that time.”
Clarence was taken to Rockcastle County Hospital, where “we didn’t know if he was dead or alive,” according to Debra. “He’s incredible,” she continues. “I don’t see how he survived this. . . . He started to come around about 7 that evening. The first thing he says is: ‘Go to the house. Get my best possessions so nobody steals them.’”
Our CAP Disaster Relief team arrives on the scene that Thursday. The water has receded, and daughter Debra, son Steve and grandson Christopher have begun the arduous process of removing water-logged possessions from their house for their Dad to inspect. That process will take a careful hand with both the family possessions and their father’s wishes. Clarence has not yet returned from the hospital. Steve picks up the story, “The first thing he (his father) says (in the hospital) is: ‘I’ve got to get out of here. There’s things I want to salvage.’ I say, ‘Dad, you’re lying there buck naked. I don’t think you’re going anywhere right now.’”
Our CAP team clears the basement, guts the water-sogged wallboard and paneling on the first floor, removes the appliances and helps the family take personal possessions out of the house and into the sun to dry. Clarence is brought home from Rockcastle County Hospital later that Thursday. As he regains his footing on familiar turf, he meanders his way through his possessions drying in the sun. Clarence hunches over deliberately to examine some of the contents: a myriad parts of rusted chain saws, a single boot (its solemate perhaps somewhere down the river), and old Mason jars stained with mud from the Bottoms.
Neighbors and family slowly make their way down and over to his home, surely in a way similar to how the father welcomed home the Prodigal Son. A slight reversal from the Gospel story though, father and children changing roles. It’s no nevermind; physical and spiritual go hand-in-hand like fingers in a glove. We too return the next day to finish up our gutting and cleaning.
“It’s part of living on the river,” Gail Jones, a niece of Clarence, says.
“In ‘84, we got it just like this,” Kenneth B. Gilliam, Clarence’s brother, says with an emphasis on that B. in his name.
“Yeah, he’s doin’ better,” grandson Christopher affectionally says. “He’s ornery as ever.”
“Normally, we say hell or high water,” Debra adds, “but he wasn’t leaving under any circumstances.”
Before long, my housemate and co-worker Zach comes to get me from doing an assessment of more flood damage down the road. “Ricky (one of our supervisors) says to throw our tools in the truck and jump in,” Zach orders. “We’re going to the next job.”
I go back to fetch something at Clarence’s before I do. “Thank you,” Clarence tells me before I leave. “Thank you,” I say. Thank you for helping me see, I think to myself.