Terry Mackin: Boys, go down and check the canal

May 5, 2013 

Sternly, we were told by our parents to not dunk our heads under the nasty flood water.

We had to wear our tennis shoes if we were going to walk around in the flood water, and we could not walk around alone.

Our sandlot ballgames were postponed due to flooding. Again.

When you live in the same area long enough, you often see history repeat itself. You hear the same stories. The same reasons. The same excuses. Only the faces change.

A few weeks ago, flooding hit a portion of midtown East St. Louis, near Interstate 255 and State Street, on Terrace Drive, behind the Clyde C. Jordan Senior Citizens Center.

Heavy rain caused the nearby Harding Ditch to overflow into nearby neighborhood on Terrace Drive and 68th Street.

A lot has changed in East St. Louis since I was a kid in the 1960s. But one thing has not changed. When it rains really hard for a few days, the Harding Ditch is prone to flooding.

I lived on Terrace Drive until I was in fifth grade. Our middle-class neighborhood was flooded several times in the 1960s. Some floods overtook only our backyards and parts of the street. Other floods covered the whole neighborhood and seeped into our homes.

What is now the Clyde C. Jordan Senior Citizens Center on State Street was then a Kinney Shoes store. Across the street was Riedel's family restaurant, which was previously a Howard Johnson's. Robert Hall clothing store was a few blocks west on State Street.

In our neighborhood, we called the Harding Ditch "the canal." Whenever it rained heavily for a day, Mom or Dad would ask one of us boys to go check the canal. Most times, it was higher than normal but not close to overflowing. But occasionally, well, for safety's sake, we'd better put our valuables in the kitchen cabinets.

As a kid, that canal seemed like a steep mountain. We enjoyed it for sledding in the winter. Lookat it today and it's nothing more than a slight slope of a hill.

As the story goes, Grandpa Tockstein warned my dad not to buy a home in the neighborhood because the ditch often flooded. But it was an affordable, safe neighborhood. It was a great place for a family to live in the 1960s.

Small, framed homes. Plenty of kids. A vacant lot in the middle of the block for sandlot ballgames.

Tennis great Jimmy Connors lived in that neighborhood. The Connors Boys -- Jimmy and Johnny -- were known more for their cool, motorized go-carts than tennis.

Sunday barbecues. Corkball games. Fireworks. The neighborhood was a great place except every few years when the heavy rains hit and the canal overflowed.

I'm told one of our family cars was damaged excessively in a flood. My mom's wedding dress got ruined in another flood. That was before I was born. Our old home videos show my Uncle Bo driving his motor boat around the neighborhood during one of the floods.

I don't believe any person or his pets were hurt in the floods. I hope that was the case in the recent flooding, as well.

For kids like me, a flooded neighborhood meant the neighborhood was a temporary amusement park, as we walked from one house to the next, floodwater to our waists in some areas.

Our tennis shoes squeaked for weeks, and nothing smelled as sour as kids' old, wet tennis shoes.

I remember the floodwaters getting as far as the top step of our front porch. But I don't remember water getting any further into our home than the carport and utility room. But our linoleum floors were carpeted with bath towels, just in case.

We knew flooding was inevitable. But in hindsight, Mom and Dad weren't in a financial position to pack up and move to a new neighborhood just because it flooded every five years or so.

Forty-plus years ago, when the canal overflowed, I'm sure our neighbors called local, state and federal politicians. Promises were made that the ditch would be fixed and would never flood again. Over the decades, much work has been done on the ditch but I don't have facts, details or timelines. It seemed to help decrease the requency and impact of floods for a few decades.

But in the end, Mother Nature always wins.

What I remember most from our childhood floods was how quickly the flood water disappeared and the neighborhood dried up. Sandlot ballgames resumed, even in a little mud. Within a week, that musty, stagnant smell of flood was replaced by the smells of barbecue pork steaks, freshly cut grass and blooming flowers.

We forgot about the flood until the next time it rained really hard for a couple of days in a row. And the next time.

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