I used to live in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood, the year I lived in the Shadyside area of Pittsburgh. If you live outside the U.S., you may not recognize the significance of Fred Rogers and his Neighborhood, but his beloved children’s show of that name ran for more than thirty years, and even today stands as a sort of cultural shorthand for all that is good and wholesome. Having grown up watching the show, it tickled me pink to find myself with a similar physical address as the man himself, though we never ran in the same circles. He lived in a graceful historic mansion, and I was crazy about my old apartment building, not opulent, but aged enough to be on the historic register. That was plenty good for me, and when I happened to pass Mr. Rogers’ house, it was nice to think “howdy” and wish him well. Next door to the Rogers’ home there was a palatial burned out hull that looked as though it may have once been a sister house, possibly designed by the same architect, or one who worked in a similar architectural style. When I first saw it, the debris from the fire was all still there, so I assumed the tragedy to be recent, but in the year that passed, nothing shifted, no cleanup or repair, or demolition, so it could have been that way long before I arrived. I was always curious about the demise of such a grand old lady, and whether there was anything going on behind the scenes to determine her future. Given the opportunity to speak to Mr. Rogers, I probably would not have asked about his show, but about his neighbors and what had happened to their home.
There’s a good chance you’ve heard of Mr. Rogers’ “Helpers” story because he told it more than once, and it has since gained a life of its own. He said that when he saw frightening television reports as a child, “My mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers—so many caring people in the world.”
Last week I mentioned that we lost our home in the Teton Dam Disaster, and it has been rolling marbles through my mind ever since. But I don’t think I can tell you about the flood unless I talk a little about what we lost, to give you an idea what you’re looking at. We didn’t lose a mansion, we’ll get that out of the way right up front. My parents bought our house in Rexburg, Idaho for all of $8000, land and everything, if that gives you any idea of the work it needed. Not long after closing the sale, two of my aunts walked in to find my dad knocking plaster off the wall with a tennis racket, muttering with every whack exactly what he thought of that particular occupation. My grandfather came over with his toolbelt and all his saws.
The house had the most magnificent apple tree, ancient and huge with the sweetest yellow apples I’d ever eaten. I spent a good deal of time in the tops of those branches, and for my birthday treat, took a bagful of apples to school to distribute among my classmates, a little embarrassed that I had no candy, which was more the norm. My classmates didn’t care; they asked when I could bring more apples. The house had a dungeon too. Originally the only access to the basement ran off the kitchen, with stone stairs, and an outer wall jackhammered directly into the black lava rock under the house. To me that staircase meant it was a castle with a bit of house added on.
My dad was a college professor who never met a hammer he cared to hold onto, but he has always been very, very determined, so he and my grandfather set about turning the dungeon into livable space. The first order of business was cutting a hole in the living room floor and building an L-shaped staircase with a landing in the middle, which at first seemed exceedingly strange, until I got used to it and nearly forgot it hadn’t always been there. Some of the most terrifying nights of my brief life to that point happened right around the advent of the stairs. There must have been some sort of work going on upstairs, because my sister, Natalie, and I were sent to sleep in the basement. I was scared of the dark well into adulthood, but even that was dimmed by the appearance of The Bunkbed. It was the tallest bunkbed I’d ever seen, no ladder or rails, just metal tubing I had to climb like a monkey. The climb was fine, I did spend considerable time in a tree after all, but as the oldest I drew the top bunk, which meant I was a good hundred miles above a solid concrete floor, with nothing to break my fall. In fairness to my parents, Nat and I had slept on many a bunkbed, and had never once fallen out, but that concrete floor had me spooked, and I lay awake for ages, schooling my body to remain exactly in place, my eyes tightly shut against all and sundry ghosts.
At last work upstairs ceased, and the brown carpet was laid, so Nat and I and our giant bunkbed moved to our main floor bedroom where we were free to fall out of bed to our hearts’ content, but never actually did. Our new bedroom required a wardrobe, and my dad decided to build it. Looking back, this seems like an odd choice, especially because it had drawers in the bottom, so sometimes I wonder if he had found an old one he was rebuilding, but in my memory he started from scratch, he and I together. I have three memories of this wardrobe. The first is the dark night as my dad and I worked together, standing and crouching in the massive wooden box in our side yard, a hanging shop lamp our only light as he did mysterious dad things that caused it all to hold together. I was probably five or six and certainly more of a hindrance than anything, but my dad had a knack for making me feel like the best of all helpers, and I reveled in it. The second memory is of Nat and I playing hide and seek at lunchtime before I had to return to school, hiding inside our huge wardrobe and bursting out in wild giggles. My final memory is at age nine, June 5, 1976, a month before the American Bicentennial, and a Saturday, so I had to fold the clothes in my drawers, the most onerous of all chores.
