Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Little Blue Dots

“Stay out of Iowa”

DAVENPORT, IOWA - THURSDAY, JUNE 12, 2008 - Nearly every state has blue signs as you cross the border. They’ll sometimes suggest that you stop at a visitor’s center, or turn on some AM radio station for tourist information. At the Iowa boarder, I took the advice.

“What do you think of when you think about the Quad Cities area?” some unnamed guy said to another unnamed guy.
“I think of the Mississippi River. It flows right through the city…” the other man said.
“That’s right… it emboldens the natural beauty of the area…”

Emboldens. I thought it was an interesting choice of words, considering that just 70 miles west, a similar body of water forced 10,000 to abandon their lives. But it wasn’t until later that I figured out the station was an advertisement on repeat, designed to lure tourists to the visitor’s center, not to warn them about 500-year floods.

Even so, I pulled over at the first visitor information hub and was surprised to find actual visitors there, still planning vacations despite all the things they may have heard on the news. In Davenport, the paper seemed to be in denial. “Flood of ’93? No way,” a headline on the paper’s Web site read. Then again, it wasn’t flooding everywhere. Davenport was very much dry, with the Mississippi looking as normal and healthy as it ever has.

“I’m trying to help sandbag in Iowa City. Could I get a map of Iowa, and could you tell me if any roads around Iowa City are shut down?” I asked one of the smiling, white-haired managers.

The lady pointed to Interstate 80 on the map; a section of interstate that was supposed to get me into Iowa City. It was also supposed to get me out.

“Tomorrow there’s talking about closing it near Tipton,” she said politely, and handed me an official map of the state.

Hoping the way in or out of Iowa City wouldn’t get washed out, I said thanks and went on my way. Some 30 miles later, it was easy to tell what could happen to the interstate. On both sides, cloudy water turned Iowa cornfields into Vietnam-esque marshland. The flooding came from the same source that ruined Cedar Rapids -- the Cedar River.

Lights from a work truck flashed orange across the pavement of I-80; a crew was monitoring the progress of the water. It didn’t take a hydrologist to figure out the road probably wouldn’t remain open for much longer.

AM radio chatter kept me company on the trip from Davenport to Iowa City. The state was in mourning over four boy scouts who died in a tornado in far western Iowa the previous night. The nation was captivated how the surviving scouts organized a triage. David Paulison, the head of Federal Emergency Management Agency, was visiting the state.

Most of the news was centered on Cedar Rapids, where 100 city blocks were taken by the Cedar River. Citizens there were aghast -- one woman called in with her evacuation story, which started out coherent and calm, but she began to tear up when she said her home was under military occupation. This was a person who just went through the worst catastrophe in her life.

There was a repeated, overriding message in the day’s broadcast.

“If you have no business here, you should stay out of Iowa,” a male talk show host said, muffled through the AM fuzz. “Don’t go out to sightsee.”

This was troubling. The plan wasn’t to go to Cedar Rapids, not because they didn’t need it, but because the situation seemed severe to the point of impossibility. I was a gringo, and the point of coming was to fill sandbags, not risk emergency crews’ lives to save my Illinois ass. But had the waters, even in Iowa City, become so bad that I’d end up a victim instead of a volunteer?

Gloves and a Shovel

IOWA CITY, IOWA - This all started with a quick Google search: “Iowa sandbagging.” That search led to a newspaper article about volunteer sandbaggers. And that newspaper article led to the number for “Iowa Concern,” a program from the University of Iowa that serves as help hotline and information hub in times of crisis. They suggested joining the sandbagging effort in Coralville, just north of Iowa City. But the exact location of the sandbagging effort was difficult to locate, so more sandbagging opportunities were found from the City of Iowa Web site.

A glance at a map of Iowa City is all it takes to understand the risk. The 300-mile Iowa River slashes through half of the state and begins in southern Minnesota; an important hub for leisurely canoeing. The two branches of the Iowa River meet up in the small town of Belmond, Iowa, population approximately 2,560. From there it heads in a southeasterly direction, with the Cedar River flowing into it near the 1,900-person town of Columbus Junction. The whole mass of water is dumped into the Mississippi at the southeast corner of the state.

But while it’s in Iowa City, the river cuts the city in half as it winds up and around the University of Iowa like an upside down fishhook. Distinguishing aspects of the university include the first law school west of the Mississippi, the alma-matter of 13 Pulitzer Prize writers and 60 All-American football stars, and 1,984 acres of riverfront property. Then it’s a series of bridges before the water comes up to the sewage treatment plant, followed by a slight eastern bend before the river exits the town.

The view from Foster Road, north end of Iowa City

Looking at the same map, it seemed the easiest site to get to was at the North end of town, near a church called Parkview Evangelical. Coming up on the church, it was immediately obvious how bad things were. The first sight coming into town was a barricaded road, once a major thoroughfare, with an instant ocean of gray just behind it. I parked among the other volunteers and got out to take a better look.

Houses were peeking out of the gray. What was once a subdivision, where people slept, raised children and worshiped was now the center of a salvage operation. Trucks weighed down with furniture moved out as sand-filled dump trucks came in. There were no signs of sandbagging here -- just a push to empty Parkview Evangelical of the last bit of wares before the gray took over. And in that moment of desperation, the army of volunteers got slapped in the face, as the rain began to fall.

People started sprinting. I found a woman wearing an orange reflective vest and asked her where I could go to sandbag. She said that there wasn’t any more need for sandbaggers, but items from the church still needed to get moved out. However, it seemed that there were a lot of people were helping the moving process, so I decided to set out and try to find the Coralville Mall sandbagging location, where more immediate help was needed.

Driving north, I came to a bridge over the Iowa River. The waters were strong and high, with little peaks of white dotting the surface of the river as it surged downstream. Two trucks labeled “USGS.GOV” pulled to both sides of the bridge, amber lights flashing; perhaps the crews were trying to figure out whether to close this main artery through town as well. I drove past, but was unable to find the mall, and decided it would be best to turn around and ask the people at the first location where some other places were to sandbag. Returning to Parkview Evangelical, a policewoman directing traffic said I should help out at the south side of town.

