We’ve got a big storm coming up, they say. At various hours through the day, I check the Weather Channel and grimace. They say it’s going to hit Virginia and the Delmarva Peninsula. I’ve seen enough hurricanes to think that Isobel, the current one, is aimed directly at my ass.
Ten miles east of me, in Sea Bright, just south of Earle Naval Weapons Station and the Coast Guard base at Sandy Hook, stand twenty foot tall protective dikes. The dikes, made of concrete and boulders by the Army Corps of Engineers, did little to stop Hurricane Andrew. My theology professor’s home was washed out to sea, along with a number of other houses. At the time, we thought it was funny. We called the theology professor “Job” for the remainder of our high school years. At night, though, I would think “My god! Nature ate a house.
A year before high school, I had my most personal encounter with a hurricane. My family had decided to take a cruise. It was our first. Actually, it was our only cruise. My father had just finished a large, multi-national case involving illegal tax shelters in Bermuda. One of the consular officials involved in the case offered us use of his villa in Saint George. We agreed – since the British official and my father were on the same side of the case, it was friendship, not privilege – and booked a berth on one of the last rounded-keel cruise ships in the Atlantic. The MS Victory Rose. It was once a British hospital ship during World War Two. A Greek company bought it and refitted it for tourists, laying down a swimming pool, casino, and movie theatre inside the large ship.
We took a chance on cheap tickets in August – peak hurricane season – and sailed out of New York on a beautiful summer afternoon. Near us at the seaport was the venerable lady of the sea, the USS Intrepid, the unstoppable force of World War Two. Eight hundred miles south of us was the ugly bastard that would find us 300 nautical miles off of Cape Hatteras. Hurricane Hugo.
When the hurricane approached, we pretended not to notice. The captain posted an announcement throughout the ship. We would steam south until sunrise of the next day, and then race east to avoid the storm. We went on as we pleased. I went skeet shooting with my father. I harassed the ship’s radio operator and snuck down to the maintenance passages full of merchant sailors from Greece and Georgia, swarthy, foul-mouthed Europeans hidden from the passengers at the casino above. We gorged on Baked Alaskan and the shortbread of high British tea.
By sundown on the second day, the waves had increased to forty-foot swells. We hadn’t outraced the storm. We had sailed into its arms. We continued on, in our own way. I sat in the movie theatre when the rains came, watching back to back showings of “Dances with Wolves” and “FX.” Dinner was a mess. Waiters spilled soup and salad dressing on diners. Some were developing seasickness in dramatic, vulgar fashion. My father himself was ill at ease. We pretended not to notice the vomit bags lined up like Christmastime lumenaria along the deck.
The hurricane hit us with its full force on the third day. We were nearly upon Bermuda, but the swells, merely forty feet tall the day before, were twice as big. The wind had whipped itself up to a constant, 100 mile per hour gale, occasionally peaking at 120 miles per hour. Windows on some decks were blown in. My father was bedridden. My mother spent her day in the ship’s first aid center with Flounder, my baby brother, who was dehydrated from sea sickness.
For most of the morning, I wandered the interior of the ship. I wasn’t the sort that got seasick for some reason. I raided the ship’s kitchen for more shortbread. It was empty. The crew had hurried off to care for the sick passengers. In fact, some of the crew had hurried off to care for sick members of the crew. I was unnoticed.
After lunch, I got the idea to go outside. I had been tempted all morning. Watching the Plexiglas windows rattle and flex in the wind, I wanted to feel it on my face. I wandered the decks, looking for an unlocked hatchway. I slipped of one on one of the top two decks, by a small room the used for the disco.
The wind slammed me against the body of the ship. In my sneakers, I skidded across to the port side of the hatchway until I was stopped by a steel bulwark. My face stung from the rain. I stood there, pressed against the ship, watching the waves. They would roll up and crest yards above my head before slamming down on the lower decks. Half of the swimming pool’s water, a few decks below, had washed out to sea. The wind, for the first time in my life, hurt. It burned and pushed and snared me. It wanted me. I was its claim.
