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The storm and the river had done their worst. It was now a time when the people of Wilkes-Barre showed the strength, their courage and their charity. I witnessed just a small part of this and again I will ask others to tell stories of the work done in the aftermath of the disaster.
My family and I return to Wilkes-Barre as soon as we could. We came in on a Greyhound bus, leaving from Washington, DC. Normally the bus station would be on Public Square but that was not where we got off. The makeshift bus station was out at the mall on the east end of the city. We overlooked a dark city with National Guard trucks moving on the roads. There was still a curfew in place and the stricken area was being patrolled.
I joined the cleanup teams. I mainly worked clearing debris from family businesses, little corner shores, shoemaker shops, and other neighborhood storefronts. With the mud and debris filled water, we shoveled out years and years of family history. Some of those businesses went back to the early part of the twentieth century and some a lot further back. It was all gone in the rush of the water. Some would return and build their business again, but many were older and considered it an end.
I could only stay home for a week; I had to get back to work. In the short time I was in the city, I saw a city band together and fight to recover. People from, what we called, the hill, and the heights, whose homes were not in the path of the flood waters, were in their boots down in the debris helping to salvage what could be salvaged and to help in whatever way they could. I saw everyone working together I couldn’t have been prouder.
Displaced people found shelter with family and friends, and sometimes, strangers. As time went on trailers were brought in by FEMA to provide housing while the reconstruction progressed. It took years for the work to be completed but Wilkes-Barre came back strong.
This was a major event in the history of the city and it was a turning point in my vision of my hometown. The new Wilkes-Barre that grew out of the flood waters was not the same place I grew up in. I do realize that the flood was just a small part of the changes that were happening at that time. Before the flood Bob Dylan sang, “Times they are a changing” and they were. I also realize that every generation sees their childhood home disappear before their eyes, but there are few that were given such a dramatic dividing line as the people of my generation in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.
It didn’t happen all at once. Being away from the city and visiting regularly I could see the changes. It may have felt a lot different for my friends that lived through it. Each time I went back to Wilkes-Barre there was something new or something had changed. Fowler, Dick, and Walker, The Boston Store became Boscov’s. The downtown, that was such a hub for shopping and socializing, was now out of focus. Most of the interest was at the mall and the businesses of the east end of town. The people that used to flock in from the towns around Wilkes-Barre now had their own shopping centers. Downtown was fading into history.
Years went by and there seemed to be blow after blow to my childhood memories. The Parrish Pool was closed. The property went to a union, the locker room, where I was first caught smoking, was now part of the union hall and the pool was filled in for a parking lot.
The Hart Theater was the last neighborhood theater to close. It was gone along with all of its memories. What really shocked me was when I learned that the great Thanksgiving Day rivalry game between Meyers and GAR was no longer the big game. The game was no longer played on Thanksgiving. Teams like the Kingston Huskies, Plymouth Shawnee, the Swoyerville Sailors, and the Larksville Green Wave no longer took the field.
The neighborhoods still feel the same. The pool is gone but the wall is still there. I had scratched “Bush + Pat” in the wall at the corner of Lloyds Land and Dodson Lane. Most people thought it was for the Hanover Township girl that I married. Actually I scratched that in a year before that when I was dating a girl named Pat that lived on Hazel Street just beyond Gilligan. The scratching is long since faded away.
Wilkes-Barre is my hometown and it will always be a part of me.