To the best of my knowledge, I took a path I thought would get me to the south end of town, following my gut instinct more than my city map. The way took me through the heart of Iowa City, where a bank’s electronic sign urged me on. “Thank you volunteers,” it flashed over and over. I crossed paths with a dump truck full of sand, and thought it would be a good idea to follow. Wherever that sand was going, someone was going to have to bag it up.

Eventually the names on the street signs resembled ones on the map, and I found my way to Stevenson Road on the south side of town. I looked out my window and found a little more than a dozen people shoveling from a large pile of sand and passing green bags in a line. I parked the car and went to the two closest people. They were talking shop; where the bags need to go to protect the tan steel-sided structure. The tinted glass door of the building read “Java House Bakery.”

“You need any help over here?” I asked.
“Sure, do you have any supplies?” he said, with a slightly puzzled look.
“I’ve got gloves and a shovel,” I said, pointing my thumb back to my car.
“Yeah, jump right in!”

Little Blue Dots

“We need another person!” a woman in the conga line of people moving sandbags shouted.

I got in line and began shuttling the bags between two people wearing University of Iowa Hawkeyes shirts. In fact, nearly half of the workers were proudly wearing Iowa shirts of some kind. No doubt this was Hawkeye territory. The line wrapped around the building, out of sight, where the bags were integrated into the wall. It was a slow and painstaking process, but the wall nearly surrounded the building and was being filled in, sandbag by olive-green sandbag.

A while of being in the middle and the movements became automatic. One would shovel, another held open the bag. Four or five scoops and the bag was set aside. One or two would kneel and tie off each bag by its black cord and throw the 25-pound slug on wooden pallet. A forklift lifted and carried pallets to the far side of the building, and would come back to drop off empty pallets. When the pile of sand was whittled down to dust, a dump truck piled on more, and the dance went on.

When the line of sandbag-relaying volunteers was no longer needed, I grabbed my shovel and began filling bags. Brenda, an employee of Iowa University for the past 26 years, held open the bag as I filled it with four scoops. I asked her to tell me if I was scraping her hands with the blade of the shovel, but she told me not to worry, just to keep on shoveling.

“The campus is 25 percent flooded with water,” she said, her pink shirt tinged with sand. “The library is flooding with water.”

She passed the bag behind her and said she’d also done some sandbagging yesterday. She said she was lucky enough to live on high ground and did not have any flooding at home. I asked if she knew the owners of the warehouse, and she told me she didn’t.

“I just found this and decided to come help out,” she said, mentioning that on a normal day, she might be out playing golf.

“I decided I’d do something constructive,” she said.

Meanwhile, two young boys climbed to the top of the sand pile. One dug his shoes into the sand, pulled them out and stared at the hollow space where his foot once was.

“Look, I made a cave!” he said.

As he sat on the pile, he frowned at his once-white tennis shoes.

“Mom, can I have new shoes?” the boy said.
“Yes you can have new shoes. Just as long as they’re brown.” The boy’s mother said as she tied off the bags from Brenda.

One of the men got the boys off the pile and found them a small shovel and a stack of sandbags. The boys began to imitate their older counterparts, shoveling, bagging, tying and even carrying.

“Don’t pick up two at a time, you’ll hurt yourself!” one of the parents said.

The mother’s job had something to do with Verizon Wireless; she said she could move her work anywhere so long as she had internet. But now that the flood took away internet access, nothing could be done. She stopped for a moment to think.

“We’ve been doing this for four days now,” she said, wiping sand off her arms, and exhaling a deep breath. “What day is it?”

She was a friend of Java House owner, and her expression only softened as she spoke about people like Brenda, who came without any clue about the owner’s family or friends. Many people shoveling and bagging knew the owner one way or another, the woman said, giving the slightest of smiles as she spoke compliments about the anonymous people that just showed up.

A tall and slender man in a gray talked with the baggers about flow rates and levees. The mother nodded in his direction.

“You see that guy in the gray?” she said. “That’s an engineer contracted from the city. He’s down here to make sure the wall is built right. He knows all about how much water they are going to let out upstream, how high it’s going to get.”

On both sides of the bakery’s loading bay door were stickers like blue quarters. They could have been just an ordinary sticker, something that a child might randomly stick on to his surroundings willy-nilly in a fit of boredom. From the pavement to the stickers measured approximately four feet.

“He came around earlier and put up blue dots,” she said. “The blue dots show how high it’s going to get.”

Meanwhile, helpers moved bowls, cups, boxes, everything. A group helped wheel out an oven, then an industrial mixer. Some of the last things to go were the bathroom doors. Anything that could be unscrewed, taken apart, lifted or dragged was being taken to higher ground.

A woman finished a conversation and closed up her cell phone.

“The rail cars went down,” she said. “They tried to block part of the [Cedar Rapids] river with some loaded rail cars on the railway. But the whole thing just went down.”

As the pile of sand shrank with every scoop, clouds like gray fists popped out in the sky. The low rumble of thunder muffled the sound of shovels scraping on concrete. Brenda glanced up at the clouds as they flashed lightning.

“I hope it doesn’t rain,” she said.


After the last of the pile was scooped up and the volunteers moved on, children stood by and drug shovels over the concrete, gathering small mound of sand from the dust. The sky continued to darken.

With the last sandbag filled, some volunteers swapped flood stories as others made final preparations inside the bakery. Sandbags lined the base of the massive oven; it was d├ęcor more suited for an army mess hall than a civilian bakery.

Matt Henderson, an Executive Director of Development for the University of Iowa Foundation, offered me a beer. As I cracked open a cold one, Henderson took me on a tour of the bakery and offices and told me about the business that everyone came together to protect.

“Tara was studying business at the University of Iowa when she came up with her business plan for a coffee shop,” he said.

