When Hugo Hit Home

IF I go longer than three months without hard-packed sand beneath my bare feet I get testy. My favorite times at the beach are in October, when summer people have gone and the waves are thick and gray-green. Or in the pale spare brilliance of an autumn sunrise, when the ocean is seamless and the tidal pools give up their treasures to early shell thieves.Or at moonrise when the minuscule moment between sun and moon, unsullied by city lights, is that darkest of darks. Or maybe beneath an August part-smile of a moon that makes weird chiaroscuro of the shadows cast by scrubby palmettos and tall palms, and turns sea and sand into the negative of their daytime reality. But today, on a Charleston-area beach ravaged by Hurricane Hugo scarcely two years ago, I appreciate simply the immutable mutability of ancient sand and water - appreciate and marvel at how quickly they recover. The sea is gray today, and the tide is coming in. Wet umber sand sucks at my feet, baby waves lap my ankles, and circling sea-birds chuh-WHEE and graaAAAk in overhead counterpoint to the surf fugue. Neither out on the water nor within my peripheral vision up and down the beach is there a smidgen of evidence of the hurricane. But a few yards behind me, from beyond the confectioner's sugar dunes (a bit flattened for the moment), hammer sounds ring out. The bzzZZZzz of a chain saw overrides its operator's cheerful whistling of "There's No Business Like Show Business" while he reassembles his beach house. There are criteria for a proper beach house: It should be made of wood and built up on stilts, its underbelly the perfect place to stash a seashell collection or to wait out midday's searing sun sleeping, reading, daydreaming. On its screened-in porch must be cots and a ratty wicker lounge; citronella candles and stacked-up beach chairs; old New Yorkers and older Smithsonians; and years of sand dollars scavenged from low tides. This house across the road from where I stand today used to look, before Hugo, like just such a cottage. Before Hugo, when I drove out here to visit sand and water, I would park across from this cottage precisely because it was a proper beach cottage - like those where I spent childhood summers - and eventually it got to be my landmark for where to park. I never knew the cottage's people, though we would nod and smile when we passed each other between the dunes on the narrow path to the water. One winter day, the man ran (chivalrously, I thought) a quarter of the mile down the beach to rescue my hat when the wind lifted it right off my head. Today his whistle commingles with the noise of his chain saw while a woman I take to be his wife, and a girl and boy of about 12 and 10, walk slowly around, eyes on the ground. Looking for boards, I suppose, or maybe puzzle pieces, photographs, who-knows-what. But something isn't right. It takes me a minute to figure it out, because it looks as if war happened here, and everything around is a mess. But finally I see that the cottage isn't where it used to be. I pick my way over, and the man stops his saw , pushes up the sleeves of his Citadel sweat shirt, and rests his right foot on the rung of the picnic table he's using for a workbench. "You see our sign?" he asks, gesturing and wiping his forehead on the sleeve of his sweat shirt. I walk around his workbench to see a wooden sign stuck firmly in the sand, bearing in bold red letters the legend: "Hugo Yard of The Month." At 7:15 on the Thursday morning when Hurricane Hugo hit land, our Charleston friends, who through 20 years of weather had never evacuated, called to say they were about to - and to us. They had only to finish boarding up their front door with a Ping-Pong table (boards were scarce as hens' teeth), gather up her violas (she plays with the Charleston Symphony) and her mother (from a retirement home), and they would be on their way. Eight hours and 15 minutes later when they completed the 2 1/2 hour trip, we unloaded their car, laughing at the things people grabbed for: perishables from the refrigerator, family photographs, a few clothes, a box of compact discs, three violas. That night we stayed up through the small hours, through the hurricane's "landfall a new word for us. And for the next four days the television set held us. Frustratingly, the networks showed the same footage over and over: weary trees bent double along the Battery; lasers of black rain slicing into the raincoats of reporters leaning into the wind, shouting into their microphones. Saturday morning, the worst over, I lured our refugees away from the set and forced them downtown to an arts festival. Music, dance, art, crafts, and ethnic food spread brightly over three city blocks. We bought a sausage sandwich at the Italian-American Society tent and a pitcher from a potter, then watched a clogging demonstration and an excerpt from the community theater's current production. It didn't work, though, and so we went soberly back home - to stare again at the dark images on the screen and to think about things alien to ordinary suburban Americans: unsettling things such as where you get a generator; how long before food spoils; can you drink the water; what about the cat we couldn't find when we had to leave; how'll we get to work; is work still there.... THE man who chased my hat that day starts up his chain saw again, and I walk back across the road and between the dunes, down to where the ocean licks the sand. My toe dislodges a still-wet conch shell, so newly abandoned to the sand, and to me, that I wonder if its mollusk still pulses, alone and vulnerable, nearby. I pick the shell up, savor how it feels in my hand. The curled base of it is a delicate mingle of peach and cream; the smooth middle, as it fattens upward, is palest pink; and the nine-spiked crown is washed with the ethereal colors of sunrise.

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