Enough Wind to Fill Our Sail

ONCE again it is the Florida hurricane season. As someone who grew up in Florida, I know how destructive and frightening these hurricanes can be, and I don't make light of them. But I do want to point out that, for kids at least, there are certain things about hurricane season that make it different from the rest of the year. When I was growing up in the 1940s, a hot, sticky stillness gave warning that the storm season was upon us. In the hands of the prudent, pruning saws hissed through dead wood and hammers banged at loose shingles. The hurricane would wield a steady hand of wind. She (all hurricanes were called by feminine names then) would press against branches to tear out the weak, dead, and rotten; prey on roof tiles, siding, and shutters; and probe newly built structures. She would pry for flaws with watery fingers, searching out a leak in the roof here, a faulty street drain there, and a driveway that never should have sloped down to a ground-level garage.

We got first warnings of hurricanes in the newsreels at the movies, with shots of scudding, swirling clouds and of distant rain-swept islands where ships and aircraft strained at their moorings. Soon announcers on the radio chimed in, more and more frequently interrupting the regular broadcasting to give the latest update on position and wind velocity.

With each new scrap of information from the radio we moved the markers on our maps closer and closer to home. The radio also carried calls to donate cots, blankets, and canned food at the gymnasiums set up to house those from low-lying areas.

Thankfully, even though my friend and I were never directly served by those emergency preparations, to be made aware that adults took care of each other as well as of us had a salutary effect - we were never afraid during a hurricane. Feeling secure that our parents were watching the changing weather carefully, we began special preparations of our own - constructing the wind-driven hurricane mobile.

Raids on rag boxes yielded a sheet for a sail, and scrap lumber was gathered for the chassis, mast, and spars. Buggy wheels fore and skate wheels aft would serve as rolling stock. Inspired by visions of being driven for breathtaking dashes down sidewalks by rising and incessant gales, we labored to put together a prototype. We sawed and hammered, eagerly conferring about how to mount the sail so that it could be turned to catch the wind.

Once ready, we waited patiently as the sky grew gray with purposefully moving clouds and the winds on the ground gradually began to pick up. Urged along by gusts, our little car grudgingly moved faster and farther than simple coasting. Just as the wind became nearly strong enough to provide steady propulsion, twigs and leaves began to shower from trees overhead, rain pelted down, and we had to go inside.

It didn't matter, though, that our land-sailing fared indifferently, for it was a thrill to be safe inside to wait out the storm. Seldom was our family so completely together than during a hurricane. Dad came home early after securing doors and windows at work, and we gathered around the radio in the living room to munch popcorn and listen to whatever the station chose to provide us between bulletins.

Evening darkness came on early, with the wind outside howling incessantly around the corners of the house, and the rain dashing against the windows with increasing fury. The puddled-over floor of the front porch became a replicate ocean with miniature breakers, and we stuffed rags in the crack under the door to hold back the seeping water. We thought about our neighbors and friends.

Inevitably, the power failed, but we were prepared. Pots, pans, and buckets were filled with plenty of water to drink, and soon the front rooms glowed warmly in the golden light from candles and a kerosene lamp on the dining table. Then out came the cards and board games.

To sit in the calm circular glow from a hurricane lamp while wind shrieked and rain splashed in a frenzy outside lent a special surreptitious magic to playing rummy, Parcheesi, and Monopoly.

Often we'd stay up long after our normal bedtimes, and then slid reluctantly between sheets dampened with humidity and passed into sleep, lulled by muffled booming from the sheet-metal awnings and the rhythmic thumps of windows shifting in their casements. An hour or two later a sudden silence would awaken us. It was too soon for the storm to be over, it had to be the eye - that circle of calm at the hurricane's center. Quickly we would let ourselves out the front door.

We did not feel danger. Overhead the sky was awash with a display of stars far more brilliant than usually shone through the humid haze of a Florida night. All along the street, pajama-clad figures scurried to find a space between trees or down a street where they could see the starry blackness melt into a ragged curve of cloudy blackness at the fringe.

In the east, light from a slice of late-rising moon trimmed the rim of the eye with tufts of burnished silver to yield a vision far more mysteriously beautiful than the circle of clear blue sky we had once seen in the daytime. Then, the air would begin to stir, a sudden sprinkling of rain ushered in the second half of the storm, and we would hurry back to bed.

At sunrise, the winds would be dying, and by noon we would get so restless that we were at last permitted, or perhaps ejected, out to see the new world the storm had left - to us at least, who did not bear the worst of it, the scene was at once bright, clean, and clear, yet soggy, sandy, and littered from end to end.

The backyard would be dotted with leaves and scraps of Spanish moss. There would be grapefruit covering the ground from the previous year's crop, blown down from unreachable heights in the tall gnarled trees. Here would be an orange roof tile that had been insecurely anchored, and there a poorly attached downspout hung out from its house at a crazy angle. Sometimes the greatest find would be a huge water oak that had seemed so strong toppled over, propped up by a black circle of roots to reveal a rotten, hollow core.

Cleaning the yard was exciting. We would gather up bags of split fruit and rake up mammoth piles of leaves, twigs, and moss. The satisfaction of meeting a challenge overrode the drudgery of the work. Neighbor pitched in with less fortunate neighbor to set things right before reentering the humdrum of everyday life.

I distill these impressions of hurricanes from experiences of youth and early teens with a certainty that many adults felt the same awe and wonder as they were constrained to stand back from everyday activities while one of nature's most immense forces swept onto center stage.

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