Sergeant Randall backed his pickup into the motor pool, got out, dropped the tailgate, and asked who all wanted a Coors. Several guys indicated they did, so I decided I should probably have one too. I put down my shovel and took a break from filling sandbags.
Sand was piled in the middle of the motor pool, bags were piled beside the sand, and we filled one with the other. Orderly and simple, like things were supposed to be in the military. Humvees, deuce-and-a-halves, and five-ton trucks were parked in neat rows along the chain-link fence. Then there was us and Sergeant Randall’s pickup. A Wednesday night in Iowa City, June 2008. The creek on the other side of Clinton Street was rising. The creek fed from the Iowa River, which fed from the Mississippi, which would soon spill into its one-hundred-year floodplain. Soon after, it would spill into its five-hundred-year plain, for the second time in my life. The river was doing every few years what it was only supposed to do every century, or every few centuries, so that it became increasingly useless to try to measure anything against the past. As though the present had nothing to do with it.
I was twenty years old, an English major at the University of Iowa, on friendly terms with shitty beer. Drinking it on duty made me nervous, but I talked myself into it. Sergeant Randall used to be in the Marines, and the Marines did whatever they wanted, so if he said it was okay, that made it okay. I tapped the can three times, cracked it, drank, and set it on the pavement at my feet. I shoveled sand out of the pile. Another specialist held a bag open and I tried to avoid nicking his fingers with the shovel. After each bag we filled, we gulped the beer. Filled another bag, and another. This was the first night of flood duty. It was turning out better than I expected.
Conveniently, the prior weekend had been our drill. When the flood came, we already had the proper haircuts, were still in the penumbra of our military bearing. Usually it took me the whole week prior to get ready, undo everything I’d done since the last drill. I cut my hair, shaved off whatever shitty goatee I’d tried out, cleaned my uniform, found my beret, my patrol cap, my dog tags, stayed sober for a couple nights in a row, and tried to remember a few basic things about what soldiers did. If my uniform looked correct and I could recite a few technical details about the M-4 and the M-249, I was pretty much a soldier. Then came Saturday morning, or Friday night, or sometimes Thursday morning, and I slipped into the role.
The Sunday afternoon of drill, our commander gave a briefing in the upstairs classroom. He mentioned how the Mississippi River might flood any day now. He told us about the opportunity for flood duty, if anyone needed the cash. He passed around a clipboard with a sign-up sheet.
I was on summer break, living in an apartment for the first time, with my girlfriend Jessica. Our apartment was on the north side of town, uphill from campus, and we were proud of it. We had wood floors. We had groceries. We had a coffee table and a dining table. In the center of the dining table we had a vase of flowers. We borrowed the flowers from the Ace Hardware nursery across the alley from our building because they looked better on our dining table. A mini-fridge in the living room, so the beer was more easily accessible, and friends in town old enough to help us stock it. We had all the right things. The summer promised us whatever we wanted, and I had already committed part of it to the mountain training. I did not sign up for flood duty.
It had been a long, snowy winter, and the hot summer came on fast. No spring—winter simply shattered into summer. The snow burned up and overwhelmed the water systems. The ground saturated and the rivers filled, and then City Park was under, then Dubuque Street by the dormitories was under, and the phone tree was activated, and it didn’t matter if you signed up for flood duty or not.
I was having dinner with Jessica and her family in Des Moines when my cell phone rang. The phone number had five digits, which was strange, so I knew exactly what it was. I said I could be there in three hours. The desk sergeant told me to pack for two days. Three hours later I arrived at the armory and went up to the office, where Staff Sergeant Cornelius—a short, grumpy man, whose grumpiness I presumed came from his job as an admin sergeant—had drawn a duty roster on the white board. He circled the names as guys arrived. The platoon sergeant, Sergeant Ihns, studied the board, his arms crossed.
Sergeant Cornelius said they’re all down in the motor pool, put your shit in your locker and get started. I stored my things, went downstairs, and started filling sandbags.
An hour later Sergeant Ihns came outside. He saw the beer. Sergeant Ihns—also an ex-marine—looked at Sergeant Randall very sternly and said, Aw fucking hell no this is not happening. Get rid of this shit right now. I’d never seen Sergeant Ihns pissed off before, and I thought maybe this flood is going to be pretty serious.
