As I pieced it together from family history, September 21, 1938 dawned gray in Torrington, CT. Gram had just called from the old place up on Town Farm Road on the rotary dial and invited our little family for supper.
I have written this in story form to try and capture the moment, the danger and the excitement of that day.
Grandpa and Gram came up a couple of days before from their house in Hartford to get in the corn. The almost two hundred year old property in West Torrington had been a house and farm for more than a hundred years by then, and although owned four ways by Gram’s family, her husband worked the twenty-five acre spread as a family farm.
Gram wanted to see their five and a half week old baby boy. Gram and Grandpa couldn’t get away for the birth, but she and Grandpa wanted to make up for it. That her mom ached to see me made Mom happy. She felt cooped up in the apartment on South Street with her active three year old Davie, and now she had a second mouth to feed, protect and love. At twenty-eight, she knew what she needed to do.
Dad got home from work and told Mom the Post Office radio caught some chatter about a storm heading their way, but he had no time to listen in. The air seemed electric and his World War I injury bothered him. He tuned in WTIC, Hartford on their Philco. The radio announcer, Bob Steele, occasionally drowned out by static, said something about a hurricane coming up from the south.
Mom told Gram about the coming storm. Gram didn’t have a radio; wouldn’t have turned it on anyway. Mom said she thought they’d have plenty of time to visit and get back home, but my Dad said he’d go outside and take his measure of the weather.
Dad eyeballed the sky. He saw it lowering and guessed they had a couple of hours. He felt they could drive up in the ’33 Ford and be okay. Our family of four hadn’t any more than arrived at the farm when the rain began, fitfully at first and then heavier. The wind began to pick up.
Referring to Gram’s husband, he asked, “Where’s Dad? This is coming on fast,”
“He’s in the south field taking late corn.”
“I’d better give him a hand,” he said. Dad nodded to the women and set out.
Mom, holding me to her breast, waved briefly and looked to Gram as the older woman turned back to paring potatoes for supper. Mom asked if she could help.
“You can shuck peas, Grace,” she said.
“All right. I’ll put Richie in the bassinet. He’s had his fill. Davie, you sit in the corner and read your book.”
The white-frilled bassinet stood high off the floor on large wheels. Mom said she took the little bundle of me and laid it into the softness, tucked me in and put a finger kiss on my forehead.
Mom went to help. The women sat in kitchen chairs and spoke in low tones to not disturb my sleep.
Dad and Grandpa arrived a half hour later, soaked to the skin.
“Brutal out there,” Dad said. Grandpa said nothing but removed his boots and outer clothes and hung them by the stove. Dad followed suit. He stripped down to his shorts, but stayed out of the sight of his wife and mother-in-law. He did not wish to be scandalous.
Grandpa walked up the narrow stairs to the second floor to change and called down. “Earl, I’ll toss you a pair of pants and a shirt.”
Soon enough they appeared dressed in dry clothes.
During the interim the rain beat down harder and the wind rose.
“That’s almost a gale out there,” Dad said worriedly. “We might have to go home and batten things down. Grace, did you close that bathroom window before we left?”
“I think so…no, I didn’t. Do you think it will rain in?”
“In this wind? Likely.”
Dad made a decision. To Mom’s parents he said, “We have to go. If it leaks in, the tenant on the first floor will complain.”
Grandpa said, “Then you’d better be about it.”
“Sorry, Mom,” Grace said hurriedly, “we have to go. Earl, pull the car as close as you can so Richie doesn’t get wet. Davie, you bundle up and run to the car when Mommy says. Be careful and don’t trip.”
Mom helped him into his jacket and the three year old did as told. As my family lit out, Dad honked the horn.
Gram understood. In life, disagreeable things always happened, especially weather.
“Goodbye,” she called, her voice almost lost to the wind. My family drove out and took a left. Dad noticed before entering a desolate Route 4 that the little stream at the bottom of the hill, the one that coursed through Nickel Farm, now ran so high that it almost touched the bottom of the little bridge.
“Going to be worse farther down,” Dad muttered under his breath. He thought about the Mad River. It drained a considerable watershed. Committed, he had to go on, had to get home, close windows, pull the porch furniture inside and protect his property, not to mention his tenants might need him.
They made their way carefully, although Dad drove as fast as he dared, avoiding a few dead limbs in the road. When they got to the river bridge he had to stop. Water sluiced across its near end and had eaten a channel out of the roadway.
“Grace,” Dad said, “we can’t get across with the car, but we’re not far from home. I’ll leave it here. It should be all right. I want you to jump across. It’s only a three foot cut now, but it won’t be that way long. We have to do this fast. Can you do it?”
Mom heard the anxiety in Dad's voice. “Yes,” she said. Mom jumped it easily.
“Okay. I’ll swing Davie over to you and go back for the baby.”
“Be careful,” Mom said.
“Here he comes.” He swung my brother over the furious current. Mom grabbed his hand, pulled and held on tight.
Dad went back and got me. As he approached the broken section, Mom yelled, “Look out!” and jumped further onto the bridge as water spewed violently against the crumbling roadway. They watched another section of blacktop rise and disappear downriver. More pieces followed like dominoes. Soon another foot and a half of the fast moving, water-filled gully widened the raging river.
Dad called across. “Grace! I can jump it, but not with Richie. I’ll throw him over.” Mom looked scared but nodded. Time was running out. The whole bridge could go.
Mom pushed Davie further up and told him to stay, turned and got as close to the edge as she dared.
Dad swung back and forth once, twice and yelled, “Here he comes!”
I sailed across into the clutch of my relieved mother. Dad went back ten feet and made a running jump. He cleared the water and landed on one foot and a knee. Pain crossed his face, but they had no time for injury, so as a tight group they raced across the trembling bridge to higher ground and made it home safely.
There’s not much more to the story, but happily I’m here to tell it. My dad always told a good story and gave me his version while he lived. The 1938 hurricane did, in fact, provide the backdrop, and the event is largely true. I had to make up dialogue, and I may have embroidered a few scenes. I feel no guilt. A story is supposed to live. That’s what writers do.