Hurricane Earl cometh. A big blow marching up the east coast from the Bahamas north to Labrador. A circling brouhaha arising out of Africa and bound to shake things on Cape Hatteras, Nantucket, Long Island. And Kill Devil Hills, Duck, Southern Shores, Kitty Hawk, Nag’s Head, Salvo, Avon, Buxton, Frisco, Manteo, Roanoke. And First Landing, Hampton Roads, Willis Wharf, Accomack, Assateague, Ocean City, Long Neck, Cape May, Wildwood.
I must confess a certain titillation (although not sexual) at the thought of being caught in a hurricane. This one will probably miss Washington, DC, but something in my subterranean thrills at the images of flying tree limbs, smashed bonnets of red Ferraris , basements full of brown water, swimming brown rats, water moccasins.
I wonder why I crave thrills like that. On a trip to Europe I sat in a Barcelona hotel and visited with my boss and good friend, Arnie Carston, about venturing to Pamplona to run with the bulls. I was fifty- three-years old that year and a long distance runner and imagined myself donning those white get-ups with the bright red sashes the run-with-bulls people wear as they clamber over the walls and into the cobbled streets; the wild surges of adrenaline like a big cat bounding, bounding out of the chest cavity leaping up over the red tiled roofs and . . . but we were in Spain in June and the Festival of San Fermin occurs from July 7 through July 14 and even though the thought of starring on Spanish national television; hooked, gored, then tossed in a bloody mess against a stuccoed wall was heady, the timing was wrong.
And here, in Virginia, I suppose we could vacate before the hurricane blows in and blame my chance at near death on timing, too. But I will be here in Northern Virginia when Earl (I wish this one had been named Fiona or Gaston, something more exotic) manages to roar by out there in the Atlantic somewhere close, but not close enough to do much damage here. In Vietnam I lived through at least two typhoons, both of which drove us indoors and suspended the killing for a day or two. We stayed cooped up in jarhead-green wall tents and got drunk one night on 200-proof Everclear rice hooch, and the platoon commander whom we sorely despised led a raid on the officers’ mess and we stole big two-gallon pales of vanilla, strawberry and chocolate ice cream, and reveled in our crime and guilt and in not getting captured. In our drunkenness, we planned to murder the platoon commander, but we didn’t because we lacked the guts.
And the first year Betty and I owned our house in Sonoma County, a mid-December brawl barged onshore with ninety-mile-an-hour winds and eight inches of rain in twenty-four hours that flooded the garage, the yard and forced me into much hard digging to rebuild the French drains. The storm belied the benign non-violent reverence with which our little hippy town viewed itself. I secretly pined for something more visceral and vehement and with the storm, at least, I got it.
Once, in 1972, I stood outside in a patch of desert and watched the pending arrival of a July dust storm. I had watched many over the twenty-two years I had lived in Casa Grande, but this one was different. A dust cloud loomed miles high and as it swarmed out of the southeastern Sonoran, the mountains around town disappeared into the maw of darkness like tiny brown knolls. That was one Hades of a summer blow that battered Toltec, Eleven Mile Corner, Eloy, Blackwater, Sacaton, Santan, Casa Blanca, Stanfield, Peters’ Corner, Mobile. The sharp scent of wet greasewood mixed with the taste of dampened dust. When it smacked into us, it removed roofs, destroyed elm trees and Aleppo pines, shoved house trailers off their foundations and flooded the local Napa auto-parts store. The low spots in the streets caused my truck-motor to flood as I tried to barge across to the liquor store to buy a jug of Spanada. I recall standing out there as the threat of total darkness loomed just ahead. The pelt of little grains of flying desert threatened to peel my hide, so I retreated. The charcoal tint of the sky made my heart leap, then scuttle down inside my guts. The next morning I ventured out into the scattered leaves and roofing and chunks of old-house siding out Thornton Road, and admired the telephone poles snapped off at the ground and tossed around like pick-up sticks as if a wild tornado had plowed through, throwing half a mile of barbed wire fence. Was a tornado buried in the fangs of that ferocity? According to the weather dudes, no way, but back then we believed everyone, except us young know-it-alls, was owned by the insurance companies who kept all their money in a big brown bag (thank you John Lennon) and didn’t want to pay any claims. Then I got more sophisticated about business and money, but now I wonder if my 1970s simplicity was so off base.
Once in New Mexico, Betty and I lay in our bed in James Canyon and listened to the frightening crash of thunder as it roared off the southern Great Plains into the Sacramento Mountains. Rain and hail berated our old metal roof and shattered my dreams of search and destroy missions. Water poured around the foundation and I thought I heard the sounds of distant combat as the storm barreled west. I crept out into the misty cold of early morning and listened to the breath of something deep and sinister. Bright flashes of light gathered on the bottoms of the storm’s remnants that clouded the yellow-pine-and-red-fir-topped ridges. The shimmering light flipped and punched, retreated, then attacked. I pulled on my Wellington boots and trod down the stairs and slipped in the black mud as I walked down the road and into an open space. Alas, instead of apocalyptic, the fire resulted from someone’s propane tank being stabbed by lighting and a fierce breath of flame leapt into the glowering dawn. I could hear the storm rolling off towards White Sands Missile Range as the volunteer fire trucks arrived and excited men began to yell. I thought about creeping closer, something about the mix of red and yellow flame, waning night, waning storm, waxing mist, the subtle flutter of elation hammering in my chest. But I didn’t. I listened to the men screaming as they tried to stop the momentary holocaust. Out in an adjacent meadow, three black-tailed doe browsed on the new growth of a Douglas fir. Four white-spotted fawns followed.
I wonder about this desire to test the limits of fear and disaster. One August night in Yosemite National Park, Betty and I and our daughter Sarah sat and watched a one-man monologue channeling John Muir’s words, something akin to this: In the furious moment of a winter storm, I leaped from the ledge above Yosemite Falls and trusting my faith, or fate, crashed into the top of a leaning hemlock tree and spent the night there, my arms wrapped around the top of the trunk, feeling the majesty of a hard blow, reveling in the wildness of the wind on my face. Right then I wanted that. I still do.
According to the latest hurricane forecast, tidal flooding is a threat all day. It will be hot, ninety degrees and with all the humidity caused by the approaching hurricane, Friday will be leaky and wan. The air quality will be orange…the sky and the threat level. Dangerous to breathe, if not for the short term, then for the long term. But I doubt the big blow will show much here. I could jump in the car and head east into the cold stare of danger, across the loud mouth of the Chesapeake and on to Assateague, but I have a blog to write, movie clips to edit, poems to read.