She was able to turn her idea into a full-fledged enterprise with the help of investors, and the first Java House opened its doors on the second story of a bookstore. That was a year after the great flood, in 1994. Now there were eight Java House coffee shops in the college town, and this structure housed the bakery that supplied the shops with fudge brownies and cinnamon rolls. It was also used for office space.

“It’s become fairly successful?” I asked.
“I would say so,” Henderson said.

One of the final tasks was a crucial one: cutting the gutter downspout and rerouting the gutters over the levee. The rainwater would collect inside the sandbag barrier and flood the bakery from the inside out if the simple task wasn’t completed.

“Hey, get a picture of this,” volunteer Steve Baker said, clad in a white Iowa T-shirt and yellow Iowa sun visor as he sawed through the downspout.

It wasn’t much longer until night came. In came four pizzas, and volunteers took the first real break of the day. Then came the rain, and everything changed.

“We aren’t going to come back here.”

It was on them in an instant, pelting concrete with fat drops. The rain mixed with the remaining dust from the sand pile, making a brown soup on the spot. Volunteers rushed to route the final gutter downspout as rain crashed over the sandbags.

The gray Hawkeyes hooded sweatshirt that Tara’s son wore became stained with every drop of rain. The hoodie became darker and darker as he stood; the boy was unwilling to leave his mother or the other volunteers.

“No,” Tara said, her hands on the boy’s shoulders. She shook her head. “You can’t stay the night here. We aren’t going to come back here.”

She told her son that she’d stay the night watching over the bakery, her livelihood, and would be back in the morning. The boy finally walked away with the volunteers heading for high ground.

It began falling even harder. A volunteer walked from bakery to the end of the property and looked at the neighboring lots.

“It’s already starting to flood the parking lots over there,” he said.

The forklift came out, dropping off pallets of sandbags to fill the final gap. Soaking workers ran between the pallets and the last remaining gap-- the spot in front of the warehouse door. Just as soon as one pallet was empty, another would be lifted in. It became manic, almost animal, as bag after bag was thrown into place, with Baker behind the wall, lining up each bag to keep the pile stable. Nobody said a word, but everyone understood that this was the last stand.

On the ground, a beer can and a pizza crust floated in a brown puddle, exposed by the forklift’s flood lights when it swung around. Two police officers walked up the drive, towards the last remaining volunteers. One was lanky and wore a police hat and long poncho, the other was shorter, stocky and wore just his uniform. The stocky officer went on to talk to Steve, while the lanky officer stood back and chatted with another volunteer. It was some kind of official notice; a voluntary evacuation.

Steve asked the stocky officer if he’d be allowed to come back to fuel up the water pumps, but the officer wasn’t sure.

“We’re trying to evacuate this area,” the lanky officer said. “We’re just going around and telling people that. But we know you’ve got to do what you got to do.”

Leaving Iowa

This portion of the 500-year floodplain map from the City
shows the Stevens area in red -- meaning underwater.

The environment changed. What started out as a relatively dry day, shoveling sand became a frantic struggle, slugging drenched bags in the pouring rain. With the waters rising, possibly creeping in and overtaking the bakery soon, the situation changed. It was the kind of situation that only the essential people should be involved in, a situation where a gringo like me could easily find himself in trouble and make a difficult operation near impossible.

It was dark, and the flood was coming into town. For me, a tourist with the most marginal of maps and no comprehension of Iowa City’s 500-year floodplain, a decision had to be made. As the final pallets were being emptied and filled in the last of the levee, I felt it was necessary to shake hands with Baker and start my personal evacuation.

Getting to I-80 was not terribly difficult. But with water piling up on the window, it was nearly impossible to spot any standing water. In the middle of these flash flood conditions, it occurred to me that this wasn’t anything new. It was the Iowa way of life for many long weeks.

An afterimage happens when a bright light, flashing even for an instant, gets lodged in your retinas, stuck as an optical illusion until it fades. It usually isn’t something to get worked up about. But when a zap of lightning slams into a ditch next to you, sending sparks and flames bursting from the ground, it leaves such an afterimage. And that’s what happened on I-80 that evening, an event that repeated itself with every blink and every bolt that struck in the distance.

When the lightning went away, the fear went away, and the lightning became a strobe light that revealed surroundings little bits at a time. Headed in the direction of Iowa City and Cedar Rapids was a convoy of Iowa National Guard M998 Humvees, some towing supply trailers. I remembered the reason why they called it the “Eisenhower Interstate System;” the president of the same name wanted the roads for national defense. It was an ominous sight to the roads used for its original purpose.

Along this drive I had my worries about I-80 being closed, most of which concerned getting swept away. A detour would only be an inconvenience. So it wasn’t entirely a bad thing when the Iowa State Troopers closed off the interstate at exit 265, forcing a roundabout way to Davenport. After that, all I could do was keep an eye on the taillights in front of me and listen to the sporadic news briefs on AM radio.

“I’m worried, because I don’t think a lot of people are aware of this,” a city engineer said on the radio, the transmission crackling with every lightning strike.

Somewhere, a pumping station that guarded a sewage plant was overtaken by the flood. The woman warned that sewage would start to come out of the system and into people’s homes.

“Even though it’s not recommended you flush your toilets, you should do that and plug the toilet up,” she said. “We didn’t have any towels left, so we stuck a bag of salt in the toilet.”

It wasn’t until 50 miles later that I was able to drive out of the storm’s way, but the waters continued to rise in Iowa City. The slender blue line that separated the two halves of Iowa City on the map truly sliced up the city; most of the bridges crossing the Iowa were closed by the authorities, leaving few ways of getting from one end of the city to another. I later learned that the US Army Corps of Engineers measured the crest 31.5 feet above flood stage on Sunday, June 15. That was a full nine feet above flood stage, and three feet above the 1993 record.

