LeBaron: Remembering roaring Christmas floods of decades past

Ebenezer Scrooge isn’t the only one to visit Christmas Past. Every season our memory, however imperfect, whips out reminders of oft-told tales from a lifetime of Christmases in the wilds of the North Coast.

Most of these memories are pretty tame - Christmas tree disasters caused by climbing cats, stands that fail and trunks nailed to hardwood floors, a year’s worth of mouse families in the ornament box.

But there are other Christmas stories that really need to be recalled - particularly in a season when drought has occupied the media and our lives for months on end, right up until the past few days when we were offered a clear reminder to be careful what we wish for because we might get it.

Those would be accounts of flooding past, a collection of historical events from 150 years of weather records along our serene summer rivers that can turn astonishingly destructive and even deadly on short notice.

CHRISTMAS FLOODS, clearly disasters at the time, seem to morph into something akin to anecdotal survival stories, if you will. One of these is the tale oft-told by the 26 grown-ups and 24 kids who were hunkered down in a dark, cold restaurant at Hilton Resort on the Russian River in December 1955, when all the rivers flooded and 35,000 Californians spent Christmas in shelters.

The “Hilton ’50s” memories are of meals of pancakes made from flour and water and a rationed amount of milk for the children, which was the steady diet once the river cut them off. But then - ahhh then - came Christmas Day and the National Guard amphibious vehicle, commonly known as a “duck,” which splashed and rolled up with food and dry supplies AND Santa Claus, dressed in an appropriate costume borrowed from nearby Ridenhour School, with a (waterproof) bag of Christmas presents for the children. That was almost 60 years ago. I’ll bet those kids are still believers.

THE SECOND Christmas story is far more dramatic. In this one there were three Santas, dressed not in red, but rather the familiar blue-gray of Greyhound bus drivers’ uniforms. ?This is the one about ?150 hardy souls stranded at two motels on the Redwood Highway in northern Mendocino County from Dec. 21 to Dec. 30, unable to go north or south.

Bob Titlow was one of them. His memories of what were undoubtedly the longest days of his long life, published in the 2012 Winter edition of the Humboldt Historian magazine, sets the stage.

“Today was December 21, 1964. Kate Walsh and I, who had become great friends while attending Humboldt State and were now both teaching in the Bay Area, were headed home to Humboldt for the holidays. The CHP stopped us just north of Leggett to warn us that there might be delays ahead.”

That turned out to be, as Titlow would tell you now, the understatement of the year. But these two were Humboldters, Bob from an old Arcata clan and Kate from Eureka. They were used to delays and considered them merely inconvenient. So on they went, until they were stopped again - this time to be told the road would be closed “until morning.” Another inconvenience, yet another understatement.

Their oasis was a motel and restaurant, a sometime stop on the Greyhound route, called Terrace Gardens.

It was in Piercy, 11 miles south of Garberville, just below the Mendocino-?Humboldt county line, on the edge of a sloped bank of the South Fork of the Eel River. It was one of a succession of small tourist stops as travelers approached the redwood forests that drew people from all over the world in the high season. Bob and Kate booked a room - for the night.

From the Humboldt Historian: “We could see and hear the Eel River roaring behind our room from a small window in the bathroom, but it looked some distance away. We could see the neon sign on a bar just across the bridge flashing ‘Beer, Wine, Spirits’ - just what we needed. The bar was folksy and warm. I spotted a pay phone on the wall and called my mother in Arcata collect. She in turn called Kate’s mother, Janet Walsh, in Eureka.”

So it began as a kind of adventure. But only for a night. The next day the bar was out of liquor, all telephones were dead and the Eel was up to the bathroom windowsill.

The Humboldt Historian: “Morning brought startling news. … A stranded Greyhound bus was now parked in front of the motel with 48 people aboard who had slept in it all night. Other travelers had stopped and taken the motel rooms. The only thing unchanged was the rain.” They were in it for the long haul. Beds were found for the passengers, with lots of sharing. And 10 long, damp days of waiting began.

Fortunately - almost miraculously - boredom would prove to be more of a problem than food. Terrace Gardens’ owners had 100 chicken fried steaks in the freezer. And they had a generator, which was turned on for two hours each morning and evening, for meals and to keep the freezer cold. Cooking was with propane, which ran low, but held out.

The Historian: “We shared stories - who we were, what we did for a living, where we had come from, where we were going and what we carried in the trunks of our cars. This last proved invaluable. … There was an East Bay teacher going to spend Christmas with her aged parents in Ferndale. One young woman was pregnant. … There were two California state employees, and a pair of 72-year-old male twins who were traveling - to their mother’s! Kate and I had candies intended as gifts. I had Christmas LPs. The teacher had a half-case of eggs and a turkey. The state men had a short-wave radio. … We heard enough to learn we wouldn’t be home for Christmas.”

They played bridge and poker and canasta until the cards wore thin. They took walks when the weather allowed. On Christmas Eve, Kate led the group in carol singing and Bob played his LPs on the motel’s record player. There were two turkeys, one from the teacher and the other brought in by a civil defense worker. The gathering, Bob recalled, was “amazingly cheerful.”

There were even presents for the dozen or so children in the group. The heroes in this Santa adventure were the Greyhound driver and a second driver from another bus whose passengers were in similar circumstances at Grundy’s Resort (which became Howling Wolf Lodge, now residences) 11 miles to the south.

Along with a Greyhound official who was on an inspection trip, they hiked the round-trip 22 miles into Garberville on a shopping expedition to be certain that each child had a present on Christmas morning.

On the day after Christmas, a very small helicopter managed to land, taking Kate, who had a chronic kidney condition and only five days of medication, the pregnant woman and a man with a heart condition to Garberville.

On Dec. 30, as Bob puts it, “The Marines landed!” The crowd in front of Terrace Gardens cheered, cried and sang the Marines’ Hymn as the military helicopter landed. They took women and children first. Bob went out on the second trip, looking down at “the muddy waters and the hundreds of logs jammed on rocks, the banks laden with debris and boulders.” They landed in Laytonville where a Greyhound was waiting to return them to San Francisco.

The Historian: “I didn’t retrieve my car for another six weeks. I flew to Humboldt and drove to Terrace Gardens with my parents in a caravan led by the Sheriff’s Department. We were prepared to jump the battery, feed the gas tank, do whatever else was necessary but the car started right up. I followed my folks to Arcata. The next day I returned to the Bay Area via 299 to Redding and down the Sacramento Valley.”

THE FLOODS of 1964 altered the landscape of Humboldt County. Highways, businesses, whole towns disappeared forever. And everyone who lived through that winter came away with an awful, in the true sense of the word, respect for the force of nature.

I talked to Bob Titlow last week. He is 84, a retired theater arts professor, living in San Francisco. “If you didn’t experience it, it’s hard to believe,” he said. “They are talking on the radio now about this gigantic storm. They have no idea!”

One thing he made very clear in our conversation. He has not had a chicken fried steak since December of 1964.

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