The recent scenes of flooding in Nashville and the earnest efforts of so many music stars to reach out and help spurred in my memory a close up picture of similar devastation.
In the early 1990s, Albany, Ga. endured the worst floods it had ever seen, affecting thousands of the residents, destroying homes and taking several lives.
While acting on “In the Heat of the Night,” my fellow actors and I often gave our time to support various causes. While I do not remember exactly how the trip to Albany came about, that is, whether they contacted us or we contacted them, I remember Alan Autry, “Bubba,” asking me if I would make the trip with him to visit with some of the people affected by the event.
John Stacy was then working with the Sheriff’s Association and had access to the disaster area, which was restricted to only those affected and assistance personnel. We visited with John Stacy at his home in Columbus, spending time with his wife Elaine and family and then riding with him to Albany.
Seeing how the flood washed away the lives of so many people was devastating.
I had visited Albany for several years, performing musically and making annual appearances on Ruthie Garner’s show on WALB, our NBC affiliate, as well as the Fox affiliate that later carried us in syndication.
I remember one rescue worker sharing the story of an elderly couple which they had tried several times to get to a shelter as the waters were rising. The lady refused to leave her home. Her husband tried to get her to go, but she would not, so he remained with her. Following the flood, they found them together. As the floodwaters got higher and higher they continued to move higher and higher in their little one-story house. They had cut a hole in their ceiling above the refrigerator to try to get above the rising water. Tragically, they did not survive, but the love that man showed by staying behind with his wife has stayed with me to this day.
Alan and I visited numerous shelters where these people were wondering whether there would be anything left of their home when they returned.
After many years on television, I had seen how the aura attached with being in show business could draw people’s attention, but in this setting I saw how it could ever so briefly help to lift the spirits of those truly in need of a diversion.
As we entered one of the gyms, an elderly woman walked past us. I remember her clutching her light blue jacket closed to thwart off the cold damp air. She probably was nearing 80, and as she slowly walked with shoulders stooped, it appeared that she carried the weight of the disaster upon her frail little shoulders. After a few steps, she stopped, looked back, took a few more steps, stopped again and looked back once more. Finally, she looked up at Alan and said, “You’re Bubba Skinner.”
As she went through this process of deduction, you could see the weight of the world leaving her. Her shoulders straightened. A smile came upon her face. Here she was in the midst of a gym with hundreds of her neighbors, homeless and uncertain about the future, but for one brief moment all that went away as she saw “Bubba.”
Upon closer examination, she said to me, “And you’re the other one.” Many of us on the show carried that name, especially when traveling with Alan.
As we walked through the shelters that day, I watched hundreds of mothers, fathers, grandparents and children come from their wooden cots and quilt pallets strewn across basketball courts, school hallways and offices to make the effort to walk up to say hello. Some shared their stories and their concerns, but most simply wanted to shake hands and talk about the show. I do not know how long the visits lingered with them, but they linger with me still today.
Finding strength in the face of adversity is difficult. From those survivors, I learned that sometimes strength can be found in a simple handshake and a few moments shared with someone who cares.
When God opened the door for me to be on television, he allowed me to have so many wonderful experiences. Seeing Bubba come to the rescue not with gun or fist, but with handshake and open heart, and being a small part of it myself, truly is one of my favorite memories.
I commend all those stars and musicians reaching out to help. Many of them are survivors themselves. Tennessee and Nashville needs you to reach out through organized charities such as the American Red Cross, church disaster teams, and any reputable opportunity you can find to donate, volunteer and make a difference in the lives of our neighbors. A couple of reputable efforts helping musicians and their families affected are found at http://www.nashvillemusicians.org/ and www.musicares.com/NashvilleFloodRelief. Pray for the families and those trying to assist and serve them.