Friday, April 11, 1997
It's hard to see
the future through tears

The Cincinnati Enquirer

FALMOUTH - Three weeks ago, the sign by the gas station on the main drag read: ''Honk if you're tired of mud and dust.''

Today, it carries a different message: ''Do what you got'a do and don't look back.''

The sign is Falmouth's barometer. It measures the mood of a flood-ravaged town that's decided to pull up stakes and move to higher ground.

Property owners have voted 139 to 62 for a buyout. Falmouth's city council seconded that motion this week. By a 5-1 vote, the council made plans to apply for federal money to buy homes damaged, destroyed or washed away without a trace by the devastating March 1 flood.

Owners could use the buyout money to rebuild. But they would have to do it elsewhere - not on the streets of the 204-year-old city. They would have to leave what's left of their Victorian frame houses and 19th-century brick storefronts.

The votes sealed Falmouth's fate. No matter how many people stay and how many move on, the city on the Licking's floodplain will not exist as it did before.

Falmouth voted with its head. As the sign says, ''Do what you got'a do and don't look back.''

But in its heart, the city still clings to what it was before the flood. It can't let go of a place called home.

This is not living in a state of disbelief or denial. It is grief. Profound and lasting.

Dazed and dusty

Walking the streets of Falmouth, I found good, strong hearts that have not caught up with their heads.

Charles Wright sprinkled grass seed and straw across his mother's front yard.

''Just trying to straighten up the mess,'' he said. ''It's a bitter pill, but life goes on.''

Grabbing a hose to dampen the straw, he added: ''Mother's 87 and crippled. She's had a good life in this house. She doesn't want to go. This is home.''

Around the corner, Stella Richardson stood on her front porch. She intends - ''despite that vote'' - to move back.

''But it won't be until May or June,'' she said. ''It's still wet inside.''

As she spoke, she turned her head away from the street. A car drove by, sending up a cloud of silty flood dust.

The dust is as fine as baby powder, and it covers everything that doesn't move - and some things that do - in Falmouth.

''Cars go past here,'' she said, ''and you could choke to death on that dust.''

Down the street from the New Pastime Theater with the words ''Opening Soon'' on its marquee, Russ Conrad is open for business selling hardware and furniture.

''My future is now,'' he said. ''Everybody in town needs a new refrigerator, a new washer and dryer, a new mattress.

''People walk in here and I know everything they lost,'' he joked, ''because I owned it first.''

If he had to move and build a new store, ''all I'd go out of here with is a modest amount of integrity.''

In mourning

Edna Gallagher walked into Russ Conrad's store and announced, ''I'm the lady who called about the wagon.''

Penny Conrad, Russ' wife, disappeared into a back room. She came out with a flood-stained wooden wagon big enough for a small child or a family of teddy bears.

''That's it!'' Edna cried.

She hugged the wagon and gently touched its still-shiny silver hardware. Through tears, she said, ''Now I can say I have something.''

Edna, her husband and their 3-year-old daughter lost everything in the flood when their South Liberty Street mobile home was picked up and swept away. The small wooden wagon floated across town and ended up in the Conrads' store.

''We had nothing to show for our 16 years of married life,'' she said.

''Now, if we have to move out of Falmouth, we'll take this wagon with us. It was a gift from my husband, a little something to show that he loved me.''

Those of us who sleep in a dry place may have trouble imagining why anyone would want to stay in Falmouth.

If you do, remember the wagon lady.

She'll remind you how much Falmouth has lost and how it still grieves. This is a city of broken hearts. They can't let go just now.

Someday they will. Just give them time. And keep them in your thoughts.

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Call 768-8379 or fax 768-8340.