The Flood, the Festival, the Foot on the Moon

Three larger-than-life events happened in a narrow band of days in August 1969. Each is iconic, summoning memories and moods with mere mentions: Camille. Woodstock. Apollo 11.

August 2019

Richard G. Johnstone Jr., Executive Editor

August is usually a drowsy month. But not in 1969. On Aug. 13, after astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins were released from three weeks in quarantine following their return from the first manned mission to the Moon, they rode in ticker-tape parades attended by millions in New York City and Chicago. That night, they were the guests of honor at a gala state dinner with President Nixon in Los Angeles.

They would soon embark on a 38-day world tour, welcomed as heroes by the leaders and citizens of 25 countries. In taking that “one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind” on July 20, Neil Armstrong and his two crewmates became more than American heroes. They became heroes of Planet Earth, admired across the globe for embodying the very best of who we are as humans, and what we can achieve with courage and collaboration and ingenuity and grit.

Two days later, on Friday, Aug. 15, a “music and arts fair” was getting underway on a 600-acre dairy farm near Bethel, New York. Its organizers originally expected about 50,000 attendees. But posters, radio and word of mouth — the social media of the time — led hundreds of thousands more young people to make the trek. Even with roads choked with traffic, and roadsides and fields a muddy mess, about 500,000 eventually made it to Woodstock to hear a magical lineup of 32 acts including Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, Santana, The Band, and of course, Jimi Hendrix.

Despite thunderstorms, muddy fields, food shortages, poor sanitation and limited elbow room, the music and the mood were generally ones of peace and unity, in a tense time of protest and unrest. Woodstock came to define an entire generation: restless, unruly, idealistic.

Middle-aged dairy farmer Max Yasgur, who rented his land for the festival, said afterward, “If we join them, we can turn those adversities that are the problems of America today into a hope for a brighter and more peaceful future.” That hope may be no closer to fruition, but it’s nonetheless still aglow half a century on, along with the music that both sparked and sustains it.

In the early morning hours of Monday, Aug. 18, while Blood, Sweat & Tears was performing one of Woodstock’s final sets, real blood, sweat, tears — and terror — were being unleashed on the Mississippi Gulf Coast by one of the most powerful hurricanes on record. Camille’s ferocious arrival destroyed weather instruments in the landfall area, leaving its exact wind speed part of extreme weather lore. Various sources suggest speeds of 175 miles per hour, perhaps even 190 mph, with a devastating storm tide of nearly 25 feet. And as it moved northward, Camille seemed to trade wind speed for water saturation, becoming a tropical depression for the ages.

The evening of Tuesday, Aug. 19, Camille turned sharply eastward, its rains intensifying as it crossed Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. The torrents of water pouring onto the eastern slopes swelled creeks and streams, causing flash floods and landslides. By 10 p.m., Camille’s soaking sphere stretched from West Virginia all the way to Fredericksburg.

Squarely now in Camille’s bull’s-eye lay Nelson County, onto whose fields and forests as much as 36 inches of rain poured, much of it in a three-hour period. Because Camille arrived at night, many residents were asleep, unaware of the devastation occurring around them. Rising waters trapped many in their homes. Area communications networks were damaged or destroyed.

Nelson County became a virtual island, roads and bridges washed away, phones and electric service cut off. Some observers even reported that the James River flowed backwards, its waters forced upstream for a time by the overwhelming inflow from the Tye River.

Its destruction complete, its status now historic, Camille headed out to sea on Wednesday, Aug. 20, leaving Virginia with $140 million in damages and more than 125 dead or missing in Nelson County alone, some whose bodies have never been found. Yet Camille also left in its wake countless stories of individual and collective courage and sacrifice.

Apollo 11 and Woodstock showcased in very different ways the power of our imagination. Camille, though, showcased something more impressive still: the resilience of our spirit.