According to the Associated Press, 5,000 Iowa City residents were evacuated the same day, and some 40 homes already had flood damage by then. Sixteen buildings on the University of Iowa campus were flooded, and personnel were advised not to return until June 23. As of June 18, I have not been able to find the condition of Java House, but I have every reason to believe that it didn’t survive.

The trip came to an end, but the ordeal wasn’t over. The story wouldn’t end with Cedar Rapids, or Iowa City. It wouldn’t end with Iowa, or Indiana or Illinois. The story wouldn’t end with the anguish of 38,000 evacuees, ruined crops, ruined businesses and ruined lives. It wouldn’t end comparisons with Katrina’s devastation or large figures about economic impact. I knew as the water continued to flow, the story would run with it. Little blue dots would be cropping up somewhere else soon.
Read on...

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The headline could have passed for a classified.

Wanted: Ark.

Not exactly an empathetic assessment of a natural disaster, but perhaps it’s just the ironic attitude the citizens of Iowa City, Iowa must be feeling on the worst flood in fifteen years. At least that’s the impression I got from the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Either way, it’s all about a gut feeling.

A gut feeling is what I got after reading about the June 9 flooding in Michigan. Anyone with a gut feeling and knowledge about the Mississippi River knows that it all must come down. In other words, disaster that strikes up north will eventually flow to towns and cities below.

So far, the flooding doesn’t seem to be bursting the Mississippi. According to Quad-City Times in Davenport, Iowa, the flooding is “No Way” like what happened in 1993 (for the geographically impaired, Davenport nearly straddles the Illinois/Indiana border). But they are closest to the Mississippi, where the water doesn’t want to crest as high.

Travel 60 miles West, and the story changes. For towns abutting the Iowa River, the flooding now has a name. “The Floods of 2008.” That’s according to Iowa City, where the damage is expected to surpass the 1993 levels. That’s where I’m headed.

With a shovel, a pair of gloves, a sandwich, two gallons of potable drinking water, and a reporter’s notebook, I’m headed up north to see how many bags of sand I can fill before my toothpick arms give out.

Since this is an honest effort, I don’t know when the next post will come. It may come as soon as I can get some wifi access. Or it might come later Thursday night. The point is, bagging first, blogging second.

With that being said, I’m going to finalize some plans and catch some sleep before the trip. Stay tuned.

For bagging information, refer to the City of Iowa City Web Site,
Read on...

Monday, June 9, 2008


Note: The following research on the 2008 mudslide in the small town of Grafton, Illinois was conducted in mid-April. The onslaught of rain that caused the mudslide tapered off eventually, and although the rainfall totals didn’t break any records, it wasn’t an event anyone was likely to forget. Now that the rains have returned, soaking the Midwest and causing flooding in Missouri, Illinois, Central Indiana and Michigan, the mudslide serves as a renewed metaphor for catastrophe.

Perhaps the most troublesome sign yet came June 9, when an embankment around a man-made lake in Wisconsin disintegrated, flushing several homes and a 245-acre body of water into the Wisconsin River. That water is destined to drain into the Mississippi River, where it will undoubtedly have some kind of impact downstream in towns just like Grafton. In hindsight, the events of April can be looked at in foreboding of water and disaster in the months to come.

Birds of prey shared the sky with a setting sun, circling not very high above the rock formations. The sun made shadows out of the birds, making the details indistinguishable and the species unnamable. And yet, at the same time, all the intricate details of the rock formations were bursting, chiseled into being by the sun’s last bit of glow.

This was the theme on Illinois highway 100, also known as the Great River Road. Bursting. Bursting the way the waters did over the levees and sandbags a decade and a half ago. On this east bank of the Mississippi river, that is, the Illinois side of the Missouri/ Illinois border, the earth seemed to burst from the east, as if harboring an urge to be taken again by the water.

Traveling up the River Road, the sign came into view. Grafton. Population 608. The four-lane highway merged into two lanes and the speed dropped from 55 to 40 to 30. The water park was the first thing; Raging Rivers with its two giant bowl-shaped slides. It would be another five weeks until visitors would slide down those bowls and crash into the pool at the bottom, on Memorial Day. After the water park, highway 100 became the main street, with vinyl-sided bungalows, an Amoco sign, weathered taverns, and corner stores.

There were houses on stilts on the river side of the main drag. A birdfeeder in someone’s back yard jutted from the water. The river encroached on the land bit by bit, making marsh out of whatever land it could grab. A few trees… there and there, showed what couldn’t be seen with bare eyes: that there was actually land under there.

At the O-Jan’s Fish Market, there was a line on the outside of the building where the water crested during the great flood of 1993. It marked 38 feet above the river bank. Further along 100, to the north end of town, near the marina, cars slowed down to look. Others, the people that didn’t know what lay ahead, didn’t notice and kept driving. Some stopped and pulled over to get a better look.

“I wanted to see it for myself,” a grey-haired man said, taking a few steps out of his white, late-model Ford sedan.

He looked over at the side of the cliff, where the earth gave way. Trees were caught up in the slide, with roots and limbs poking out from the ground. Cement blocks the size of hay bales were put at the base, not five yards from the road, to block the progress of the slide. A homemade sign read “Free Fill.”

Dirt clods littered the road, the only indication that the dirt had threatened to take over two weeks before. It was April Fool’s Day when the mud came down the 75-foot face, soaked with flooding waters, taking up two house lots’ worth of space and closing the main thoroughfare through the town.

But now the pile was dormant and crusty. It hadn’t rained for a week.

“It looks like more rock and gravel than mud,” the man said. “This stuff didn’t happen in ’93. It just flooded. This is more like California.”

It did have some passing resemblance; there were the newly built houses atop the crags, called Grafton Hills. These were formidable mansions that had large panes of windows so that people could see where the Mississippi and Illinois came together, high above the stilted houses.

A red SUV, license plate “GRAFTN,” was parked on the gravel road that exited the marina. The driver extended his neck to get a better view of the slide, and stared at it like that for some time.

Back closer to the marina, thirty seven-year old Grafton City Police Officer Travis Trinty watched from his squad car.