Nat and I had finished all our Saturday’s cleaning, and each had about 18¢ for penny candy, so we went with our dad to Porter’s Book and Variety to spend our loot. Someone was ahead of us at the checkout counter in the book section, and a woman approached my dad to chat of this and that, one of the that’s being, “Did you hear the Teton Dam broke?” I heard the words clearly, but none of the adults around me reacted and the conversation continued in that small-talk chatter that makes children groan. I went back to looking at the Children’s Bible on the stand by the counter, wishing I could take it home. It’s not that I was a particularly devout child, but the illustrations were so beautiful I was drawn in at once. We left the store with the candy, and without the Bible, and five minutes later we pulled up at the curb as mom burst from the house, eight months pregnant, and holding a giant stack of cloth diapers, her movements jerky with agitation as she rushed toward us. “The Teton Dam has broken! We have to go.” She deposited the diapers in the car, and my dad got out and followed her back into the house, collecting Sue, a pre-preschooler, and Shara, a toddler, and not much else. From the car I watched our neighbors walk out of their house, carrying dishtowels to their RV. They had been good friends to our family, and not long before I’d been in their kitchen making cookies. I know they got off safely, dishtowels and all, but a few minutes later we pulled away in our little red Datsun, and I never saw them again.
We toodled up the hill to safety, then stood in the sun for ages waiting for tragedy. The thing is, even catastrophe loses its edge when it’s late for its curtain call, losing the momentum of the dramatic moment. My dad started talking about running back to get his beloved books, which my mother absolutely forbid on the grounds that she still loved him, and would most assuredly notice if he failed to return.
It hadn’t been that long since we had finished the very last room, his study and library, moving in our great Grandma Bradshaw’s antique desk, and his whole collection of books, many of which were out of print. I was scrawny as a kid, and helped him by scrambling onto the large pipe behind the paneling, and shimmying between the walls to either pull some sort of wires, or put up the bookshelves. I can’t remember now, but my little contribution made me feel like it was my room too. That was also the room where he’d introduced me to Jabberwocky, sitting in a big comfy chair and reading to me as I sat at his knees drinking words like an alcoholic. But the morning of June 5th, as he was mourning his beloved books, I was thinking, “Sure glad I folded my drawers.”
I’m glad he didn’t go back because calamity caught up, hard and fast. The funny thing is, I almost missed it. I’d stood and stood, straining my eyes to the horizon, wanting to see for myself, and kind of wondering if it was all a hoax because I could see nothing. Then my dad pointed it out; I’d been looking at it the whole time. I didn’t see it because I was looking for a wall of blue, like a giant ocean wave. Instead it was a wall of brown, filled with cows, topsoil, and tractors, and it crashed through our town, uprooting buildings, flicking cars through walls, and shooting telephone poles like toothpicks.
The dam should never have been there. Southeastern Idaho is highly volcanic. In fact, a good chunk of Rexburg sits on a shield volcano. Just outside of town a cone volcano slumbers, and if you’re having a picnic in the crater, you may notice that the ground is a little warmer than it is outside. In building the footings for the dam, they were actually trying to fill up lava tubes with industrial grout, which you can’t really do, so they’d just pour in a gob ton, and cap it off when they were sick of it. I’m told that they used as much grout in the test patch as had been budgeted for the entire project. That should have been a giant red flag, but somehow it wasn’t. When the water was introduced, it ran underneath, into the cracks and fissures and semi-filled lava tubes, causing the dam to bob and float, and finally fracture. It failed as it was being filled for the first time.
