Chicago’s Lakefront Trail was crowded most mornings with locals and tourists alike. If you biked or jogged the 18 mile path in its entirety, you would pass the world's largest convention center, Soldier Field, Navy Pier, several parks, and a whole host of museums. In the summer, the beaches are crowded with people passing footballs or Frisbees, playing volleyball, and drinking light beer until they can’t stand. The waves, which crash against the shore, aren’t large when compared to the waves on an ocean beach, but they are present… Which is why the countless people sprawled along the Lakefront Trail didn’t notice the rising water; not at first, anyway.
What had started out as a beautiful day late in the summer suddenly turned gloomy. Clouds rolled in, high up in the sky, blocking the sun. People began to note, however, the lakefront was not experiencing its usual blustery wind. There was a calmness in the air, foreign to the Windy City. Of course, the nickname did not originate from the strong gusts that normally blow through the city, but from the boastful nature of its natives.
The first person to notice the change in tide of Lake Michigan was a homeless man, who had spent many days bouncing around parks and harbors on the south side. He had spent countless hours near the water. He would stare and recall his old life.
“Sometimes, too much failure breaks a man… And he just can’t come back.” He would say to himself as he thought about the inspirational quotes people are always posting online. He had a theory that only unsuccessful people posted those things; people who were doing well didn’t have to tell themselves that everything was going to work out. He had lost his job when the market downturned. He didn’t have much saved, and his house wasn’t worth what he was paying for it. After all those years of climbing the ladder, paying dues, and building a life, he looked around and saw that he didn’t have a single thing to his name. He would see the look on his wife's face and knew he failed her. He tried to start over, but each day seemed to be less productive than the last… So he would start over again. He wondered what it must be like to be suicidal; he didn’t have it in him. He thought it was probably about control, an option where there wasn’t one. He couldn’t see any option left in his life… So he left altogether. He simply walked out while his wife was cleaning the worthless house that wasn’t dirty.
He left his wallet and his phone.
He didn’t take his keys.
He was occupying an accustomed park bench near a lagoon and began noticing the water level underneath the bridge connecting the harbor with the lake. There was usually a small landing on either side of the bottom of its structure; now, the water reached all the way to the pillars. He scanned the area and saw that the tiny islands in the lagoon had been nearly submerged. He got to his feet and crept his way to the edge of the water, he saw that fresh grass was sunken all along the front. He stood still and looked closely at the point where water met the grass. Tiny beads of water were swelling up to that point where a single drop is too big to hold up its own weight and would overtake the next blade of grass.
He widened his gaze again and wondered what it would look like from a different vantage point. He walked around the long path to the opposite side of the lagoon, where the walking bridge arched up and overlooked the harbor. He looked along the rows of yachts anchored along the docks to the harbor walls. There were no watermarks, no lines where the water level had been at previous times, leaving behind a stain. The water was at its highest point all year. He looked out to the lake and tried to recall the last time it had rained… It had been weeks.
Soon after the homeless man noticed something odd with the lake, the beachgoers observed, practically in unison, they had been moving their staked out areas away from the shore; some of them had even relocated twice. Strangers were turning to each other, asking if the great lakes had tides. They searched on their phones to find that they do, but only about 5 centimeters at the most; tides could not account for the amount of water crawling its way up the beach.
Hours went by, and the boats in the harbors were sitting unusually high. Waves were cresting over tall cement banks, pouring water over that trickled down into walkways below. Word was spreading and everyone out for a day on the Lakefront Trail had stopped their activity to watch. The Great Lake Michigan was rising, and there was no reasonable explanation why.
Olivia had reported to her unit and hoped for the best. She imagined that at any moment a runner would barge in, telling her to report to the main offices where she would be stripped of her rank, maybe even discharged. Instead she went through a gauntlet of greeting familiar faces and meeting new ones. It wasn’t long before orders came to suit up, because they were needed downtown. Olivia’s heart sank with the notion of them throwing her in the tomb anyway, but then she heard the squad leaders saying something about a flood. They were going to be bagging sand and directing traffic with the reserves. Olivia was relieved but thought, what flood? It isn’t even raining.
When their transport truck pulled up, the water had almost reached Lakeshore Drive. The air was still calm, almost stale. Olivia and the rest of the troops jumped out of the truck.
“What are we doing here?” One trooper asked.
“There’s no storm. What’s going on?” Asked another.
Just then, another transport pulled up and out came Major Dellucci.
“Alright, I want this unit bagging sand and stacking it high! We got dump trucks coming, they’ll be dropping off and then getting more loads, so don’t be afraid to fill those bags up!” Dellucci barked.
“Sir, they’re dumping sand right on LSD?” One nervous trooper asked hesitantly.
“That’s right, there will be units scattered up and down the whole coast, building a wall.”
“A wall, sir?”
“You see that water, right there?” Major Dellucci asked, pointing to the massive lake. “It rose 4 feet today, and it’s not stopping. Parts of the south side and Indiana are under water. If that lake spills over this road, the damage could be incalculable. Every service member in the area has been assigned to help beat this thing back and save the city. Congratulations, you’re all superheroes. Now start bagging.”
It wasn’t exactly an impassioned speech, but everyone got to work. Olivia could see units working in both directions, all along the waterline. Construction equipment began to arrive with blocks of concrete barricades. They would be placed and then sandbags would fill gaps and reinforce the walls. At certain points, where the road was lower, the water began to spill, though it didn’t rush over. It was more methodical, like it knew it would get the better of us with time. Slowly, it crept up, filling any void it had at its disposal, and continued on its path. More troops ran to those areas to build faster, sloshing around in the wet.
They worked all night and into the next morning. Olivia was detecting an old feeling of exhaustion that would have to be ignored. It took a certain mental toughness to push past the body screaming for a break, only to continue on. At some point, however, the body needs to recover. It was why she had observed a rampant usage of steroids in the military. It wasn’t to gain strength or improve performance; they used it just to be able to keep going. Some would be up for days at a time on a mission, and only get a few hours to rest before they had to get up and do it all over again. During those times, a shot that would help the body recover quickly was just what the doctor ordered… And the military was happy to provide.