As far as I'm concerned, there are few things as sad-looking as a book that has been under water. The pages swell but the more rigid binding does not, so the book fans itself open and loses its nice, compact form-factor. Sometimes, especially in older paperbacks, the ink will run or bleed through from one side of the page to the other. The cover boards turn queasily flexible, transforming hardcovers into softcovers. Then, as the pages dry, they get crisp and wavy, taking on the texture of autumn leaves instead of actual paper.
Ordinary printed volumes, novels and such, at least remain readable, if no longer pleasing to look at or handle. But what happens to expensive coffee-table books is downright tragic: the glossy coating that makes photographs and art reproduce so wonderfully gets sticky when it's exposed to moisture, and it effectively glues the pages together into a solid, useless lump.
I've just learned these things the hard way, through first-hand experience. The legendary Bennion Archives, which have been referenced often on this blog and which reside in the basement of my ancient farm house, flooded four days ago. I've spent the whole weekend and this Presidents' Day holiday on damage-control and clean-up duty. And I have to tell you folks, it's been a rough handful of days for a sentimental old pack-rat like me.
Given how much of my various collections consists of paper -- books, magazines, comics, posters, and other ephemera -- I've long feared something like this happening. My worst frakking nightmare came true in the wee hours of Friday morning. I woke up around 5 a.m., a good two hours before my usual get-up time, needing to visit the bathroom. As I staggered into the john, bleary-eyed and only half-conscious, I could hear water running. I thought that was rather odd; the toilet is less than a year old, and shouldn't be misbehaving like that already. I did my business, flushed, and waited for the refill cycle to finish. I expected the mysterious sound would stop when the toilet did. It did not. "Weird," I thought through my sleepy haze. "I wonder where the hell there could be water ru..."
The explanation hit me like a open-handed slap across the face. I dashed to the basement stairs and flicked on the light. What I saw down at the bottom looked like something out of a submarine movie: a fan of water jetting across the room at about eye level, with more water on the floor, already several inches deep and visibly rising. I plunged down the stairs in a blind panic, heedless of any electrical danger, worried only about saving all my precious stuff. (In retrospect, it was stupid of me to go sloshing through the basement in my underwear, turning on lights to see what was happening; it would've been extremely undignified if I'd cooked myself to be found floating in my Fruit-of-the-Looms with my hair loose around my head.) I thought at first that the water heater had blown up, but I quickly saw that it was the filter that services my fridge upstairs. The water was blasting out through a horizontal crack that ran almost all the way around the filter's housing. My dad had installed that filter, so I didn't know off the top of my head where I needed to shut off the water. I was considering going for the main shut-off for the entire house when I spotted an inline valve on the hose feeding into the filter. I grabbed the lever and jerked it closed. The water stopped immediately, not dying back slowly like a garden hose but instantly dropping off to a mere trickle of whatever remained in the line. The basement fell silent except for soft dripping noises and my own rapid breath-sounds.
I keep my collections in ordinary cardboard banker's boxes. I've always intended to replace these with plastic Rubbermaid or Sterilite containers, but those are expensive and there always seemed to be something better to spend the money on, so cardboard it was. Some of those boxes were up on wooden pallets; many were not. I thought it didn't much matter either way, as the water was a good four inches deep at that point. My things, all my mementoes...
There is a drain in my basement, but it was clogged with dirt and debris that had been swept up in the initial tide. I cleared it out with my fingertips and was somewhat relieved to see the damned water begin to whirlpool around it. But there was so much of it, and my things had already been soaking in it for God only knew how long. I felt sick to my stomach...
I called my folks for help, called the office to tell my boss I wouldn't be coming in, and began hauling the dry boxes from the higher tiers upstairs for safe keeping. Dad brought his wet/dry shop vac to help speed up the drainage, and we had most of the water out of there by eight a.m. But it didn't look good. The entire basement had been flooded, not just one room, and, between the three of us, there was a lot of stuff to be lost.
Remember, I still live in the house where I grew up, and even though my folks now live in a new home a short distance away, they continue to store a lot of their belongings in my home. The plan has always been for them to eventually sort through these things and decide what carried enough sentimental value to bother moving to the new place, and what was fit only to chuck, but there's never been any urgency to get it done. After all, they trust their current tenant not to bother anything. However, the events of this weekend accelerated our timetable by a factor of about a thousand. We simply had to get through that sorting process ASAP, so we could save what could be salvaged and get rid of what couldn't before it started to stink.
My first priority was my own collections, however. The banker's boxes that had been on the bottom rows were already starting to collapse. I couldn't get to those boxes, though, not until I got all the undamaged stuff out of the way. So I kept working, carrying things upstairs then trotting back down until the backs of my thighs were screaming at me. I spent all day Friday doing this, finally getting into the wet stuff by mid-afternoon. I laid it all out to dry on the kitchen floor, the back deck, and the cement driveway. I hoped it would be alright. If I were a religious man, I probably would have prayed.
And in the end, surprisingly, I didn't lose very much after all, just a few books, none of which were rare or irreplaceable. All of my truly precious items -- photos and their corresponding negatives, travel souvenirs, my high school yearbooks, twelve years of handwritten journals, a box of trinkets that had belonged to both of my late grandmothers, and my really cool vintage Star Wars items -- were up high enough to escape. The pallets had done their job for those boxes lucky enough to have been stacked on them, although the water had been right at the point of overrunning them. If I'd slept any later, I certainly would've lost more, and better items, too.
Unfortunately, my parents' stuff didn't fare so well. The three of us have broken our backs -- and our hearts, in some cases -- over the past three days, clearing out a lifetime of their accumulated possessions that have been rendered into garbage by the most common substance on our planet -- that treacherous old H2O. We've been hindered by a snowstorm that forced us to move all the things that had been drying in the driveway and on the deck into the garage, and also by Mom, who has a tendency to reminisce about each object she comes across. She stops working to tell me exactly where she bought that particular blouse, or how much I used to play with this particular toy, or how my dad, in a rare show of gallantry, won her that stuffed animal at the state fair. She occasionally fights back tears when she finds something that's been ruined beyond hope. The only way I can describe her mental state is to say she's been drowning in sorrowful nostalgia. I try to be patient with her, because I'm feeling the exact same way...