A force more powerful grabbed me by the wrist, though.
“What the hell are you doing?” my mother snapped, yelling over the wind. She pulled me inside.
“I just wanted to see the wind,” I mumbled. It didn’t seem like a good justification, even to me.
“Never. Never go out there again! Not with out your father or I,” she answered.
She smacked me on my cheek. I was surprised, as she never hit me.
“I’m sorry,” I mumbled.
She hugged me close, so close I could barely breathe.
“Oh, T, I was so worried about you. So worried. So worried.” My mother had a hard time having children. My adventurous urges were torture for her.
“I’m sorry, mommy.”
She held me close a minute more, and then released me.
The eye of the storm hit us just after dawn the next day. My mother woke me up soon after.
“T. T, get up,” she said, shaking me.
“What…” I was groggy.
“Come on, honey. Come and see.”
I padded down the hallways, barefoot and in shorts and a tee shirt, following my mother.
“Come on, honey, she urged again. We left my father, reclined, his arms over his eyes, in his misery. We went outside to the aft deck of the ship. It was silent. My ears kept popping from the barometric pressure change. The wake churned by the ship’s twin screws was turquoise. The big diesel engines vibrated beneath us.
“Look,” my mother said, smiling as she pointed aft of the deck.
Dolphins flipped out of the water, chasing the ship. Their graceful forms arced and popped behind us. I was ecstatic. I had never seen dolphins before. I couldn’t believe – couldn’t speak of – that which was before us. My mother ran her slim, delicate, piano-playing hands through my messy hair.
We stood in silence, joined by a few other passengers, watching the dolphins leap and swim behind us. After a while, my mother took me in for breakfast. Eggs Benedict, she explained as we ate, was a treat her family only enjoyed on Easter Sunday. On the day of rebirth.
The ship passed out of the eye of the storm, and we plunged back into rain and darkness. A hatchway slipped loose and took off a crewman’s hand. He was airlifted, in the high seas, in a Bermudan helicopter. It was a French-made helicopter, an Aerospatiale Gazelle, with its distinctive in-tail rear rotor. My mother abided my intrigue, and let me watch the injured man be lifted to the helicopter that floated above from one of the upper decks.
“I don’t know why you find such morbid things so interesting, dear,” she mused, shaking her head. I just smiled.
We docked in Bermuda at the tail end of the day. In the dark, my family shakily made its way down the gangplank and wandered out to the taxi stand. My father and brother were desperately weak from seasickness. My mother was exhausted from taking care of us.
So we’ve got another storm coming up. My family’s older now. My brother’s off to college. He doesn’t need anyone to care for him, at least with regard to storms. My father and I get along better. We spent last night buying plywood and batteries for the home, trading questions in clipped tones.
“Gonna bring up the propane lamps from the basement?” I asked.
He nodded. “Stoves too, I think. You able to help me bring down the deck furniture.”
I nodded. “Stoves will be good.”
My mother made a special dinner of salmon and steak. I’m allergic to most seafood, so I stuck to the steak. My father and I chatted about a book I bought for him about Captain Cook. My mother reminisced about the cruise.
“Remember the Dolphins?” I asked her.
“Oh yes,” she smiled.
“Dolphins?” my father asked.
I shrugged and my mother smiled.
“You missed it, dear,” she said to him.
I tried to suppress a smile and looked down at the dog.
“Oh,” my father said. “Well, anyway, in the book, they’re now in the Aleutians.”
“Oh wow,” I said, envisioning it.
“Yeah.” My father replied, enthusiastically.
“I wouldn’t want to be there,” my mother replied.
“In a heartbeat,” I said.
“Hell yeah,” I said before swallowing her garden-grown green beans. “The undiscovered country.”
“You would?” my mother asked again.
I nodded. She started to reply, and then stopped. She shook her head, bemused.
“Yes,” she said, “I think you would.”