September Gales

Often times at night, when sleep won’t come, I slip out of this old frame where I live, and journey back to the place of my childhood. Though it has been more than four-score years, and everything about the old place has undergone change, I feel that I am home. The little three-room house where I spent the first ten years of my lifetime is still standing and occupied. The Atlantic Coastline railroad track still passes along in front of it, and just a few hundred yards away Swift Creek is still flowing slowly along. I climb the railroad embankment and head in the direction of the slow-moving stream. I cross an old trestle and say to myself, “I once watched this trestle being built,” and I have to wonder if there is another person in Darlington that can say the same.

Bill Shepard

Bill Shepard

After crossing the trestle, I move on a few yards and then sit on the iron rails and gaze down at the little stream below. My childhood memories overwhelm me and I wipe a tear from my eye. Years of stored up memories, and dozens of children’s faces pass before me, and I am lost in the place where time stands still.

The year is 1928, it is September, and I am six years old. The story that follows took place; I wrote it a long time ago. I can’t improve on it; I won’t try…

The wind blew fiercely, the thunder rolled, the lightening flashed, as the hurricane (no name) forged its way slowly along the eastern coastline. In the town of Darlington, miles inland, the rain began to fall.

September gales had arrived, so the villagers thought, and it was time to sow the turnip patch for winter greens. There were no televisions sending out storm warning, only a handful of the villagers could afford to own a radio, and even fewer had access to a daily newspaper. It would be years before the people of the village, including this writer, would learn of the true cause of the catastrophe that was about to happen.

The year was 1928, the month was September; I was six years old. I lived in a three-room mill house at the end of an unnamed street. IT was the house nearest to the big swamp through which Swift Creek crawled along like a viper not knowing where it wanted to go.

The Atlantic coastline Railroad track cut a beeline through the village, crossing the little creek, and reaching on to places I had never heard of. The small dwelling where I lived for all of my six years faced the track and when the long locomotives rolled by, the panes in the windows rattled. The house stood less than fifty feet from the track; in truth, some said hat the front porch was actually built on railroad property.

In the pasture beyond our house, one could see the pig-pens and cow barns where the villagers who owned an animal could keep them. There were complaints at times about the stench caused by the animals, but nothing ever changed. The villagers knew that come Thanksgiving and Christmas, the pigs would be slaughtered, and the problem would be gone, at least for a while.

The skies turned gray and the rain began to fall. At first it was a welcomed blessing from above, but when days passed and the rain continued to fall, concerns set in. It rained in the morning, in the evening, and on through the night. No one could remember September gales bringing this much rain. The little creek spread its waters across the flat swampland and began edging its way toward the pastur4e land where the animals were housed. The three tunnels through which the creek traveled through the railroad embankment to the other side were clogged with floating debris, causing the water to back up. The rising water had no place to go now but toward the village. If the rain continued to fall and the embankment continued to hold, the little house where I lived would soon be under water. It was time for serious concerns, but there was no place to turn for help. It seems that someone would have thought of the clogged tunnels and effort would have been made to clear them, but no one did.

The water continued rising as the rains kept pouring down, until finally it had reached the edge of our yard. The pasture and field beyond looked like a sea of water. From my back porch, I could see the cow-barns and pig-pens floating by, even the animals that had not been moved to higher ground were drowned. My brother’s concern for his bantam chickens was now justified as they could be seen floating atop their coop as it drifted toward the embankment.

I was awakened by voice coming from the men who had come to help my family move to higher ground. The water had risen to the top steps of our front porch. The window of our small kitchen was raised and the men began passing our furniture to the outside. My mother had taken me by the hand and we were wading through the water in the direction of my uncle’s house further away.

Then it happened! A sound like thunder and the water began rushing through the gaping hole in the side of the embankment. On the opposite side of the embankment, there was a complete disaster. The force of the rushing water took everything in its path, and swept it away. The bridge that spanned the creek was gone, a small store building was washed away, and a gaping hole was left in the side of the railroad embankment. The rails were left swinging in mid-air. It was an awesome sight for one as young as I. I thought of the story my Sunday School teacher had told me about Noah and the Ark. The hurricane that we never knew about moved on, the rains stopped, the skies cleared, but it was a long time before life on the village returned to normal. Debris was everywhere, a new bridge had to be built and a trestle to span the opening in the embankment. The opening was left to insure that this would never happen again. I watched for days as the trestle was being built.

Signs of the flood can still be seen. The trestle is still standing, the creek is still flowing, and the little house where I was living is still standing and occupied. The memories remain and are told here just as remembered by a six year old.

Note: And we now know that all the excitement was caused not by a September gale, but a hurricane!

Mr. Shepard is a native of Darlington, S.C., and a current resident of Piedmont, S.C. and author of “Mill Town Boy” and “Bruised”. He has been sharing his tales of growing up in Darlington for decades, and we are delighted to share them each week.

Author: Duane Childers

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