At the age of nine the Teton Dam Flood taught me a couple of important things. First, very little is truly certain and eternal. You can get up to a normal day, fold your drawers and vacuum your room, then go to bed in a world torn inside out and shredded for good measure. It doesn’t have to be your fault, you can still get all the consequences. “That’s the way of it,” my dad would say, a catchall phrase that means “Stand up and keep going.” This is good advice that has served me well because my life has caught fire a number of times, recently collapsing in such a wild conflagration that I’m a bit of a burnt-out hull, not so different from the house next door to Fred Rogers. But unlike that house, I am removing the debris and implementing new plans. This blog is actually part of my renewal. I’m talking to myself as much as anyone else, and hope to light a match for someone who might be in the long dark tunnel with me. There’s a way out, I’m certain of it, and when I find it someday, I hope I’ve left a trail of breadcrumbs behind me. But I know I can’t do it on my own. I must draw strength and inspiration from the second lesson I learned, which is probably bigger, and far more valuable. In the summer of 1976 I saw the helpers, and I will never forget.
Our house was still standing, clear full of mud, the foundation irretrievably cracked and unsafe, but we didn’t know that until it was all pumped out. Nat and I did get to see it one last time. We weren’t allowed inside the house, nor were we supposed to be touching the mud because it was full of all kinds of everything. But outside all that enticing mud had dried and cracked, the edges curling up in saucers, plates, and platters, just right for our grubby fingers to pry up, and create stacks to play tea party. We were of no help in the cleanup, but others were. They came in cars and buses from around Idaho and surrounding states, pumping out houses and clearing debris. Plumbers, electricians, and other utility workers laboring flat out to restore basic services. My great Aunt Marie lived close, but did not lose her house. When she got the news, her daughter walked in to find she had food going on all four burners of her stove. “Somebody will eat it,” she said. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints jumped in at once, before the federal emergency services could get a single truck on the road. Located in Rexburg, BYU-Idaho, then known as Ricks College, immediately opened their dorms for the refugees, removed the coin operation from the laundries, and began serving free meals in the Manwaring Center. That very night our family had a dorm apartment with plenty of beds, and nobody missed a meal. In the dark someone dropped by a box of donated clothes, including a little girl’s t-shirt with teddy bears and a stop sign, which we wore for years and called the “stop shirt.”
As wonderful as all these people were, the most critical helpers of all were those ahead of the wave. In the terrible moment when the water was looming and no one knew what was coming next, everyone who had been warned still took it upon themselves to stop and warn their neighbors. My future stepmother, Linda, was also living in Rexburg at the time, ran to elderly neighbors to make sure they got out. Being elderly and rather irascible, they refused to believe the threat was real, but finally agreed to leave as soon as they had their lunch. Shaking in her boots, she fixed them a meal and bundled them out, saving their lives for certain. She was not alone in her heroism. Given the speed and magnitude of the disaster, the government expected a death toll in the thousands. Instead we lost thirteen, and wished with all our hearts we had not lost so many. In a world where very little is certain and eternal, Rexburg is a very fine place to fold your drawers.
But for me to fully understand the helpers, I have to step back even further and recognize that they stretch much further back, long before disaster plied its terrible trade. Remember our house wasn’t much, lava rock stairs, and a beautiful tree. My parents worked so hard, transforming that funny house into a comfortable family home, aided by my grandfather, and other family members who pitched in without a cent of remuneration. What about the night we built the wardrobe, light shining from a single lamp, as my dad made a silly six-year-old feel wanted and important. Even the fact that I’m sitting here today, writing all this down, surely this moment traces its roots to the time I spent listening as my father read us Jabberwocky and the Chronicles of Narnia, spending hours talking to me about fine literature, explaining with great clarity without ever dumbing down, giving me a vocabulary I would continue to build for the rest of my life. What about those helpers?
The trick to spotting a helper is to recognize what you’re looking at, to forget the wave of blue you were expecting and see the wall of brown mud bearing down on you. It’s the expectation that blinds us, not the mud, but we can’t see that until we take a risk and strip away what we think we deserve. That’s not easy, in fact it’s frightening to open our eyes that wide. But those who make the leap may very well catch a glimpse of the massive network of helpers circulating around them. Once we see, it is difficult to not see, and then continue on the short journey to discovering the true depth of our blessings. None of us is as alone as we think we are.
At the age of nine I lost my house, it’s true, but I did not lose my memories, which means those helpers are with me still. I finally see them for what they are, and at this point in my life I’ve decided that my loss was dwarfed by the triumph of my people.