Reliving my water-disaster fear

Remember when Frank?lin Delano Roosevelt told the American people living in the depth of the Great Depression, ?The only thing we have to fear is fear itself??

I should have taken that more to heart considering my fear of being in bodies of water. Instead, I have a fascination with water-related disasters.

I didn?t even know how to swim until entering Kansas State University, where all freshmen who didn?t know how to swim were required to enroll in swimming class.

The instructor said we would learn to enjoy the water. I learned to swim in my own awkward way, but I?m still not comfortable in the water.

Instead, I?ve kept that fascination with water-related disasters.

Perhaps it stems from when I was a small child in the 1950s. I fell into a pond in the family pasture while my father and uncles were fishing there. I still remember gasping in a lung-full of water, and how it burned. They wrapped me in a blanket on the back seat to go home.

I remain fascinated.

I tell friends and relatives that the way we have been having rains in recent weeks reminds me of the accounts of the 1951 giant flood. The adults who experienced it said May started dry, followed by increasing rates in June up to 15 inches daily.

My friend Bill, who was with my father in the rest home at Overbrook in 2007, told me that in 1951, he and his brother were veterans who had come home from the Korean War to find their boyhood home inundated with flood water.

The Kansas River was at full flood stage, and the brothers could look across more than a mile of river water to see the roof of their home in north Topeka. River bridge supports were still poking from the water even though the bridge itself was washed away.

The brothers decided to swim across the flood to their home using the supports as a rest stop. They were young, tough, smart and stupid, however you choose to reorder the words.

When they made it across the churning currents and debris-burdened water, they sat on the house roof for a while. They couldn?t gain entry to the attic. Their house was the only one in the neighborhood left.

At last, they departed the house to swim back to the first bridge support, exhausted but still confident they would make it back.

They heard a crash and sounds of breakage, and looked back to see the water currents washing away all that remained of the house. Bill said they were very shaken by the time they made it back to the southern shore.

I?ve seen the pictures of the Cottonwood River going through Marion, and they fascinate me. It?s probably better the town stay out of the water now rather than satisfy my curiosity.

In the 1960s as a college student in journalism, I wanted to write an article for the K-State Collegian about the fault line that goes through the spillway at Tuttle Creek Reservoir.

The fault line is part of the New Madrid fault system centered in the Missouri eastern boot heel region near New Madrid. In the early 1800s an earthquake centered on New Madrid was felt as far away as Washington, D.C., and it caused the Mississippi River to flow backward.

The geology department at K-State contended that Tuttle Creek Reservoir should never have been built because if the New Madrid set off a quake, the dam probably would burst.

They said a fault line is like a zipper, with quakes becoming less frequent but more severe with the teeth further apart for more slipping. California quakes with shorter space between the zipper teeth occur often, but with less disastrous effect than a slippage of the New Madrid as a once-in-a-hundred-years event would, they said.

By geology department estimates, a department representative said, pressure behind the dam would create a water speed of 200 mph the instant it left Tuttle Creek, hitting Topeka in 15 minutes. When I asked him where that would leave Manhattan, he looked at me like I was a little stupid.

I enlisted my friend Harry, who recently had geology, to take me to the Tuttle Creek spillway for a picture of the fault.

He pointed at it far up the spillway face on the eastern side. Since I couldn?t really get a good photograph of it from there, I persuaded him to climb the spillway face with me for a close-up of the fault-line.

About 30 feet up the face, the dirt crumbled beneath our feet leaving us dangling by our hands from a ledge?the classic ?clinging to a cliff? look.

Fortunately, Harry was a strong weight?lifter. He pulled himself to safety, and managed to catch me by a wrist before I dropped. He pulled me up, and we sat on a ledge for two hours before some guys driving over the dam saw us, and rescued us with ski ropes borrowed from the marina.

Did I tell you I don?t like height either? I can get dizzy, especially if I?m looking down at moving water.

Since I?ve always done things anyway, I?ll have to conclude that part of my fear is just good sense.?