“I’m just doing what I’m told,” he said. “I’m trying to make sure nobody does anything stupid like trying to climb that thing.”

March had been an extremely wet month, breaking all previous rainfall records. The last record, according to St. Louis meteorologists, was eight-point-twenty-five inches of rainfall, set more than one hundred ten years ago. This year’s March rain brought eight-point-forty inches.

Trinty explained the trickling noise coming from the pile of earth.

“A spring developed there for about three years and quit,” he said. “At the base of that cliff up there, there’s a retaining pond. They think the dam was so saturated, that maybe that retaining pond along with the spring underneath the road… with all that mud coming down…”

He pointed to a house at the base of the slide, a two-story house with dirt wrapped around the base.

“The lady there, she don’t even know if her insurance will cover the damage. She had water and mud in her house, but I don’t think it did any structural damage to it.”

In the Telegraph, Alton’s newspaper, they reported the woman’s name as Joanne Groves of 510 W. Main Street… Highway 100… Great River Road. They also printed that her house had survived the flood of ’93, a fire, and a tractor-trailer hitting her front porch and damaging her roof. But at 9 a.m. on April Fools, her son-in law came in and told her that the bluff surrounding her house had collapsed. She told the paper she heard nothing the night of the slide.

All the papers wanted a picture of her next to it. In Alton’s Telegraph, she was standing on top of the mud as it came into the back of her home, lurching in like a burglar made of earth. St. Louis’ Post Dispatch, she was pictured looking away from the mud slide, with its long trail of rocks and trees creeping towards her from behind.

April 7, at a meeting with city and state officials to discuss what to do about the mud, she reportedly walked away, repeating “I’m sick,” and spent the rest of the day at one of Grafton’s bed and breakfasts that offered her a free room.

April 11, s was treated at the intensive care unit of a hospital in Alton for a perforated stomach ulcer. Following surgery, her blood pressure dropped, triggering kidney failure. Her doctors put her on a ventilator and told her she might die.

“I hope she gets better,” Trinty said. “I know a little bit more but I hate to say it because I don’t know if it’s the truth. I just know it was related to the stress of the house, of course, you know, an ulcer.”

Trinty pointed to the power lines hanging over the crusted pile of earth.

“And that’s the main power line to Grafton,” he said.

“It’s going to cost money to have it done. And you have the city, and the county and the state and whoever’s gotta work it out. When somebody does make a decision, they’re responsible if it doesn’t work out, or if it does come down and destroys her house.”

And then there was the possibility of fender-benders from gawkers paying more attention to the landscape than the road.

“That’s what we’re worried about when the road is open and busy,” he said. “In the summer when it’s busy, it would be backed up from there all the way out to Raging Rivers. Everybody wants to come to Grafton in the summertime.”

Starting Memorial Day weekend, Trinty said, Grafton goes into full-on resort mode. A town of seven hundred becomes a town of three thousand. That’s when the county and state send in reinforcements. Most of the problems, he said, come from the out-of-towners.

“In the summertime, you got shit happening all during the day,” he said. “People getting naked down there on the boats. You watch Cops on Mardi Gras, right? You can’t be dancing around naked when we got kids walking around. We don’t want to tell you not to take your top down any more than the next guy standing there looking at you, but we got a job to do.”

He nodded in the direction of the marina, where the walkways to the floating structure were submerged.

“They’ll do it right here in the marina. In the loading dock, people get ignorant in there and get to drinking. The local people we don’t have any problems with, they take care of their own.”

Another SUV approached the mounds, slowed, and drove off.

Being from Jerseyville, farther inland, Trinty didn’t see much action when the ’93 floods happened. He did faintly recall moving things from the upstairs of his friends’ girlfriends’ parents’ house in a boat. And how, at the fertilizer plant where he worked at the time, they rigged a machine to fill bags with sand instead of fertilizer. And how the waters that the experts said would never come demolished a Victorian-styled farmhouse belonging to his uncle.

“The thing I find interesting was my boss told me that what’s going on right now with the weather and the waters is on the same exact track as what it did in ’93,” he said. “They’re not predicting it could happen. But the river isn’t supposed to drop more than a foot this week. It was supposed to crest at twenty-five-five. They lowered it Saturday morning to twenty-three-five. That’s what we have now. It’s not supposed to drop that much, and with all the rain and the snow melting up north, it may get up higher. When, I don’t know.”

Sometimes when he watches the mud, Trinty said, he plays solitaire on the squad car’s laptop. His other duties for the evening were to check to see if the doors on the local businesses were locked. That included Raging Rivers, where even locals would get drunk and break into.

“One guy they caught a couple of years ago is now dating my sister,” he said. “Like, what are you doing breaking into Raging Rivers after they shut the water off?”

Trinty said he previously studied CAD but couldn’t find any good paying jobs. He was a truck driver until he went into the academy.

“You always hear about that on the TV, with the self-help gurus. They always say you’re not living until you enjoy your job,” he said. “I’m hoping this is what my calling is.”

When his time ran out, he put his squad car in drive. His tires crunched over the gravel as he went out of the marina, down highway 100 to rest and wait for the speeders. The streetlights began to flicker on, but it was still too dark to make out the river that was invisible except for the lights of the barges that proved it was actually there.
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Sunday, May 18, 2008

Radiohead + St. Louis (5.14.08)

Before it even got off the ground, it was obvious that the show was to be taken seriously. On the left side of the stage were rows of banks of crates, arranged in store-esque isles. One of these crates bore the spray-stenciled name: RADIOHEAD. An arsenal of 20ish guitars lined one of the isles, ready for battle. Wires stuck out of metal crates like a network of nerves from a Davinchi anatomical sketch. From a light platform suspended above the crowd, rope ladders came down. Three stagehands climbed to the top of the platform and sat in customized seats, manning lights, pointing cameras, setting the trajectory of laser beams and whatever alien technology Radiohead was about to throw at the crowd. Yes, they meant business.

