Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Things I learned in the Floods - An Essay by Ronald Rabenold

These are the things I learned from the floods.
A few years back, a hot-water pipe flooded my kitchen. It had no idea it was about to burst. Nor did it have any idea of the cleansing that was to follow. Even with my ever waiting nature, I never saw it coming.

There's no time to sit and reckon the paradox. High water is nothing neither new nor anything normally longed for, but the results can bring unexpected assurance. The longer I live the more assurance I have, but time doesn't bear its own fruit, nor does it know anything about its own assurance.  Time makes us fickle.  The amount of it at hand always seems to oppose our ability, at that moment, to enjoy it. So it is in this way that the days and years move upon us, like a crusty snapping turtle stalking the croaking frog, seductively slow at first but brutally quick in the end.

James Nothstein got out of the water before the
flood.  Proceeds from his 'Mary Ann' helped
buy his Mahoning Valley Farm.  He was my
Great Great Grandfather.
My great-great-grandfather James Nothstein may have known a thing or two about high water.  He knew how to steer his vessel, the ‘Mary Ann,’ through the Lehigh Canal in the 1850s.  He and Hannah side-stepped the biblically proportioned flood of the Lehigh in 1862.  By then, they were treading the red dirt of their Mahoning Valley farm, living on the soil he bought from the years of his water's toil.

They started their family rather late in life. He was forty and she was thirty-three. They had their first three, Frederick, Guswin and Mary, in the five years from 1867 to 1872.  They had Albert, their last, seven years later in 1879.  James died of a stroke while pushing a barrow of stones from the quarry on their farm. He was fifty-four. Then Frederick turned the same red soil as his father and a stroke took him at fifty-two. I don't know if they saw their end as it arrived.   After all, when have you known time to be kind?  My brothers and I medicate our blood pressure today.

Three when the stroke took his dad, Albert was nineteen and surrounded by aloneness when his mom last tied her apron.  Perhaps he expected more when he settled on his sister Mary’s Schuylkill County farm.  Maybe he knew his part, maybe that’s why he left, maybe that’s why he never married.  At twenty-one, he was leaning on a screen and churning the pulp in a Chehalis, Washington paper-mill, his toils earning him the farm where he spent his remaining sixty odd years.  He made one trip back east to visit his nephew Andrew, Fred’s youngest son. He was eighty-six when he died in Onalaska, Washington.

There was a flood in the winter of 1902.  My wife’s grandfather Herman Ahner, and his father Amos, and his father Calvin, all lived at the Weigh Lock up to that time.  That flood closed the canal for two seasons.  The Ahners moved to a farm atop Indian Mountain and were farmers ever after.
Herman and Mary Ahner with daughter
Nancy.  Herman survived the flood
at the Weigh Lock in 1902.

Both James Nothstein and
Herman gave up a life on the water
for treading the dirt of their farms.

James and Hannah Nothstein's Children (L-R:)
Albert, Frederick, Mary, and Guswin.  Albert maybe
never fit in and never married.  Mary married William
Semmel.  Guswin left the 'Nothstein' convention,
preferring 'Notestein' instead. 

Frederick and Ellen (Werley) Nothstein.
Ellen was adopted by age 10 and
widowed by 48.

The honey bee does not know the queen he serves nor does he know he will wear his wings out in the effort. The robin will wait to move north but it will be by urge, rather than cognizance.  Bees store, birds cannot.  Both a bee and a bird will hatch in exactly twenty-one days.  And like the grape, wisteria and bittersweet vines, they will emerge without knowing a thing.  The vines know nothing of whether a trunk or a fence will be there to support it, yet they do not wait to emerge.  All life is lived on different planes. We humans expect and sometimes we fear.  It is expectation that makes us wait.  We are the only ones who wait.

Young Cal & Becky on their
wedding day.
Becky Nothstein was just fifteen when her father Frederick had his stroke. At sixteen, she married Cal Haas, an expounder of everyman philosophy. Jockey Semmel had twenty-one days leave from Vietnam and spent twenty-one nights sitting with Cal. He created nicknames to label his world, spoke of educated gumball machines and other stories of lust, pronounced through wet wads of Redman plug. I can hear my grandfather’s tone and his Dutch 'wee’s and 'vouble u’s in Jockey’s driven retellings.

Cal Haas in his store he built with
his peddling for Strohl's Bakery.
Cal kept records on bouncing a rubber ball to a million. He achieved this twice in his life. It is said he wore out a hole in the oil cloth and seven balls reaching the first million.  A dot inside a circle represented a hundred bounces.  Filled sheets of butcher paper were stored in his safe, then a fresh sheet hung upon the wall to start over again.  Customers waited for meat in increments of one hundred bounces. 

Once a week, he would pack a metal thermos of oyster stew and set out to find the best car counting and ball bouncing spots along the country roads from the Lizard Creek to Miller’s Crossing Hotel. He’d return to the best spots he'd mark in chalk.  He found his urges satisfied in the bouncing and the watching. My Nana sat nearby, knitting, watching, and waiting.

Haas' Store as seen through my dad's 1953 eyes.

Fred Nothstein's obituary from  the Lehighton
Press Weekly, March 16th, 1917.