We spent three days building a sandbag wall around the armory. One day, after lunch, guys walked across Clinton Street to stare at the creek. Specialist Powers said there was no way we were gonna hold it back. It was gonna be worse than ‘93, way worse. Nobody disagreed with Powers, but I wasn’t convinced. The flood in ’93 had been legendarily bad, and it just didn’t seem possible for a disaster as big as that to happen again. But the water was rising fast.
We took breaks from building the wall and crossed the street to stare down at the water. Then we didn’t have to cross the street anymore; the water overflowed the banks and crept up the block. The flood came on slow like that, at first. Then it happened all at once. On the fourth night, after we finished our wall, after we folded heavy plastic sheets over the sides to make the sandbags watertight, it began to rain.
My job by then was driving soldiers from one place to another, to the Iowa Memorial Union or the water treatment plant, both near the river, to sandbag those places. I drove a deuce-and-a-half, an old Vietnam-era truck with a manual transmission. I had learned how to drive stick recently, specifically for the purpose of driving these big old trucks. I killed the engine almost every stoplight. Guys in the back hollered and laughed. I said sorry and tried to be a good sport about it.
My truck commander, Specialist Anderson, sat on the passenger side. Anderson was a big guy, round and heavy and shiny-bald. He had spent eighteen months in Iraq driving in convoys across the desert, looking out for roadside bombs. He had a Combat Infantryman Badge and at least one Purple Heart. For him, flood duty probably wasn’t a big deal. But he took his job as truck commander seriously, like the relationship between driver and TC was the most important relationship in the world, like between brothers. I appreciated that.
It had begun raining that night. Specialist Anderson and I were driving back from campus with a pissed off ROTC cadet in the back of our deuce-and-a-half. No one else, just Cadet Corn. Cadet Corn had spent the last hour or two working himself up about how poorly the drivers were doing, how none of the troops were getting spread around campus quite right, because the drivers weren’t showing up with trucks at the right time at the right place. Anderson and I were supposed to have picked up a group of soldiers who’d been sandbagging at the IMU, but when we arrived at the building, nobody was there. The IMU was the size of a shopping mall, so we kept driving around to different sides, looking for a group of soldiers, and finally we found Cadet Corn all by himself in the rain, pissed as hell. He said he told the guys to just walk back to the armory because we had taken so long, so the guys had walked in the rain. He jumped in the back of the truck. We could hear him back there swearing at nothing.
I turned the truck down Clinton Street, heading toward the armory, but the road was two feet underwater.
What do I do? I asked. Do I go through it?
Anderson’s voice was low and calm. Do not go through it. Down shift, and we’ll turn around.
From the back of the truck, Corn yelled goddamn it, goddamn it, you knew this fucking road was flooded out.
I three-pointed. Floodwater sloshed against the tires. Anderson said don’t kill it right now. We might be in trouble if you kill it right now.
I turned the truck around and went the wrong direction down a one-way to enter the motor pool on the other side. The motor pool was covered in water. Most of the trucks were gone. I parked the deuce-and-a-half and jumped down into knee-high water. Guys ran in and out of the armory, carrying rucks, duffels, cots, gear, Tuff boxes. I went inside and half the company was arranged in the drill hall, their equipment dressed up in front of them, like they were ready for an inspection. Someone told me to clear out my locker, we were evacuating, so I went upstairs, filled my duffel bag, and joined the other guys in the drill hall. I was tired, soaked, and pissed off because fuck Cadet Corn, he wasn’t even a real officer.
A sergeant next to me could see I was stressed. He tried to put me at ease. The wall isn’t even gonna hold, he said, so don’t worry about anything. There’s nothing we could’ve done anyway.
I asked which one he meant.
He said, like, any of ‘em.
He was right. I don’t know when exactly our wall broke, but it did. And I don’t know when the armory was officially condemned, but it was. Three years later, when I came home from Afghanistan, the building was gone. In its place, the city had paved a parking lot and planted the rest with grass. They avoided building anything valuable in the five-hundred-year plain because who knew what that meant anymore.