When it came time, the musicians, sans Yorke, came on and took positions in short order. The crowd -- a mix of pimply highschoolers, highbrow college nerds, polo shirt-clad frat boys, girls in towering high heels and dangling dresses, folks with mortgages and kids -- examples of every kind of live, breathing people -- started hollering in a way that couldn’t be one-upped, until Yorke finally came on stage, then it reached a new kind of loud.

Yorke came on, a bit like a nobody and a bit like an alien. He wondered back and forth at first, hands in pockets, occasionally looking at the ground, perhaps waiting for a train at a station. Or maybe he was waiting for the mother ship. He looked a bit tickled as he examined his St. Louis audience, as any average human being looks at another human being doing something odd, or maybe it was the look that an extraterrestrial observer gives when examining the human race.

This was all very strange, yes, but strange for both parties. The crowds didn’t seem to make sense of it either. Here was the band they’ve rocked-out to, toked up to, screwed and had babies to, a band built into a Beowulf-like mythological construct (Did you hear these guys didn’t even charge for the last album? No way! I heard he’s got an actual radio stuck in his head that receives all sorts of interstellar frequencies? Whoa, freaky!). Considering the hype, perhaps it was a band that wasn’t supposed to exist at all. Yet Yorke cometh, and was putzing around on a stage before all. On top of that, you could see his maligned eye from a camera feed as it shone on a display in the back of the stage. And this bassist fellow had an oddly-shaped nose and an eye that looked punched-in. And then there was Jonny Greenwood, with his bony face. What was going on? The crowd went with the flow. Beeps and boops trickled in the background and the evening began with “All I Need.”

Yorke talked after the second song, “Jigsaw Falling Into Place,” something about smelling donuts??? And how anybody could eat donuts at a time like this??? And now donut sales would dive??? He was talking about the smell of Elephant Ears stands, but it was barely intelligible through his British accent.

In quick succession, Radiohead played song after song from the catalog (but conspicuously nothing from Pablo Honey and only one from The Bends), not wasting any time in-between. Light effects came into full bloom, with LED tubes that hung from the rafters like neon streamers. One song they’d twinkle like ice crystals, flash like lightning and flow like rain, and the next they’d glow purple and otherworldly. Green washed down the length of the tubes like goo flowing from the sky, all very high-end and hypnotic. This was the backdrop that Yorke spazzed out to, head jerking, mouth moaning, arms and hands snaking along like he was embracing a first-time acid trip. The crowd fell in line and clapped to his beat.

Tricks were en masse. For “You and Whose Army,” Yorke made use of a piano rigged with a camera, which made for an extreme close-up blasted on the massive screen at the back of the stage. In crayola green, the audience witnessed Yorke get closer and closer to the camera, until a massive Yorke eye took up the entire screen. Backing off the camera, his face then became distorted in the screen with a fish-eye effect, before being multiplied over and over.

For “There, There,” he ran around onstage with drumsticks as the crew plopped a small drum set in front of the mike. After sitting down, Yorke said “I wonder what this thing does.”

In his second and final address to the crowd, Yorke told of a song from Amnesiac that was “lost sight of.”

“It seems very pertinent now,” he said, the “P” popping through the sound system, and played “Optimistic.”

A little over an hour of songs rapid-fire and the band rushed off. But the house lights stayed off and stagehands still ran around, preparing for who knows what. It didn’t fool any of the crowd, not for a second, so some went ahead and shouted encouragements while others sat and waited for the inevitable encore, which came in about two minutes. As the band came back, they waved and clapped. Colin Greenwood smiled big, and Yorke looked at the ground and scratched his head. They knew we knew it was all for show. There may have even been a bit of an ashamed blush on Yorke’s cheeks. He thanked the crowd and took up an acoustic, at which point the amphitheater became quiet and attentive, and “Exit Music” flowed through the PA. Little flames began cropping up in the crowd up front, people flicked on lighters. From under the stage covering, the stars couldn’t be seen, but when people in the lawn seats held up lighters, it created an eerie similarity.

When the five-song encore came to an end, Radiohead left as quickly as they did after the first set, but stagehands were still messing around with equipment, so the shenanigans were busted again. It was apparent to the audience that a second encore was inevitable, so with further encouragement, the band came out for another round. Three songs resulted (the double-encore was repeated at other concerts on the same tour), and in one last splurge of energy, going out supernova-style, the band hit the crowd with a green and purple light-strobing, video screen pixilating, uber freakout to “Paranoid Android.”

After that, it was done. Honest.


All I Need - (In Rainbows)
Jigsaw Falling Into Place - (In Rainbows)
Airbag - (Ok Computer)
15 Step - (In Rainbows)
Nude - (In Rainbows)
Kid A - (Kid A)
Weird Fishes/Arpeggi - (In Rainbows)
The Gloaming - (Hail to the Thief)
You and Whose Army? - (Amnesiac)
Idioteque - (Kid A)
Faust Arp - (In Rainbows)
Videotape - (In Rainbows)
Everything in Its Right Place - (Kid A)
Reckoner - (In Rainbows)
Optimistic - (Kid A)
Bangers + Mash - (In Rainbows)
Bodysnatchers - (In Rainbows)

Exit Music (for a film) - (OK Computer)
Myxomatosis - (Hail to the Thief)
My Iron Lung - (The Bends)
There There - (Hail to the Thief)
Fake Plastic Trees - (The Bends)

Pyramid Song - (Amnesiac)
House of Cards - (In Rainbows)
Paranoid Android - (OK Computer)

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Friday, April 25, 2008

A Porn Star and a President: When Ron and Bill Came to Town


It was as if a throng of groupies had descended the back door of a happening concert hall, ravenously expecting a back-door-post-concert cameo, except this was for a show that hadn’t yet begun and for a man who wasn’t a rock star. Yet similar. This was a commons, a gathering in the middle of campus where students would type on laptops and laugh over steaming cups of over-caffeinated beverages from the nearby Starbucks. Tonight, instead of pockets of unexcited students, there was a sizeable line on the perimeter of the scene, and those outside of the line were astonished at how long the line had become. But maybe not. It was no mistake, this was the place.

