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September 12, 2011

A Portrait of Irene: The Back Behind

10-backbehind On the night of Saturday, August 27, Gerry and Conrad Zendzian made the decision to open the Back Behind Restaurant & Barbecue Smokehouse as usual the following day. "Look, it's no problem. They've downgraded it to a Tropical Storm," Gerry recalls telling employees.

Heeding warnings of high winds, the Zendzians drove two of their three cars down from their home at the top of Killington to the restaurant at the junctions of Routes 4 and 100 to protect them from potential downed trees at home. As they drove back and forth several times on the morning of the 28th, the couple noticed that the roads were eerily quiet. They decided that, since tourists seemed to be staying away from Killington, they wouldn't open for lunch or dinner that night.

Good choice. Had the owners tried to open the Back Behind that evening, it's unlikely Gerry would be alive to tell her tale.

The Zendzians weren't able to drive to their restaurant on Tuesday, but when they did, they quickly saw the extent of the damage. Both cars were totaled. Heavy equipment, including freezers and refrigerators, was floating four feet deep in the antique dining room. "The water had to have been tumultuous," says Gerry Zendzian. She later learned that the Ottauquechee River had been diverted into the road, while other flood waters traveled to the Back Behind down Route 100. "We were like the catch basin for everything," says Zendzian.

When the water receded, the couple quickly set to work cleaning silt from every surface. As it dried, Zendzian says, it became like quicksand. "I was going to the other side of the building with a piece of plywood," she recalls. "I buried myself up to my knees. You cannot pull yourself up." Once she was freed, Zendzian, her husband and their loyal customers power-washed the building inside and out. The work is not satisfying, Gerry says. "When you walk away from it each night, it still looks like a muddy mess."

Thanks to Gerry Zendzian's previous life as a nurse, rotting food wasn't a problem for the Back Behind, as it has been for some other restaurants. "I knew to get all the perishable stuff out to prevent mold," she says.

Besides looking after themselves and their business, Gerry and Conrad Zendzian are spending their time caring for the three Macedonian students they employed over the summer. The Zendzians' property where the students were staying was practically washed away. The pair is currently putting the youngsters up in a motel in West Lebanon, N.H. They bring food and supplies to the carless employees several times each day. The students will remain in the United States until October 12, and help to rebuild the restaurant however they can.

The rest of Gerry Zendzian's energy is poured into phone calls. "I'm on the phone 24/7. My ear looks like cauliflower," she says. She describes Bill Vien of Allstate Insurance in Rutland as something of a guardian angel. Zendzian says he calls at all hours of the day and night with suggestions on where the Back Behind can get the money it needs to reopen. FEMA is unlikely to be one of those sources. Zendzian says that, while she's heard that Vermont's disaster declaration may cause the agency to look at her business and second home, she knows that for now FEMA's focus is on primary residences.

Luckily, the Zendzians have scores of photos documenting every inch of the Back Behind, a boon when providing proof for insurance companies. Vien advised Conrad to begin rebuilding right away, even before getting a settlement. Until the Zendzians find a carpenter, Conrad's nephew is helping out, but the couple have high standards when it comes to retaining the look of the Back Behind, which opened in 1974. "It would be easy to just blow it out and whitewash it," says Gerry. "But so many people, if they haven't seen it for years, say, 'I can’t believe it; it's still like in the '80s or like the '70s.' So many people come into the caboose and say, 'Oh, I had my first date here and it looks just the same.'"

Though the odds against them seem daunting, Gerry Zendzian says she and her husband are determined to reopen, perhaps only on a limited basis at first. "For a time line, we have no idea," she says. "To look at this right now, you’re so devastated it looks like it will be 3001."

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