Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Hurricane of '38

Today, September 21st,  is the 75th anniversary of the Hurricane of '38.  Hundreds of residents of the Northeast lost their lives, 30,000 were injured and 93,000 were left homeless.  Our little 1738 farmhouse on the hill held firm through the storm. Here's how my mother recalled that fateful day in her journal.

 A big storm blew through the first fall we lived in Weston, 1938. It was nameless, for the public relations department of the weather bureau hadn’t yet dreamed up charming names for these destructive storms.  I was at the hairdresser’s when the walloping wind knocked out the power lines. With my wet squiggly curls wrapped in a towel, I hurried home to the hill to cope with the emergencies I knew were ahead.

No heat. I put a match to the logs in the fireplace, and looked thankfully at the woodpile. No electricity. Candles in all the rooms prepared them for oncoming darkness. I removed several frying chickens and vegetables from the freezer, and dropped in a cake of dry ice I’d bought on the way home. No water. The electric pump from the artesian well was knocked out, of course. I worked with the cook and caretaker to man the bucket at the old well. We boiled the water on the gas stove to make sure it was safe, and put large pitchers in each bathroom.

I suddenly thought of the neighbors. Some used electricity for cooking. One of them had a new baby. I invited them all for dinner. By the time I’d rounded up a dozen neighbors, darkness came. Jimmie still wasn’t home from New York. The telephone was out, so I had no way of knowing where he was, when or if he was coming home. While the wind blew ferociously at the big maples, I cheered the refugees with cocktails, until the fried chicken beckoned us to the table. 

At that moment, Jimmie limped in—pale, exhausted and tense. He’d left the City four hours earlier by car, and what with fallen trees and flooded parkways, he’d been fighting the elements all that time. He’d abandoned the car a mile away from home because there was no arguing with the huge elm that lay fractured across the road.

“How did you hurt your leg?” I asked, having visions of my hero felled by a branch, but rising nobly, grimacing in pain, to push on to the homestead.

 “Oh, that,” Jimmie said pulling up his trouser leg and exhibiting a large bruise. “I tripped over a soprano this morning at rehearsal. Hurts like hell. Everything all right here?”

I reassured him. “Everything’s under control. Dinner’s ready, and isn’t the house pretty in the light of fires and candles? Just relax, and let’s have dinner.”

He sank into his chair at the head of the table and relaxed as directed. After he’d served all the guests, he smiled at me. I smiled back, pleased with myself that I’d coped so admirably in the emergency. My hair was dry now, and I knew I looked especially nice by the flattering candlelight.

After dinner, we bade our guests good night, sending them home with leftover chicken.

“I was really worried about you here,” Jimmie said. “So glad everything is all right. You seem to have it all under control.”

“Just fine. Nothing to worry about. I brought dry ice from the village for the freezer. It’s safe for about 30 hours.”

“Well done! And the basement? All okay down there?”

My smile dwindled. “Uh, I didn’t look down there.”

Jimmie’s face tensed again. “But with the electricity out, the sump pumps won’t work!” We headed for the basement.

From halfway down the stairs we could see bottles, cans, jars, baskets and other basement flotsam bobbing gently on the rising tide. “The furnace! The water’s only a half-inch from the oil burner! Get pails!”

Again the help pitched in with buckets, this time to get water out of the house, rather than to bring well water in. By eleven p.m., a kind-hearted plumber with a gas generator had been located. It was hooked up to the sump pumps and chuffed clamorously through the night, saving the oil burner.