Some people can remember with great precision exactly where they were and what they were doing when dramatic events occurred. I have such memories regarding the assassination of JFK and the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, for example. The other event that I can recall was of more limited scope, but quite dramatic on a local level.

I went to bed early on the night of March 6, 1963. It was a Wednesday night. I would have school the next day. As an inveterate early-riser who, as an adolescent, was beginning to seek frequent separation from his parents, I figured that bed was a good place to be. The time was perhaps 9:15 pm or so. My early-rising parents had also gone to bed shortly after I had. I read for awhile, then turned off the light. I was enjoying the peace and contentment of a warm bed, the settling quiet of a late winter evening and the gently comforting, mental-drift away from pressing cares.

Suddenly, my older brother burst into the house and yelled aloud, “The whole city of Norwich is under water!”  I admit that I was at first irritated by having my pre-somnambulant reverie so disturbed. I imagined that perhaps there had been a water-main burst or some such thing. He’d probably seen something dramatic, but not quite worth waking a whole household to report upon unless there’d been some threat to the occupants.

Yes, it turned out that the claim of the whole city being ‘under water’ was a bit hyperbolic, but if I had seen what my brother had seen, I might well have uttered the same description.

A sizable lake, named Spaulding Pond, had been created over 100 years earlier by damming a stream and allowing the water to back up behind the dam. On the night of March 6, 1963, that old dam suddenly collapsed and spilled the entire contents of the lake down the previous stream bed which ran right through the heart of the city!

We all arose and began listening to radio reports on WICH, the local radio station. Our house was north of Spaulding Pond and probably on higher ground too, so we were not endangered. But as we listened to the reports, we realized that this was a very big event.

Unlike most floods, this was not about water slowly rising, this was a lake-full of water suddenly rushing down a slope to seek sea-level. From published reports, the water was said to have come down the valley as a “ten-foot wall of water.” Lives were lost, including the mother of a classmate. She had been working a night shift at a factory that collapsed under the force of rushing water and huge blocks of ice. Some people who had been caught out in the open were swept away. Some buildings, like warehouses, were opened by the water and their contents floated downstream.

Though the flood had entirely passed within four hours, all city schools were closed the next day and a massive clean-up was underway. I had a close friend whose family lived in the flood path. I was worried about how my friend’s family might have fared. I took a slow walk downtown passing grim scenes of overturned cars, massive, sofa-sized, chunks of ice strewn onto city streets and mud everywhere. TV news crews from Providence, Hartford and New Haven were there to cover this dramatic event.

My recollections might now be a bit sketchy but I can recall that my friend’s family had no serious damage to their home. The rushing flood waters had risen to nearly crest a retaining wall that bordered their home, but never overspilled it. My pal reported that the actions of his dad had amazed him. His dad made a living as a plumber/handyman and regularly collected free or inexpensive materials whenever they were available. So, as the waters were evidently carrying lots of potentially valuable flotsam, his dad got out on the retaining wall with a makeshift reaching stick and began collecting things that otherwise would have gone down the river and presumably out to Long Island Sound.

My pal’s dad practised complete abstinence from alcohol, so he probably concentrated more on recovering building materials. But someone in the family (an older brother perhaps?) didn’t miss out on the wooden cases of wine, liquor and champagne that were floating away from a damaged liquor warehouse. A few years later, I had my very first taste of true champagne, courtesy of the great Norwich flood.

I don’t know how it is that such events etch our memories with such indelible detail. Something happens that startles the brain into some kind of hyper-active memory-forming mode and we are left with the lingering result.

That’s my personal memory of the great Norwich flood of 1963. Always glad to hear your memories of similar events too!

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