The radio crackled with an urgent message for the exhausted volunteer rescuers aboard a Red Cross amphibious duck boat.
"Go to 56 West Fairfield," the dispatcher barked. "Nine kids trapped upstairs."
The volunteers had been plucking flood victims to safety since 3 a.m. along the swollen Mississippi River in St. Paul. It was April 1952, and the melt from winter's snow had combined with spring rains on frozen turf to plunge 2 square miles of the city under water, breaching more than 1,200 homes.
As the rescue boat skimmed across the floodwaters soaking the West Side Flats, the Minneapolis Tribune reported, "The row of two-story wooden houses looked deserted. But in one window, rescuers could see small faces."
One of those faces belonged to 6-year-old Michael Kluznik. He's now a retired teacher living in Mendota Heights, and his flood memories from 68 years ago offer both a child-eye's view of hard times and a lesson about resiliency that he hopes will resonate in 2020.
At the time, Kluznik said, he thought the flood a great adventure "with echoes of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn finding adventure on the river."
The duck boat delivered young Michael, his widowed mother, Ruth, and his three siblings to the Wabasha Street Bridge, along with five children from next door Ruth had been watching. A photo of Kluznik's 1-year-old sister, Carol — passed between rescuers by the armpits beneath a furry winter bonnet — ran on the front page of the Tribune on April 15, 1952.
But the crisis was far from over for the Kluzniks, residents of a hardscrabble, diverse community that called the Flats home across the Mississippi from downtown St. Paul.
Ruth Sandberg Kluznik was born in Virginia, Minn., in 1917, the daughter of a Swedish-born blacksmith in the Iron Range mines. Her husband, John, grew up in Pennsylvania and met her while working as a grocery salesman in northern Minnesota.
Michael was born in Cleveland, where his dad worked as a tool and die maker in an armaments factory during World War II. John Kluznik died suddenly at age 40 the year before the river rose, leaving his wife with four children under 11.
With floodwaters rising up to 8 inches a day, the family found itself "surrounded in the upstairs of our duplex by water," Mike said. "One night, a neighbor came by in a canoe and took my mother grocery shopping."
For the young boy, the mundane soon eclipsed the thrill of the family's duck-boat rescue. After the water receded, Kluznik remembers waiting in line downtown for inoculations to ward against diphtheria and waterborne diseases. For good reason: Within months, Mike's mother and two brothers contracted hepatitis. They called it yellow jaundice.
Ruth Kluznik was forced to stay at Ancker Hospital for three months. Sons John Jr., 10, and Teddy, 8, spent time in a children's ward. Visits were tightly restricted.
"I saw my mother only once when she was allowed to leave the hospital for a few hours on Christmas Day," said Mike, who was placed in a foster home while baby Carol stayed with an aunt in Mendota Heights.
"Patients in the contagion wards couldn't have visitors, so my aunt would sometimes bring my sister and stand below my mother's window, which was several floors up," Kluznik said. "They would wave at each other." His sister was just starting to talk and once asked her aunt who the lady in the window was.
Kluznik said he sees eerie parallels with today's COVID-19 outbreak. Back in 1952, his mother, then 35, went in and out of consciousness at Ancker.
"The nurses placed her in what they called the Ace of Spades Room, where people went to die," Kluznik said. "Amazingly, she rallied and eventually became well again."
Ruth was finally reunited with her children in the spring of 1953. They moved away from the river to a federal housing project in St. Paul. Churches, government programs and social agencies helped them stay on their feet. Ruth lived until the age of 92 and died in 2009.
"The whole ordeal lasted for about a year and those crazy, chaotic times really shaped us and became our narrative," Kluznik said. "We thrived here."
A special education teacher and coach in Hastings for 29 years, Mike Kluznik and his wife have two sons and two grandkids. His brother John became a psychiatrist and lives in White Bear Lake. Ted, of Woodbury, was a manager at 3M. And little Carol earned a Ph.D. and became an educator, with global stints in Peru, Poland and Austria. She lives on Summit Avenue in St. Paul, with a view of the Flats where they once lived.
That century-old West Side neighborhood never really recovered from the 1952 flood. Within four years, the St. Paul Port Authority created the Riverview Industrial Park there, and by the early 1960s the city had bought and razed all the houses — including the one at 56 W. Fairfield.
Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: http://strib.mn/MN1918.