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Dad was unmoved by hurricanes

By Jeanne McManus / September 15, 2004



WASHINGTON

When the hooded man with the flashlight and the yellow slicker bangs on your door at four in the morning and tells you that the hurricane is headed your way and that you must evacuate, you have two choices: to stay or to go. Maybe the constable, mayor, or governor says you have only one choice.

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But in our house there were always two.

Call it civil disobedience, passive resistance, territoriality, or sheer stubbornness, my father was a man who was not easily dislodged from his comfortable chair in his comfortable living room, his good reading lamp, his papers, his crosswords, his peace, especially when he was in the midst of his weeks-long vacation at Bethany Beach, Del., a spot where he began to take his family in 1948.

And so, as the vigilant firemen or lifeguards went door to door announcing the imminent arrival of first Connie (Category 3 at US landfall) and then Diane (Category 1 at US landfall), both in August 1955, my father thanked them each time for their hard work and in his own lawyerlike way created the impression that his family would evacuate, though of course he had no plans to do so.

In fact, by the time Donna (Category 4 at its first landfall in the Florida Keys, and Category 3 when it hit us) was threatening in 1960, we children had learned our father's attitude so well that in the early fury of the storm we headed to the boardwalk bowling alley, grabbed the two ideal lanes (3 and 4) whose U-shaped warps were advantageous to our game, and played until the ocean spilled under the bowling alley. Dad gave us money to tip the pin boy.

Provisioning was not the obsession that it is today. We had no canned goods or bottled water stacked on shelves and no batteries, since I don't think we even owned a transistor radio. We rode the storm out by simply watching the storm, taking measure of the willow in the back yard as it bent in half, looking for the first rush of foam in the street - the indication that the ocean was coming over the dunes. And then we fell asleep.

Only once did we wake up to learn that the winds had ripped the front porch off in the middle of the night.

A healthy skepticism of authority, a tendency not to overreact, and the ability to keep a cool head in a crisis: In later years, we told ourselves that these virtues had been the benefit of behavior that some would say was Dad's foolhardiness.

Only once, the first time the man with the flashlight came knocking at the door, had Dad taken the other route, the safe, sane one. The first time, in the dark and driving rain of hurricane Barbara (Category 1) in 1953, my father heeded the warning and, with my mother, woke the four kids, all under age 10, got us dressed and in the Chevy station wagon, heading up the narrow Delaware roads for home. Before we turned west out the main drag, my father convinced the fireman directing traffic while standing in the ankle-deep water that he had to go a few blocks north to check on his "brother," not a brother at all but a close friend. Our families vacationed together, though wisely never in the same house. They had eight kids - one the age of each of us, plus another four - and quite possibly would want to offload a few into our station wagon. Dogs and grandparents were also involved.

But when we arrived at the house, they had already fled, their overhead lights still on, the back door wide open and the screen door banging wildly in the forceful wind - the home of a family spirited off by aliens.

Dad closed their back door, then headed up Route 26 west to Dagsboro as part of a long, snaking line of cars, then on to Bridgeville, Denton, and the Bay Bridge and Washington.

Dad "drove straight through." In later years this became our polite euphemism for Dad's style of motoring and, in fact, of life: Get where you're going as fast as you can, eyes straight ahead. Destination is all, journey is nothing.

Back home in Washington by midmorning it was hot and humid. The kid Dad had hired to mow the lawn while we were away had not shown up and the grass was knee high. Mom had packed up all the dirty laundry, since the typical beach house back then had no washer and drier, and spent the day folding sheets, towels, and summer shorts. Dad mowed the lawn.

At 3 p.m. he called the landlady back in Bethany. "How's the weather down there now?" he asked. Lillian replied that it was now a beautiful day, the sky was blue, and a crisp, fresh ocean breeze was blowing.

We got back in the car and drove straight through. Mom took a bluefish out of the freezer, which was still working, broiled it, and we sat down to dinner.

And that was the last time we ever fled a hurricane.

Jeanne McManus is editor of The Washington Post's food section. ©The Washington Post

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