By the time the waters relented, the landscape of my childhood had been permanently altered. The summer flood of 1997 in Park County was a seminal moment for me, though I only fully understand this now. At the time, all I knew was that I suddenly lived in a larger-than-life water world, a place of wonder, fear and endless sandbags, which was all fine for a budding adolescent. I didn’t comprehend until later, however, the profound way it brought a community together.
With flood talk permeating throughout Flathead Valley and elsewhere in Montana this spring, I instinctively let my thoughts drift back to that summer in Livingston. When the raging rivers crept up to the doorsteps of our neighbors and loved ones, people dropped what they were doing and grabbed a sandbag. Among those loved ones were my grandparents.
My grandparents lived in a cozy house at the mouth of the Paradise Valley, just off the banks of the Yellowstone River. As the river began its rapid rise, it became clear to everybody that my grandfather wasn’t going to ward off the flood by himself, though he wouldn’t have ever conceded this. So we banded together. “We” means every family member in the area, my friends, my parents’ friends, friends of their friends and people we didn’t know. Some of these people would stop in for an hour of work and then move on to the next house in danger. Others would stay all day.
Even I was somewhat useful. I was entering the age of adolescence and liked the idea of lifting heavy things. Looking in the mirror after each day of sandbag hauling I thought I spied legitimate muscle structure forming on chicken-wing arms. When sandbag walls were safely established, at least for the time being, people would eat lunch and mingle together. I would look at my muscles or go boating in the yard.
Using power in numbers, we managed to construct multi-tiered sandbag fortresses, lining my grandparents’ house on all sides. The river never reached their house, though it came close. The lawn became a pond and the dirty waters washed up to the back porch. I recall how good it felt when the river retreated and everybody knew what they had just accomplished.
That summer, we witnessed the strength of community – specifically small-town, rural Montana community. There was no time for daily squabbles or political distinctions or anything else that would have distracted from the task at hand.
I know of no other time like it in Livingston during my admittedly brief time on this planet. A whole town – ranchers, California transplants, artists, writers, shop owners and the rest – put everything aside to genuinely dedicate themselves to saving their neighbors. I’m sure if floods hit the Flathead, we would see the same thing.
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