15 September 2004

"There Are Bricks Flying By"

It was one of those rainy summers through July, then August raised sweltering temps, exhausting for people without air conditioning in three-story homes. In September it began to rain again, until the ground was saturated.

Mary worked through it all in a factory in Providence, RI, on Pine Street. She was 21 and had had to quit school to take care of her mother in 11th grade. When September 21 turned out to be sunny and pleasant, she was almost reluctant to go in that day.

Later that morning the wind picked up, however--it grew cloudy, then dark. Her workplace had big windows on one side of the room so that the lights were augmented by natural sunlight on nice days. Today she had to peer at her work.

Then, in the early afternoon, she looked outside and saw bricks flying, one by one, past the windows. It was raining steadily and then hard, lashing the glass.

She mentioned it to her supervisor, who only told her to get back to work. She was doing piece work at the time and every minute she dawdled meant a penny or two less in her paycheck. When she mentioned the bricks to other people, they only pooh-poohed her. Once she said she was going home early, but was told to sit down and do her work.

A scant half-hour before quitting time they announced, "It's pretty stormy out. Everyone can leave early."

Mary was lucky--she didn't have to take the bus home or walk as always; a girlfriend's brother had called: "I'm coming to pick you up." They had to walk six blocks in driving rain and were drenched by the time they got to the car.

When she got home her mother was frantic. Her father had chosen that day to go up to their vegetable garden allotment and was not back yet. The power was out and Mary's younger brother trudged to the hardware store in drenching rain to buy kerosene for the storm lanterns. At nine o'clock, finally, a voice from the darkness outside asked, "Hey! Where are all the lights?"

It was her father, who had had to take a different bus to get home in the storm and then got trapped downtown as a storm surge flooded Providence. Mary's niece Anna and her godmother had been in Providence, shopping for a dress for the former. They also made it home unharmed.

The place where Mary worked, Coro's, hadn't been touched because it was on high ground; the flying bricks weren't even from that building. Most weren't so lucky, especially if they had a home at the shore.

What Mary--my mom--had struggled home through was the great Hurricane of 1938. The Weather Bureau didn't believe a hurricane would hit New England and did not send out timely warnings. They were sure it would go out to sea. Instead it hit Long Island--to this day the fast-moving storm is referred to as "the Long Island Express"--and New England like a battering ram. It not only tore up the coastline, it roared inland, destroying pine in New Hampshire, a quarter of Vermont's maple trees, and countless little New England tree-shrouded greens. Downtown Providence was submerged under 17 feet of water that had roared up Narragansett Bay, flooded the basements of the department stores and killed shoppers, submerged cars and drowned their drivers, short circuited trolley cars so their horns blew endless ghostly symphonies under the water.

The hurricane of '38 tale was one of the stories I always begged from my mother as a little girl. It was like the tornado in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz or some other fairy tale cataclysm to me, but this one came with photos--we had a "hurricane book" from Hurricane Carol up in the attic that compared the damage done in 1938 and again in 1954--and an "up close and personal" extra. I vaguely remember Hurricane Donna in 1960, lashing the house and tearing shingles from the roof, leaving us under the light of the kerosene "hurricane lamp" for three days.

R.A. Scotti's Sudden Sea, which I recently re-read after purchasing the book in paperback, transports you to 1938--to the salt-air homes on Napatree Point, RI, the hardscrabble farms on Conanicut (Jamestown), the coastal communities of Long Island, and even "Fenwick," the Connecticut home where Katharine Hepburn was spending the summer with her parents and brother. I re-read the book in a sultry setting that was as warm and oppressive as the approaching storm, and blinked and felt lost and disoriented when I finally finished and returned to my own world.

This is a fabulous book, with all the intensity and realism of Larson's Isaac's Storm and Junger's The Perfect Storm, a time machine back to "the last of the old New England summers," and is much recommended, along with Everett Allen's A Wind to Shake the World, which was written in the 1970s. Not only did Scotti used Wind as part of her research, but his narrative equally absorbing and evocative, and Allen knows of what he speaks: he was there. A neophyte newspaper reporter, Allen began his first journalism job in New Bedford, Massachusetts, on September 21, 1938.

(BTW, I have only read the excerpt on Amazon.com, but Willie Drye's Storm of the Century: The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, sounds super as well.)

(YOW! I'm glad I found my copy of the Everett Allen book last spring...it's now going for a minimum of $20. Someone at Alibris wants $619.00 for it!)

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