This had been anticipated for a month. All the major news outlets covered the story. It was on the minds of the student body, alums and townies since it appeared on the event calendar for the moderately-sized Midwestern University. It had since been a frequent topic of conversation between young males on campus, the kind of things they marked on calendars, and that was rare for any campus event. One conversation took place on a bus that carried students to an apartment complex on the outskirts.

“Yeah, I’m a huge Boondock Saints fan,” a chunky one said to a friend with fuzzy, afro-like hair. “I’m bringing a copy of it for him to sign.”

In Boondock Saints, the individual in question played only a minor role – a scene where he appeared as an eager patron of a peep-show booth for about 30 seconds, before being gunned down by the vigilante protagonists. In the movie, the protagonists were a pair of brothers who set out to rid Boston of all things evil, which was fairly ironic considering the victim’s fictional past lives. This was the kind of role the star excelled at in the big-screen-big-budget Hollywood productions; violent and short. This wasn’t the fame he hoped for, but he found stardom through the back door.

Inside the auditorium, a portly sports reporter with the student newspaper had a bushy, red beard and two small cameras at the ready, slung across each shoulder like a tourist about ready to see the highlight of some vacation.

“I want to take a picture of him when he rolls in with his dong hanging out,” he said.

The newspeople could see the cops through a glass door in the green room. The officers roamed in boredom. They had nobody to watch over and chatted idly with the students about the weather outside, which brought to the campus some heavy winds. The airplane, the campus event people said, had been delayed.

The only expectation was the student newspaper would get the one and only interview before the show. Even that expectation had a bit of uncertainty. With a porn star, nothing could be expected. Especially when the porn star is Ron Jeremy.


Five A.M., same campus, but the commotion is coming from the next building over. This time there are more guards. And they have dogs. Great, big dogs. And badges. Big badges. And firearms. And no smiles or friendly chitchat. White vans deployed dishes skywards that tilted to one side because of the hilly ground. The reporters compared notes; which one had the most impressive laptop, digital camera, recording setup. One newsy asked “you gotta notebook I can use?” while another dictated into a voice recorder:

“Former president Bill Clinton was set to campaign for his wife, Hillary, this morning at [University] before a crowd of college students. Because of some recent remarks about rival Senator Barack Obama, some political pundits question whether he’s helping or hurting the campaign.”

A photographer in the back mounted a camera to the tripod and told the room that “nobody better stand up and block my shot when the president comes in, or they’ll get knocked on the head with a big-ass camera.”

A collective of neatly groomed operatives corralled these journalists to a cramped, roped-off area in the back.

“NO,” one of the female operatives said, as if speaking to a badly behaving two-year old. “Behind the rope.”

Outisde, those standing in the 20-degree air said the reason they were not standing in the warm University commons was because the Hillary campaign dared not hold a meeting in the same venue a porn star visited not twelve hours ago. Another explanation, one more widely accepted, was that the auditorium was less prone to an attack by terrorists.

Asked about it, the University’s PR response was “ask the Clinton campaign.”

The University’s spokesperson was asked what he thought of a porn star and a former president visiting the campus, one right after another. His response was “if you’re looking for a social statement, I don’t have one for you.”

The only two certainties were Bill’s intentions of winning over some of Barack’s much coveted 18-23 demographic, and that Bill’s arrival was quickly arranged with a short burst of activity. It was 48 hours earlier that word got out about Bill’s arrival, sparked by questions as to why bomb-sniffing dogs were roaming the campus.

In the same token, some kind of Illinois event was expected. In six days, the state would be inducted into a special kind of state taking primaries simultaneously, a ritual not philosophically separated from a mass of nude polar plungers taking an annual hypothermic dive. Early in. Early out. So it was planned. And that, in the minds of the legislators that pushed Illinois’ plunge earlier to coincide with Super Tuesday, might somehow get Illinois Senator Barack Obama more delegates.

And so, the Hillary campaign new, Illinois would be a challenge. Pundits long since written off the idea of Hillary gaining favor in Illinois. But the campaign continued to pursue the state because of a diehard group of supporters that remembered her growing up in Chicago. They may also have been counting on a small number of undecided student voters who might be easily swayed.

As the small theater opened and students began to mingle inside, refreshed by the heat, some said they were voting Obama and were just there for the show. One group of students, members of the service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega, had a deep-rooted alliance with Bill, since he joined the coed organization in ’66. They came wearing white-t shirts with the likeness of the president emblazoned in blue.

After being seated by the operatives, the students quickly gobbled up Hillary signs. Tom Petty’s “American Girl” provided the soundtrack as students turned on cameras and barked rabid phone calls.

“… Well it was kinda cold that night/ she stood alone on her balcony/ Yeah, she could hear the cars roll by/ Out on 441 like waves crashin’ on the beach/ And for one desperate moment there/ He crept back in her memory/ God it’s so painful when something that’s so close/ Is still so far out of reach…”


And there he came. It was quick; there was only enough time to see the door open, to see the man, and then to see the students stunned for a brief moment before he disappeared into the green room with the reporters. Cameras were clicking rapid-fire.

The first thing the reporters noted was just how exact he looked to his pornographic likeness. He was trollish and hairy, black hair, with a caterpillar-mustachioed face, finished off with a pronounced nose. His clothes were spot on: Hawaiian and loose at the top to let loose tufts of chest hair.

Sidestepping the reporters, he immediately became attracted to a piano situated in the room. He lifted the cover for the keys and extended his sausage-liked digits, and began playing a rushed sonata.

“He’s a beast,” the sports reporter said, recording the whole thing. “Now that’s talent.”

Ron stopped.

“Now for my favorite part,” he said, and sat on the keys. “That’s Beethoven’s last movement.”

