About this time two dozen years ago, on a sunny late-spring day in Grand Forks, Bob Cooley showed me green onions reaching from a garden plot in front of his house.
“I call ‘em candy sticks,” he said. “I love green onions. I eat ‘em morning, noon and night.”
His wife, Alice, was with us, and she looked at him, I wrote then, “the way people do when they’re married to compulsive gardeners.”
Alice looked at me. “You know what time he put these in? It was 4 a.m. I heard him. He was out here spading with a flashlight at 4 a.m.”
The planting date was important, I noted. It helped to explain Bob’s impatience. It was April 29.
April 29, 1997.
Eleven days earlier, the Cooleys had been chased from their home by the great Red River flood. They returned on April 28 to a basement flooded and their yard a muddy, silty mess. So, at 4 in the morning, Bob put in his green onions by flashlight and declared victory over the flood.
I thought about Bob and Alice this week as I received gleeful reports from friends about peonies and azaleas blooming, tomato plants going into the ground, and sculpted rows and hills where soon carrots and cucumbers will emerge.
Once again, some of us are gardening our way to recovery.
It’s been 24 years since the Red River rose above 54 feet and spread across most of these river towns, ruining homes and emptying historic neighborhoods and displacing tens of thousands of people.
I worked for the Star Tribune then. I had left the Herald and Grand Forks 10 years earlier, but with a dozen Strib colleagues I returned to report on the great flood. Some of us set up base at my brother Tom’s house west of I-29, the photographers turning his bathroom into a darkroom. Then, after writing a deeply personal piece from Tom’s back steps, where I watched the fire in a flood downtown and wondered where my brothers and my son would go, my editor asked me to stay in my old home town for a few months and write about the recovery.
As I said at the end of that summer, it was one of the easiest reporting assignments I had ever had because I knew so many of the people here … and it was one of the hardest assignments I had ever had because I knew so many of the people here.
I lived in a rented RV and wrote about the bad … the losses, material and spiritual, but mostly I looked for signs of resolve and recovery. This is the first in a series of columns I’ll write over the next few weeks recalling some of the people who talked to me back then, people who had taken a serious blow but were determined to smile again. They are good examples, I think, as we pull away from the flood that was COVID-19.
“I usually put in $400 worth of flowers,” Bob Cooley told me that day in 1997. “This year, I thought I’d just go to the greenhouse and look. I told the wife, ‘We’re not going to have flowers.’ But when I went out and looked, I just had to buy some.”
Over the Memorial Day weekend, he mixed black dirt and peat moss for ivy geraniums in hanging pots and pansies in wooden planters out front. Alice told him what colors she wanted and where as he planted begonias and petunias.
“It lifts my spirits,” he said as he worked. “And it brightens my day.”
Alice said she was opposed to flowers at first because they, like other returning residents, faced so many other chores and expenses. “But I know how important it is to Bob,” she said. “And the neighbors were asking about the flowers, so I know it’s important to them, too.”
She glanced up at the second story of their house, to a window that overlooked the main garden and two flanking apple trees. “That’s our bedroom window up there,” she said. “The last thing at night, he looks out at the garden. And the first thing in the morning.”
They had been married 40 years that spring, and they had lived in that little house since 1959.
Alice died in 2003, Bob in 2008.
He was a retired air traffic controller who loved fishing and hunting – and gardening. “He always wanted to bet on whose garden would produce the fastest,” according to an obituary.
As we talked on that late May day in 1997, he continued to grub in the soil.
“Each day since the flood, every day during the cleanup, you reach a point where you get depressed,” he said. “But not today. Today I’m out here in the dirt with my little trowel, and there will be nothing depressing about today.”
Chuck Haga had a long career at the Grand Forks Herald and the Minneapolis Star Tribune before retiring in 2013. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.