In June of 1972, I found out that there would be a 3 day meeting of the AAPT (American Association of Physics Teachers) at the State University of New York in Albany. I had just finished my first year of teaching physics at Westfield State College, and I wasn’t teaching again till July. I thought of Tom, my most enthusiastic physics student, and decided to call him and see if he wanted to go. There would be dorm rooms available, so it wouldn’t be expensive, and I thought that Tom who was planning to teach science in high school after another year at WSC, would benefit from the experience. Tom was a big athletic guy who played on the lacrosse team and was active with WS Ctheater, but he had become very interested in physics and even thought of trying to make up some of the requirements for physics teaching that he had missed as a general science major. Tom had met my family, and been charmed by three year old Karen and my wife Val. When I called him about the meeting, he was thrilled and offered to drive. That meant a lot since Val would have been without a car, with no public transportation and a new baby.
When I called the University to register and sign up for rooms, I was told that all the dorm rooms had been taken. There were some motels, but they would be too expensive. Not wanting to miss the opportunity, I asked about campgrounds, and was told there was one fairly near by. I made the reservation. We would use the huge canvas tent that Val and I and Karen and my sister and her daughter had used on our cross country trip the summer before. I brought along a chess set, so we would have some entertainment at night. Tom and I were pretty evenly matched and we both loved the game.
On Wednesday June 20, we pulled up to the campground around 5:00 PM. It was already raining. There was no one at the campground entrance to collect our reservation fee, so we happily drove in. The campground was completely empty. But we’d made our reservation, so we picked out the best campsite. We knew that there would probably be some rain from the hurricane that was moving north. It was expected to hit Pennsylvanialater that day. We picked our site at the top of the hill. There was a beautiful view looking over the nearby cliff. At least we wouldn’t be flooded out.
The hurricane was officially named Agnes, but we decided to call it Agnew, in honor of Nixon’s Vice President who was already being investigated for “low crimes.” He officially resigned about sixteen months later after he was indicted for bribery and tax evasion. He ended up paying a $10,000 fine for the taxes evaded on $270,000 in bribes that he had failed to report to the IRS. (He must have been in a low tax bracket). Also, he had to serve two years probation, but no community service was required. By the time of the Watergate scandal, Agnew was gone and Gerald Ford had replaced him.
We assembled the tent. It was a 10′ by 12′ canvas tent with a canvass floor and awnings that reached about 2 feet from the sides of the tent and a larger front awning. It had 47 poles. Tom suggested we dig a trench around the tent. We did, but a two foot deep trench would have been better than the six inch trench we dug. We hadn’t brought any food. We planned to eat out, so after rigging the tent, we found a diner and had a large meal. On the way back to the campground we stopped at a grocery store and got some snacks and a gallon of cheap Chianti. As a final worst case option we bought a box of the largest trash bags in the store. It was raining when we got back, so we put all of our dry clothes in Tom’s car. Then we lit and hung the Coleman lantern from the top of the tent.
By 9:30, the wind was really howling, and the bottom of the tent was soaked. The rain must have been coming down at least an inch an hour. We stuffed our sleeping bags into the large trash bags, but they weren’t large enough. We had to fold up the sleeping bags to keep them nearly dry. The chess score was two to two. We were aiming for the best of seven, but everything was slowing down now that half the Chianti was gone. In fact, we were both feeling a little sick and starting to worry that we might have miscalculated somewhere along the line.
By 11:00, we were both completely exhausted, drenched from two or three inches of water in the tent, and tied again at three to three. The wind was a roar outside and each of us had already taken a bathroom visit to the outside of the tent. We decided to put some dry garbage bags inside the sleeping bags, and try to go to sleep. We could finish the chess match the next evening. Our sleeping bags were soaked and the garbage bags weren’t long enough. We had to be very curled up to fit in the bags, and it was impossible to stay dry. We turned off the Coleman lantern and tried to sleep anyway.
Tom shouted “We’re going over!”
I woke up and sensed that all was not well. It felt like the tent was about to roll over. I remembered that we were camped at the highest point in the campground, less than 100 feet from a cliff. Tom was holding down his side of the tent, but my side was trying to lift me off the ground. Obviously the tent stakes had come loose. Tom weighed about 220 and was pinning his corner to the ground, but I couldn’t hold my corner down. I yelled to Tom, “I’m going outside for a minute. Spread yourself out.”
I stumbled outside. It was terrifying. The tent was about to take off, and Tom was inside. I grabbed at the awning on my side. We had closed the awning but there were hooked poles inside. I managed to extract one and stuck it through the loop where a tent stake had been at the corner. In the mud, I was able to push it down its full length – about four feet. It seemed to be holding. I repeated the maneuver with the other awning corner pole, then did the same with the awning poles from the other side. The tent was holding. I went back inside. We lit the lantern again and just waited. Maybe an hour later the wind began to die down. We got back into our garbage bags and somehow managed to sleep till dawn.
In the morning, the wind and rain had stopped, but the mud was everywhere. We found a campground restroom area and took showers and changed into dry clothes. We left the tent and drove to the diner where we ate the night before. We both had a steak and eggs special breakfast. Then we went to the SUNY Albany campus and attended the first day of the AAPT meeting. When we got back to the tent that evening, there was a stench of mildew. We didn’t even finish our chess match. Somehow, we managed to sleep in the stench that night, using dry garbage bags, and we attended the next day’s meetings. We left a day early. When we got home, Val informed us that Hurricane Agnes had killed over 100 people from Florida to New York. Forty three people died in Wilkes Barre Pennsylvania.
Epilogue: Val tried rather unsuccessfully to remove the mildew smell. Later that summer, we sold the tent at a tag sale and got a new smaller tent. Tom and I have remained close friends. He has received several national awards for his high school teaching of Astronomy and Physics inNew Hampshire. He was one of the bright spots in my career. He always calls on May first to wish us happy anniversary and happy May Day.