Last month's horrific flooding in Fort Gibson brought pain to my heart. That's where I grew up. My parents still live there - and yes, they're OK, and so is their current house: The one my dad helped build and we all moved into when I was a senior in high school.
The old two-story farmhouse where we lived for most of my youth isn't OK. Someone sent me a photo, and the floodwaters reached up past the dormer windows on the second floor, where my siblings and I had our bedrooms. I shared the photo on social media, which prompted a number of shocked comments from childhood friends: "OMG, is that the farmhouse?" Others commented on the good times they can recall having there as kids. The emoticon "reactions" were a mix of stunned "wows" and tearful "sads."
It's a shame in more ways than one. In summer 2017, my parents attended the wedding of the daughter of one of my high school classmates. The wedding, as my mother explained to my sister Lisa, was to be held at a picturesque old farmhouse that had turned into a bed-and-breakfast. Imagine her surprise when the farmhouse turned out to be ours. My sister said Larry Dale Cooper now owned the house and had fixed it up. He's another of my classmates who happens to be Fort Gibson fire chief.
Long gone is the huge barn with the faded words "Lakewood Farms" above the oversized metal sliding door - the barn where we explored stalls, lofts and stacks of hay, as dust motes danced in the air and wood bees lazily buzzed about the antique farm implements. Gone, too, are most of the behemoth pecan trees from which we harvested our bounty. My siblings and I were wondering what else was gone, and fortunately, my dad had taken pictures of almost every room. I was surprised. The house, which we have ridiculed forever while regaling friends and family with tales about it, had since evolved into a structure one might call "charming."
The house was a haven for cockroaches and mice, had no air conditioning and no carpet, although it had an attractive hardwood floor that would be in vogue today. We were renters, and the owner of the house - a guy named Kermit Schmidt, who for some reason we called "Kermit the Hermit" - told us an eerie story about the house in its younger days. It was around during the Depression, and had been expanded from its original floor plan. Kermit said that decades ago, the Arkansas River had flooded the land all around, and the water was so high it reached the second story - as it did yet again, many decades later. The house was about mile from the river, so the idea of an expanse of water vast and deep - churning ominously with trees, covered wagons, draft horses and maybe people - creeped me out. Kermit said evidence of the flood remained in the house, like battlefield scars on an old warrior. On muggy days, you could smell the mud that had gotten between the walls.
The farmhouse had a root cellar, into which my family would retreat every time that frightening buzzing sound and robotic voice from the National Weather Service would come over the radio or TV. The door to the cellar was accessed through the screen-enclosed back porch. The door had to be latched to the wall to allow us to descend the concrete stairs into the cold, musty-smelling interior. The illumination came from two incandescent bulbs, but since the electricity went out during storms, we had to huddle in the pitch-black, waiting for the tornado to rumble through and take with it all our toys, canopy bed, school clothes, bicycles, farm animals - and the house itself, it goes without saying.
My dad's modern photos showed a sort of vintage kitchen, though I could tell the stove and refrigerator were not the cooking appliance and "Kelvinator icebox" we were embarrassed for our friends to see. I remember envying the modern electric rangetops my friends' mothers had, instead of our old propane contraption - and now, I won't cook with anything but gas. What we called the "utility room" - then painted mustard yellow - had been revamped. So had the bathroom - the one bathroom, woefully inadequate for a six-member family, especially one with teenage girls. I noted that the walk-in closets in my parents' bedroom - the master bedroom - were still intact. I used to climb up onto the top shelf and read books amongst my mothers satin and taffeta party dresses from her youth. We were anxious to see photos of our upstairs bedrooms: my brother's on one side, my sister's and mine on the other. It looked like the "sunken" closets were still there, along with the windows, but everything was spruced up and welcoming. And the attic - which once held my sister's miniature kitchen and our dolls, along with my dad's stacks of Mad magazines and Charles Addams collections - had been turned into another bedroom.
I've explained how that house was populated by hordes of mice. Waking up to a dime-sized yellow spot and four or five pills on your pillow would harden any heart against these creatures. Poisons and mousetraps were minor setbacks for these mice, and since my dad didn't allow pets in the house, cat predation wasn't an option. No crusade against the squeaksters could keep them from multiplying. Once I ran across the room, barefoot, to see who was coming up the driveway in a car. There was a sharp "EEK!" as something smooshed under my foot; I had stepped on a mouse and sent it to its maker. Another time, when I borrowed a pair of my dad's houseshoes, a squatter bit me on the toe before making a getaway. All this was very humiliating, because any visitors - including the victims of slumber parties my sister and I often threw - were likely to encounter a flea-bitten squeakster. Or perhaps a covey of cockroaches scattering in the kitchen when we went in for a midnight snack.
Before the recent flood, my siblings had discussed visiting and spending the night in the old place. I doubt we'd be playing hide-and-seek, choosing obscure passageways that may or may not exist, or climbing into the bowels of the upstairs linen closet to await discovery. Or falling asleep to the sound of strange noises in the walls, that could be a dollop of mud sliding downward, a nest of hungry squeaksters - or perhaps something else even more ancient. Now, I'm not sure that dream will ever come to fruition. Michael Stopp, Congressman Markwayne Mullin's chief of staff, told me last week that he had been busy dealing with the flood and appropriations to help the victims. I didn't ask, but somehow I hope the farmhouse can be once again - for the second time - restored to its former glory.