Thursday, September 11, 2008

The storms of our youth

“ We are running from the storms of our youth into more of the same.”  Thea Gilmore,  “Inverigo”



I walked with my mother into the A&P that Saturday in September, 1961. I saw something that I had never seen before. Panic on aisle four. Every housewife in the neighborhood was hastily filling up their “baskarts” with non-perishable food, distilled water, candles, batteries and masking tape, so as to better meet the coming Hurricane dubbed “Carla”. Carla was the seminal storm of my youth . It is the first time I recall knowing a storm by name. Other than for the Cuban Missile Crisis, it is the only time I ever saw the A&P run out of distilled water. The A&P also  ran out of masking tape during that October, 1962 crisis. As Kennedy negotiated with the Russians , I recall seeing people tapping up their windows in the hopes that it would prevent glass from flying into their home during a nuclear holocaust. Texans are an  optimistic bunch by nature. But I digress.


I thought about this as I watch Hurricane Ike bearing down on my hometown this morning. Hurricane preparation has changed since 1961. Today hundreds of buses are heading to Houston for a more or less orderly evacuation of part of the city. In 1961 people mostly stayed home to ride out the storm. Those that left piled the kids into the station wagon and drove off at the last minute to sponge off of some relatives for a few days in Austin or Dallas or west Texas. I sat on the street corner of Birdwood and Bob White as storm clouds gathered and watched the Woodums head up for Austin, Snuggles the Boston Terrier sticking her head out the window of the unairconditioned car. It was like they were going on a picnic.


My father was never one to panic. As the storm grew nearer and its fury increased until it became the largest hurricane in the history of the Gulf, my father downplayed the emergency. He set about taping and boarding windows, filled the bath tub and every available receptacle of the house with water and directed my mother to cook a big roast which he felt would feed the family for three days. Looking back on it, I wonder why he was not concerned about the lack of refrigeration for the beef which sat on our stove throughout the duration of the storm. Family lore says that he never really got worried until the most conservative of the local weathermen conceded that “we might be in for a little blow.”


Frankly, I did not know what to expect. There was not exactly a lack of news, it was just that there were few media outlets and they all went off the air by midnight and did not restart until the next morning. Then again, there was no way to broadcast much of the emergency. Cameras were the size of large outboard motors and could not be hand held. There were no satellites, no real news from outlying islands. There was just a guy on the news with a map and a black pen drawing squiggly lines that became fainter and fainter as the storm approached and the television picture began to turn into what we used to call “snow”. The last thing I recall seeing on Sunday before the family T.V. set went out was Joe Garagiola describing a game winning home run that Nelson Fox of the White Sox had hit against the Minnesota Twins. Then darkness slowly fell, the winds began to really pick up and a light rain began to fall. My father came home from one last run to the 7-11 and the family shut itself in and turned on the radio which would be our only source of information for much of the next couple of days.


Much is made now days of Dan Rather of Channel 11 establishing his reputation by driving to Galveston and lashing himself to a tree to report the effects of the storm. I don’t know that many folks could have seen very much  of that. T.V. antennas blew off of roofs and everyone’s electricity failed. Mostly you sat around by candlelight and commented that you sure had never seen rain like this before. Every few hours my family would eat a roast beef sandwich and have a warm soft drink or a drink out of the giant bottle of distilled water. They did have bottled water in those days, but it came only in the five gallon jugs. It was also distilled, the kind of water my mother used on her ironing and it  tasted flat and almost dead. I hated it. To my immense gratification, we never had to drink out of the bathtub.


When  the wind finally died down and the rain let up we all went out to see what God had wrought. To an eight year old, this was the most amazing thing of all. I had never seen fences and power lines blown down, trees literally ripped out of the ground, windows and gutters smashed and shingles blown off roofs . It was a sight to behold. We gathered up every kid in the neighborhood and walked barefoot around the block, risking typhus and electrocution so that we could report back that everything over on Ariel looked as bad as it did on Birdwood. When the T.V. finally came back on, we discovered that Galveston had been pretty well blown down, although because of the sea wall, had nowhere near the damage that it suffered in 1900. Still, Galveston has never been the same again. After a day or so, the refugees began to drift back to the neighborhood and, worst of all, we had to go back to school. But forever after, it was a badge of honor and point of great pride that you had ridden out and survived Carla. We talked about the storm for years, and over time the legend of it grew and grew. Only after Katrina did I finally admit out loud that some folks might have gone through a little worse in other storms As Ike (how can they name a storm after a nickname ? No one is christened “Ike”) comes in, reported and analyzed live for us twenty four hours a day, I realize the difference in what we used to go through. None of us were really scared. We did not have enough news reporters telling us how terrible things were going to be and how important it was to flee to high ground. we were happy in our ignorance, and in some ways I think that all of this reporting has made the storm experience even worse. Good luck to those in the path of Ike. I will be praying for you. Keep a look out for Dan Rather, he does not have a lot to do these days.


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