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High water 

click to enlarge Arkansas River - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • Arkansas River

The Observer, like a lot of folks in Central Arkansas, got out in the past few weeks to see the swollen Arkansas River, that normally placid ribbon of water and light transformed by heavy rains into a dragon's spine of whirls and eddies, the water rushing, full of sticks and logs and snag pikes that could run a person through if he or she was somehow able to avoid being dunked and drowned by the current's constant push to make them kiss the murky bottom.

The Observer's people on our daddy's side, who lived near England, wound up bedraggled refugees during the Great Flood of '27, everything they had soaked or smashed. As The Observer understands it, that flood was what brought them to Little Rock and life as a tangle of rag-tag roofers, so we suppose we should be glad for it. Without the flood, there's no telling who or where Yours Truly would be right now, if at all. Here's the truth, sons and daughters: An existence is made up of a million forgotten choices, none of which you had any part in. Think about that next time you're facing decisions over your own joys and calamities — that what you decide in that moment will ring down the line of your ancestors, obliterating many maybes in the process. No pressure, though.

The always interesting Encyclopedia of Arkansas says that in Arkansas, the '27 flood covered 6,600 square miles, with at least 36 counties in Arkansas drowned in water up to 30 feet deep in places. "In Arkansas," says the Arkcyclopedia, "more people were affected by the floodwaters (over 350,000), more farmland inundated (over 2 million acres), more Red Cross camps were needed (80 of the 154 total), and more families received relief than any other state (41,243). In Arkansas, almost 100 people died, more than any state except Mississippi. In monetary terms, the losses in Arkansas (totaling over $1 million in 1927 dollars for relief and recovery) surpassed any other affected state."

The Observer doesn't have to read it in the electric history books. The old stories have rung down the chain of our own DNA, the fear of rolling waters stamped into our cells. Given that, when we went down to see the Arkansas River on the afternoon it was scheduled to crest at Little Rock, we did so warily and in full daylight, as if we were approaching the lair of a monster.

In Murray Park on the day the water was highest, the river had crawled up the boat ramp, inundating half the soccer fields there and creeping into the parking lot where the fishermen usually dock their trucks and empty trailers. The angry water seemed to bow upward at the center of the channel, the edge a ragged hem of shining water on the asphalt.

The city had marked the edge of the water with those traffic do-dads with the flashing light on top, but most paid them no mind. Parked with its tires in the edge of the river was a pickup truck, the driver testing his mettle. A few feet away, a family had walked down to the edge. As The Observer watched, a girl of perhaps 7 stepped into the first couple inches of water, not in danger, not at the still edge of the beast, the water not even deep enough there to wet her sneakers, but oh, so brave. The Observer, with our sodden genes handed down from people who lost everything but their lives to the deluge, wouldn't even have tried that. But there she stood in the river, staring out at the far bank as if she might take off and stride across.

And oh, what a story that will make, The Observer thought. For us mortals, the shining, swirling years are constantly creeping up to cover us, rinsing these lives of ours inexorably into the past tense. For that moment, though, there was still time for The Observer to see that girl and think of her, years and years from now, with her children's children clustered around and all of them begging, pleading, saying: Grandma, please please please. Tell us again how you once stood on the back of a dragon.

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