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News Eagle - Hawley, PA
  • When Hurricane Diane came to call

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  • LACKAWAXEN TWP. - Readers with a touch of gray may remember August 18, 1955, the day hurricane Diane flooded eastern Pennsylvania. Few were prepared, since she was predicted to pass west of Pittsburgh. Instead, she dropped about 12 inches of rain on the Pocono mountains, already soaked by hurricane Connie a few days earlier. The first "billion dollar" hurricane in U.S. history, Diane was blamed for 191 deaths, including 113 in Pennsylvania.
    Summer resorts were especially vulnerable. At Camp Davis, along Brodhead Creek northwest of Stroudsburg, 37 campers tried to escape rising water by climbing into the dark attic of their clubhouse. Here they lit candles, prayed and sang hymns until a 30-foot-high wave swept the building downstream, leaving only a stone foundation.
    As the storm abated, Operation Kidlift sent military helicopters to airlift hundreds from flooded summer camps on Delaware River islands and in the Poconos. Fourteen helicopters rescued as many as 600 Boy Scouts, Girls Scouts and Campfire Girls. One helicopter landed on the baseball field at Camp Elektor, on Lake Teedyuskung. Officers were surprised to find no injuries, no food shortage, and no serious damage. Girls weathered the storm in small wooden cabins, and boys survived in eight-man canvas Army tents. At Camp Elektor, the only thing Diane washed away was homesickness.
    Homesickness isn't about where you are. It's about where you aren't. I was 12 years old, and it was my third August at camp. The previous two summers, I learned to swim, hiked forest trails and sang songs around roaring council fires, but I never stopped counting the days until Mom and Dad would take me home. They begged me to return again in 1955, promising "Three strikes and you're out. If you're homesick, you never have to go back." It would have been another lonely summer, except for Diane.
    Through a twist of fate, the A&P in Hawley had a sale of chipped beef a few days before Diane arrived, and our camp director, Maude Clarke, knew a bargain when she saw one. Unaware of the coming storm, she bought enough chipped beef to feed us for a week, and it almost did. Campers never knew the magnitude of Diane. We saw her as just one rainy day after another. Counselors tried to plan indoor activities, but finally gave up and let us hang out in our tents and cabins. In my tent, we boys lashed the tent flaps tight to prevent leaks, talked and played cards by flashlight for hours. We were never bored. Our cardinal rule was "don't touch the inside of the tent with your fingertip, or it will drip in that spot." We never did, and it never dripped. If nature called, we wrapped up in a poncho to visit The Olde Brown John, the camp's only remaining outhouse. I'd often walked past it, but never before opened the door. It was dark and cobwebbed inside, and noisy with rain pounding on the corrugated tin roof, but it worked fine.
    Page 2 of 3 - Electricity was off, so older campers formed a chain gang to carry buckets of water up the hill from the lake to the kitchen, where it was boiled and used in cooking. Lunch and supper were often chipped beef on toast, but nobody complained. We knew the phone didn't work and the roads were washed out. We were totally isolated, but not afraid.
    It was raining hard on the afternoon of August 19, when our bugler unexpectedly blew "chow call." No meal was scheduled so we were puzzled, but we wrapped up in ponchos and trudged through drenching rain to the dining hall. There, on each table, was a giant container of ice cream surrounded by spoons! A small grocery, the Osias Store, was just down 590 from Elektor. (Locals called it the Exxon station.) As we dripped into our dining room, the store owner greeted us. "My freezers are off," he said, "and all my ice cream is melting, so you may as well eat it." His kindness turned a dreary day, easy to forget, into a happy day we'd always remember.
    Eventually the rain stopped and blue sky appeared. Lake Teedyuskung had risen a foot, causing our dock to float, and our sailboat was capsized, but otherwise the camp had no damage. After being cooped up so long, each cabin group went hiking. My tentmates and I walked six miles east on 590 past the Cuckoo's Nest to Roland's Corner. That's when we first saw the fury of Diane. The bridge across the Lackawaxen River had vanished without a trace. The railroad tracks on the east shore of the river were twisted like spaghetti. Riverside cabins along the western shore were demolished -- a wall here, a roof there, furniture scattered everywhere. We hiked back to camp, quietly grateful to be safe.
    When the season ended, parents found alternate routes to camp and picked us up. My Mom and Dad were very apologetic. "It must have been awful for you," they said, "stuck up here in the mountains with nothing to do all day. We'll never ask you to go to camp again." But in all the excitement, my homesickness had vanished. Fellow campers were my family. "Dad," I pleaded with boyhood innocence, "I've got to come back next summer! What if there's another hurricane and I miss it?"
    Addendum
    David Horn recalled: "Maude Clarke opened Camp Elektor in 1935. When her neighbor Dan Beard died in '41, she bought some of his cabins and most of his library.  I read many books at camp stamped DAN BEARD CAMP LIBRARY.  Later, Maude was also close friends with neighbor Mary Kiesendahl. I visited Woodloch a few years ago when Mary was still mixing with guests, wearing a pin with the title "Founder." She spoke very kindly of Maude Clarke. Our camp was for children who attend the Christian Science Sunday School, and so we were close to Mrs. Suydam, who was a student of Christian Science and had an estate on Long Ridge Road near Honesdale. We often hiked to her property and camped overnight in the rustic cabin her father-in-law built for a private retreat. One of her neighbors was Roger Blough, president of US Steel from '55 until '69. When she died in '79, her will stipulated that her estate become a wildlife sanctuary, and Blough helped organize the Dorflinger-Suydam Wildlife Sanctuary, Inc. Camp Elektor closed in '70."
    Page 3 of 3 - ****
    David Horn now lives in Raleigh, NC. He may be contacted at horncs@gmail.com.

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