Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Floods, Fire, and Footsteps

Today, as I reflect on all that I am thankful for, my thoughts turn to other Thanksgiving Days, such as the one in 1964 when, as a sophomore in college, I told my family about the young man who would become my husband. My grandparents were interim pastors in Valdez, Alaska, because the pastor there had been killed in the devastating Good Friday Earthquake that spring. That Thanksgiving, my family drove hundreds of miles from Seward, and I caught a ride with friends from college to spend the holiday with them in Valdez.

I met Bob Conti at an Intervarsity Christian Fellowship prayer meeting my first week at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where I had transferred my sophomore year after the Earthquake that spring. Next, I noticed him in my psychology class, and then that he sang bass in the Choir of the North, in which I sang soprano. He stood right behind me on the risers when the choir performed. We became friends.

Our first date was November 20, 1964, the week before Thanksgiving that year. When I read my Daily Light on the Daily Path, before I went to bed that night, these verses jumped out at me: "When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overthrow thee; when thou walkest through the fire thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flames kindle upon thee, for I am the Lord thy God, the Holy One of Israel, thy Saviour--I will bring the blind by a way that they knew not: I will lead them in paths that they have not known: I will make darkness light before them, and crooked things straight. These things will I do unto them, and not forsake them" (Isaiah 43:2-3; 42:16, KJV). I underlined them that night.

On June 10, 1967, three weeks after we graduated from the University of Alaska, Bob and I were married in Valdez, the first wedding in the new town built after the earthquake. My parents had become the pastors the Assemblies of God church there, and my dad and grandfather performed our ceremony. We drove 500 miles from Fairbanks to Valdez for the weekend. After the ceremony and brief reception, we drove another 500 miles back to Fairbanks, so we could return to our jobs on Monday. I slept the whole way home, waking only when Bob pulled over to walk around because he was getting drowsy.

Back in Fairbanks, our working schedules were crazy that summer. I worked at the Alaska Purchase Centennial Exposition from 2 p.m. until midnight. Bob worked for the Alaska Highway Department from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Not a great schedule for anyone, let alone newly weds!

July 1st, at about nine o'clock in the morning, Fairbanks was jolted by an earthquake registering 7.0 on the Richter scale. When it hit, I was still asleep, but Bob was already on the job. The violent shaking and the crash of something falling on the roof above my head awakened me. Adrenalin pumping, I hopped up and staggered to the front doorway, the best place to stand during an earthquake, and hung on. The telephone poles were jumping and lines were snapping up and down like cowboys' whips. When it subsided, I went to investigate and discovered that the chimney on our tiny rental cottage had fallen down on our roof.

That summer, we had record rainfall in Fairbanks. And it was chillier than usual. With no chimney, we couldn't use the furnace. The first week of August, the landlord built a beautiful cement block chimney. At last, we had heat. Then it began to rain again--almost nonstop for a week. The Chena River runs through Fairbanks, and one night reports came that it would crest well over flood stage. Everyone stayed tuned in to their radios. We weren't too worried since our place was sixteen blocks from the river.

About midnight, we heard that many basements had been collapsing due to the extreme pressure from the ground water. Our basement had a dirt floor and board walls. The furnace was there, and we had stored boxes of school books, wedding gifts that didn't fit in the tiny living quarters, and winter clothes, shoes, etc. We decided it was time to empty the basement. Bob had no sooner carried up the last box than two cellar walls collapsed, and filthy brown water rushed in with a tremendous whoosh! Our cottage teetered over a huge water-filled mud hole.

Outside, muddy water surrounded our house. We piled everything except two large boxes on top of our bed, chairs, and couch. In back of our house was a small boat dealership. Bob waded over and broke out a skiff. But we had no oars, so we used the leaf from our Formica kitchen table. We packed a few toiletries, our Bibles, and our wedding book into Bob's backpack and climbed into the boat, along with a few neighbors, to "row" to a nearby hotel, where the radio announced that buses were picking up survivors to take them to the high school.

A gray dawn was breaking as we paddled away at four a.m. Tears filled my eyes. Bob said, "Don't cry! We still have each other and the Lord. That's all we really need, isn't it?"

From the hotel, a bus drove us through flooded streets to Lathrop High School, where Bob had attended for ninth and tenth grades. We spent a week there sleeping on the tile floor at least thirty to a room, side by side, head to toe, without bedding of any kind. When the waters had receded sufficiently, we trudged back to the house. The flood had opened up huge craters in our tiny street. If we had not used a skiff to evacuate, we could have fallen in one and drowned.

Inside the house, mud caked everything up to nine inches above a the floor. Cold and damp, with no water, sewer, or heat, and the house teetering over a basement full of filthy water, we knew we couldn't live in it. But the new chimney still stood tall!

Parked next to the house on slightly higher ground, our 1960 Chevrolet Impala had stayed dry inside, although the engine had probably been flooded. Bob let it dry out, then tried to start it. It roared to life! Bob still had work, but the Centennial Exposition on the river had been inundated so my job was gone. We decided to load everything into the car and drive to Valdez (it took two trips) to stay with my folks until Bob's orders to active duty in the Army came through.

There, we lived in the missionary apartment above the old church and had a wonderful three-week honeymoon. We fished for silver salmon, stocking my folks' freezer for the winter, and explored one of the most scenic places in the world--Bridal Veil Falls, Thompson Pass, Worthington Glacier, and the Gulkana River Gorge along the Richardson Highway north of Valdez.

We had passed through the waters (a record-breaking flood of the Chena River), and God had not allowed us to be overthrown by the flood. In fact, He added unexpected blessings. I have written previously of how Bob was under fire in Vietnam and God brought him through that year unscathed. God has led us step by step through paths we could not have imagined on that first date in 1964. We have much to be thankful for!

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