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August, 2004

My First Hurricane

by Larry

I have always loved the excitement of a good storm. Perhaps it is just human nature to be thrilled by the swirling of wind, clouds, and water, but in my case an appetite for such excitement was fed by an early experience, in the summer of 1944, before I was one year old.

At the time my dad, Leon, was away serving as an Army captain in charge of an intelligence unit in Hawaii, part of our nation's World War II efforts against the Japanese. He and my mom owned a small, wood frame house in Tampa, FL.

Before he had shipped overseas, he and his unit assistant, a lieutenant named Bill, plus their wives, Julia and Corice, used to socialize about weekly with drinks, cards, meals, and conversation. As luck would have it, Corice and Bill lived in an apartment house not too far from Julia and Leon's home. But, since their apartment was smaller and less private, most of the entertaining took place at my parents' place.

Corice, with Ann, and Julia, with Larry, in Tampa, 1944

Corice and Julia became best friends, and their relationship continued for many years after World War II. Indeed, Corice came to Valerie's and my wedding in 1985.

It happened that Bill developed an illness and required ongoing treatment for awhile. This precluded his going on to Hawaii when Leon left or participating in other assignments outside the U.S.

The two ladies became pregnant at about the same time. Corice's first child, who would actually be named Ann, was dubbed "Little Iodine" by Bill while still in the womb. In my case, for some odd reason the name "Butch" was chosen for the fetus. Mom became so attached to this "Butch" identity that she kept calling me that even well after I was born, till Leon put a stop to it. In this instance, I have to say I agree with Dad.

That summer, weather reports indicated a hurricane was bearing down on Tampa, which is on Florida's gulf coast.

The manager of the brick apartment house where Corice, Bill, and Ann were living, Ms. Fail, knew Julia and me. In fact, she was my first baby-sitter. She was a somewhat severe and opinionated woman, very steeped in her southern traditions and attitudes. Though she did not like kids that much, she was often the only person available when Mom needed to leave me for one errand or another. So that was that.

When word came about the imminent hurricane, Ms. Fail offered Mom and me the protection of the stronger apartment house structure till it would blow by. Julia had been in another hurricane but the new one proved to be significantly more intense. Since she'd had no trouble getting through that earlier tempest, Mom felt there should be no problem this time either and so declined Ms. Fail's suggestion.

Larry's first babysitter, Ms. Fail, in 1944
That night, however, the hurricane struck with a ferocity Mom had not imagined. The winds made a great roar outside. And the rain was being driven horizontally against our house so powerfully that it began streaming in right through the walls, which, as it happened, were mainly of just pressed cardboard construction. It seemed the saturated dwelling might collapse under much more of the onslaught.

In the wee hours of pre-dawn night, then, Julia called Ms. Fail and said she thought maybe she had better go ahead and take her up on the offer of shelter. Ms. Fail said OK, so Julia closed up our house as best she could, and we set off for the apartment building.

She had already gone a good distance from our place before she understood just how perilous things had become. We were being buffeted by winds that could easily have blown me away were I not held securely against my mother's chest. Progressing at a crouch against the wall of wind, Julia began to see large trees being overturned on all sides. Then the tops of garages were torn loose, and some sailed by right next to us. The latest weather news had indicated the hurricane's speed was up to 125 miles per hour.

Julia felt she could only go on. We reached the safety of the apartment house, of course. It was only about a block and a half from our place, but the distance had seemed longer for awhile.

Later that day, after the hurricane had moved on, Mom and I went home. Despite having been drenched, with water stains left on parts of the inside walls, the house was intact once things had dried out.

In the long, dull decades between such cyclones, I have at times missed such exhilaration as in those hours of my first hurricane. What might it have been like if Mom's grip had not been quite so tight? Could I have soared into the heavens? I wonder if our species' preoccupation with flight may come from similar peak experiences.

In any case, while I sympathize with the many victims of the recent, tragic Hurricane Charley, which had also been bearing down on Tampa this just past Friday the 13th but then veered away to Ft. Myers, a small lunatic part of me wishes to once more be right there in the heart of the storm. I would not quite go willingly into harm's way. But if by chance I have another close encounter with a hurricane, I think I shall relish the moment, perhaps joining the storm's roar with a series of exultant rebel yells of my own.

(Many thanks to my mom for the details from which this account was written, and for checking it for accuracy! I don't really remember that much from my toddler days.)

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