Ellen and Alfred's children: Oldest son James
became a butcher in Palmerton and married
Minerva, Andrew owned a fruit farm with
wife Katie, Rebecca owned Haas' Store with
Calvin and littlest one Katie married
Elvin Boyer, an automechanic.  Seated is Etha
who married Amzie Siglin who was a steel worker. 
After sellingthe farm, Ellen lived with a
magnetic healer at 415 N 4th St Lehighton
named Phanus & Annie
Gerber as their servant.   

Lehighton Press, Jaunary 26th, 1917 - Fred's stroke.
(I have been unsuccessful connecting Calvin Haas' family
with Fred and Amandus Haas.)

Guswin's residence on top of Bridge Street at the Heights
has a large retaining wall with this impression.  The 'B'
could denote the Brinkman Brothers Memorial makers
from South First Street in Lehighton.  Guswin had four
daughters and 'Notestein' has faded away.

Lock #5 after the Flood - The layers and years of coal silt exposed from the flood.

This year’s winter flood showed me things I never knew and things I thought I'd never see again.  The flood washed-out Lock-Five, normally a dry-lock. Decades of debris were taken away when broad sweeps of the Lehigh pushed over its banks, exposing coal silt sediments four-feet thick in the six-foot channel. Successions of sun and seasons brought generations of chipmunks to discover this spot, a perfect medium for subterranean tunnels and subsequent connections. Their population flourished.

And though they don’t wait and can’t anticipate it, the pairings of ever-upstream-facing mergansers will soon be leaving, to be replaced by the goose and mallard. The starlings don't know why they do it, but they know how to start each morning together.  Then they spread out and explore the day alone.  But each evening they always finish together, finishing as one flock once again. I can anticipate their behavior, I don't know how they know, but I know they must relent to urge.

We wait for the gray days to give way to spring. We expect the redbuds will emerge then change into blossoms of white, and finally moving to green. We anticipate fine days, when the skies fill and all is seen in blue and green.

The canopy sets over loose rock that rubs roughly when tread upon.  Brown and white quartz lie among flat fragments of red sandstones, their even layers upon layers give a dreamy sheen in high spring light.  A crow flies in his characteristically straight line.  Though the same straightness in stone points to weakness, the crow’s hearty rallying caw scatters the silence and signals the time is now to romp. Unrelated but on cue, a stealthy vulture unexpectedly spreads darkness as swift and halting as a quick moving cloud. All this soaring life, rides high on the newly heated air.

Among the canes of thorn scrubs, one finds tangles of red, brown and purple rolled in white haze over the land at river bottom, while hundreds of feet up at the top, in the thinner soil, are canes dressed in uber-green. Both here and there, black ants search the tunnels and curls of the slick brown leaves. Greening grass emerges in tufts in the unlikeliest places, roots readying for this spring push. The withered brown tips conceal the expectancy below, yet within the still cool, warming earth, life lies asleep and ready, ready to go forth.

The expectant cling of bittersweet and other
vines along the Canal.

Even in the coldest of winter days, the maple stores her sap. The cycle of warming days finds the bee following the lead of the black and red ants, to forage and store the life-giving liquid, the nectar of amber liquid life. And though nature is blind to need, she knows there is always a pupose to store for, for some vague future purpose, for one unknown generation that spills into another one that is all the ever more unknown.

The mighty oak stores all its hope in the tiny acorn.  Once higher on this hill among the beech and black birch, were these hefty, cracked red oak acorns I now hold. They fill this ravine where the heavy winter rains have rolled them and have outlasted the appetites of the winter foragers.  I walk away, my pockets filled with expectancy of the greatness to come.

A layered dichotomy remains.  Though I walk with pockets of hope that speak to me in gentle whispers, I can see the floods as they loom. Sometimes these visions seamlessly flow and plow to furrow my brow, collecting in stagnant pools of darkness in a forgotten spring house of my mind. I can tell myself I don’t need another flood to be cleansed. I can tell myself that nature's needs are not so fragile.  I can live for now with her demands, her resolute, absolute, final demands.  And yet, there is a reassurance in them, relentless, dauntless reassurance.

All the springs and streams are ever rolling and grinding the conglomerate back down to gravel, down to the essential silky silica that sticks between my toes when I cool them in my hidden summer spring. Science tells me this cycle has repeated along a long sequence over billions of years, all a simple, masterful work in progress. And that is what I must know. This part, my part, this incomprehensibly small part that I have been given, is what I must know. If I am to know anything, I must know my part in all this.

And on this outcrop, last and reluctant to the inevitable erosion to the Lehigh below, I sit on lichens as dry as January snow. These simple life builders will lead the re-establishment here. Lacking eyes, nature seems lost. Her blessing springs from the void in her own cognition. What she lacks in sight, she owns in resiliency, her constancy.  From this high place above the plain, we can see the clouds as they form. We can see the upturned leaf as we hear the first drops tap the dry leaves. We can wait for the waters of the flood. We can wait and always hope to see another spring of sunlight filled skies. And on and on into those distant days beyond our days, we know there will be birds riding high on the thermals, winning the day with ease.

Copyright by Ronald J Rabenold, April 2011

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