Sunday, June 23, 2013

That night in Sugar Alley

The flour mill in Alton. This is near Sugar Alley.
Please keep Calgary in your hearts as they deal with unprecedented flooding. 

Here is a little something I wrote a while back...about the Great Flood of 1993 in my hometown of Alton, Illinois. 

That Night in Sugar Alley

As residents deal with flooding, the Great Flood of 1993 saturates my brain with painful, yet nostalgic memories of the night downtown Alton flooded.

Growing up in the Alton/Godfrey area, I knew flooding was just one of those inconveniences of living near the river. I remembered the monumental flood of 1973.

Since that was a 100-year flood, I wasn’t old enough to experience another big-deal flood quite yet. However, 1973’s water-level glory was to be outshone.

This is how I remember the night downtown Alton flooded in 1993:

One evening, about 9 p.m., my husband and I were driving on Homer Adams Parkway, a/k/a The Beltline, when we noticed signs at businesses begging for sandbagging volunteers.

“Save Alton.” “Your help is needed like never before.” The appeals were blunt and desperate.

So, we reported downtown.

Running through Sugar Alley was a sandbag wall taller than myself. Of course, I was familiar with the sandbagging activity. It’s just that I’d never been that close to the front line.

People were sloshing and scurrying. The National Guard was there. The Red Cross was there. Business owners were pumping water out of basements at record speed.

But, what sticks in my mind just as vividly as that disaster scene, was a reunion of sorts. We ran across classmates with whom we’d lost touch after high school. Glad to see them, but time was of the essence. There was no time to catch up.

Santa Claus was there. Really. You see, a Wood River (Illinois) man and his wife assumed the personas of Mr. and Mrs. Claus year-round. They were up in years and enjoyed bringing joy. At Christmas they would open their home for kids to visit.

Mr. Claus wasn’t wearing his red suit in the heat, of course, but everyone recognized him with his long beard and jovial personality.

Downtown Alton spans a history of generations. In 1858, the Lincoln-Douglas debate was even held in that area.

Here are some of my downtown Alton memories (Stick with me. There will be a point):

Jupiter was a sweet little store on the corner offering mostly clothes, as I recall. My biggest thrill as a kid was the gum machine.

Snyder’s was an old-fashioned department store with an elevator.
Nasally voice—
First floor: women’s wear, accessories, jewelry.”
Second floor: domestics, sewing notions, draperies.”
That kind of store.

At a saloon and restaurant, my best friend and I, as kids, begged to sit at the bar instead of in the family-friendly dining area. We finally were allowed to occupy two barstools and experience saloon life. It wasn’t such a big whoop.

At Goulding’s Jewelry Store, I got my ears pierced when I was 13.

At one downtown tea room, an elderly owner would tirelessly serve her customers. The spot felt like a grandmother’s kitchen, and I always felt guilty for her waiting on us. My grandfather knew this sweet lady from his younger years.

(I’m making a point, promise. Hang in there.)

I remember going to the newspaper office to get my picture taken for winning an award in high school.

Tony’s Restaurant was and still is the destination for going somewhere special. Their pepperloin steak is famous, but I prefer their pepperoni and onion pizza.

Like most other Altonians, I spent much time at Hayner Library and probably took it for granted.

Oh, and the bank. It was the kind with the massive island in the middle with chained-down pens on top. Like where Uncle Billy lost the money in It’s a Wonderful Life.

Downtown has seen its share of restaurants and antique spots come and go. Some might imply ghosts chased away a good share of those businesses. Makes you wonder…

Here’s the point:

That night wasn’t about a river encroaching on some small town. It was about our river attacking our town. Our grandparents’ town. Their grandparents’ town.

I probably wasn’t the only one encountering a deluge of memories while building that sandbag wall. It made us work all the harder.

It must have been about 2 a.m. when we noticed National Guardsmen sporting life vests, an obvious sign of doom. We were exhausted anyway.

So we left.

I’m not sure if we had yet arrived home before the wall gave-way and our downtown became one with the river.

If only we had stayed that night, I’m sure we could have saved it.

Thoughts and prayers go out to Calgary during this extremely difficult time.

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