Ron sat himself in a chair while a young, blushing reporter from the campus newspaper collected herself for a round of questioning.

“Sex – does it ever get boring?”

“No. Next question.”

“What’s your favorite sexual position?”

Ron thinks. A student walks by the glass doors and catches a glimpse of the man, and grins wide. He stands only for a moment and then runs off.

“Missionary. Once you try them all, you go back to the standard bit. I like to see a pretty face, you know?”

“What’s the best place to meet women?”

“A discotheque. It’s the only place where you can break the ice and it’s socially acceptable.”

(“Discotheque” was later misspelled in the campus newspaper as “disco tech,” the word being foreign to much of the news staff.)

As reporters finished up questions and left the back room for Ron to prepare, students began filling the rows. When it was time, a portly moderator addressed the crowd, and informed them that people who wanted to ask questions had to submit the questions to a table in the back. The students answered with a groan. Any deviation from the plan, and the questioner would be “cut off and escorted out of the ballroom.”

At first, the moderator introduced to the crowd the other person in the debate, Michael Leahy, the leader of the anti-pornography group BraveHearts. “PORN is the battle, FREEDOM is the reward,” was the mantra prominently displayed on the BraveHearts Web site. Leahy, the moderator said, had a battle with pornography that cost him a job and a marriage. The audience clapped honestly as the grandfatherly man in black strode to the podium and took a drink of water.

Then the moderator listed the stats as if setting the mood for a heavyweight prize-fighter. One-thousand-five-hundred X-rated films spanning a 27-year career. More than four-thousand conquests.

Glowing dots popped out over the audience as students set their cell phones for photo and video capture. From the back the man came, striding confidently as rows and rows of students jumped and started snapping. He made it to the stage and was greeted by the words of his competitor.

“So, Ron,” Leahy said. “I hear we are opening for Bill Clinton.”


The dots swayed as students tried to follow the man, trying to get an image of him as he stepped out of the screen into real life. There he was, the magician making magic before the crowd. Perhaps a little older than most remembered, but nonetheless imposing with a considerable height and shoulder breath, not to mention gravitas.

“Boy, am I glad to see you,” he said with the slightest exasperation and a hint of a southern accent. It was vaguely cartoonish.

Bill launched into the subprime mortgage crisis, explaining Hillary’s tactics for negotiating with lenders and homeowners.

“I know this isn’t your typical ra-ra campaign speech, but it’s important.”


“I thought this was supposed to be an academic assessment of pornography,” the young audience member said into the microphone. “I don’t understand the point of this.”

The two sides had argued their introductory points just prior, with Leahy saying the adult film industry wasn’t taking responsibility for advertisements reaching underage people, and Ron saying he was being upfront about everything, unlike the mainstream media, who masked sexualized images to sell a product.

“Oh, ok, you want to talk about eroticism?” Ron said. “The difference between eroticism and hardcore is the lighting.”

When asked what impact pornography had on rates of sexual abuse in society, Ron asked the moderator to come to his podium and read an excerpt of a study.

“Can you not read, Ron?” Leahy said. The audience moaned an “oooohhhh….”

“The eyes don’t work so much, but the stick…” Ron said.

The students exploded.


“I’m exhibit A,” Bill said. “We are not good at keeping people well. I am tired of being told America can’t solve the healthcare problem.”

The students erupted. Signs waved. Cameras flashed.

Bill discussed how other nations’ healthcare systems could easily be dropped into America. Then it was on to the war on terror.

“I want you to know two things,” Bill said. “We can’t solve terrorism ourselves. From now on, we will cooperate with you.”

Second, he said, “the military option is the absolute last resort.”


“I don’t understand what you’re trying to accomplish,” another audience member asked. “What are you looking for?”

“Donations,” Leahy said, suggesting the money should be sent to end sex trafficking.

“We want them to say ‘we see that as a problem and we’re willing to help.’”

Students were shifting more now, talking to each other. They left in twos and threes, seats immediately taken by others who were in the standing-room-only crowd. Cell phones were no longer being used to take pictures, but to message others outside the room.

“Maybe it’s too educational,” a blonde student videographer wondered.


“She will send a very different message,” Bill said.

“We’re back.”

Bill told one last tale of a man he met on a golf course, a caddy, who moonlighted as search and rescue personnel and saw action on 9/11. This person, Bill said, remembered Hillary showing concern over dust particles being blown up in the wake of the towers’ collapse, and ordered an immediate shipment of respirators. He just wanted to let him know he thought mighty highly of the gesture.

“Sometimes you can forget who put you there or why they put you there,” Bill said of flying high in Air Force One or being behind the desk of the Oval Office.


“When we do the autographs, I’m usually nice to Leahy and tell him to look the other way,” Ron said of autographing parts of the female anatomy.

When the questions ended, there was a short break, and a line of students formed to get a close encounter with Ron. Some women held felt markers in anticipation. Others went to the coffee shop and got something to go.

“I mean, it was educational, but I didn’t really understand what Leahy wanted,” a large female student said, sipping a latte on the run. “It was like he was sending mixed messages.”


Bill remained in the theater for ten minutes, shaking the hands of the Chancellor of the school and whoever security let in to see him.

“Oh, Alpha Phi Omega!” he said, and pointed to the shirt of an Alpha Phi Omega. “Get them up here.”

She and other members of her fraternity were frozen while Bill made his mark on their shirts and posed for a quick picture.

“This is a huge deal for me,” she said to reporters.

Outside, another one of the attendees walked briskly towards the student union, carrying a souvenier Hillary sign.

“I thought it was nice,” he said. “But I’m still voting for Obama.”

Later that day a rumor circulated through the press of a reporter that was able to get past the campaign officials and get close enough ask Bill something. The question, as the story went, was if Bill knew of Ron Jeremy coming to campus.

The alleged answer to the question was: “That’s two porn stars in one day.”

This was the rumor that swept the campus news office, and though the student reporters looked rabidly for some shred of evidence to this on blogs and news sites, none was to be found.
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