Daybreak strained through a thin sheet of clouds. I stood on the front porch. A fickle breeze gushed through the tops of the cottonwoods. It sounded like people clapping. A mixture of dread and anticipation made my stomach queasy.
It was September 11, 1961. My brother was seven days old.
We’d been listening to the radio all morning. News of the impending hurricane kept my brother and me home from school. I don’t know where my father or my older brother were. Maybe father went to work. He rarely stayed home from work. I wonder, now, if he and Bobby weren’t helping my grandparents at their home, tying things down, clearing their large yard of car parts and stacks of wood, though why my father wasn’t helping my mother with her tiny baby, I don’t know. Plus, we had our own loose car parts and stacks of wood in the back yard. And there was our wonderful swing-set. I was worried about the swing-set. Who was going to protect that?
My mother called me to come in when the first spattering of rain bit my skin. My anticipation became a trembling excitement. I wanted the big storm to come. It was different. Something new. Something to look forward to. I retreated into the front room and kept my face pushed against the window. I watched as scatterings of leaves danced across the pitted asphalt drive and out of sight. Where was my father? Was my brother Bobby at a friend’s house? My mother didn’t seem to know.
She didn’t seem to hear me much these days. She pressed the baby against her breast and looked sad. I didn’t worry for long, the storm was coming.
The window panes trembled with a rat-a-tat-tat. I pressed my fingers against them. The temperature outside had changed. It was cooler. The rain patted against the glass, coming at it sideways. The clouds were rolling in now, deeper and darker almost like the ocean’s waves as if the world were upside down. The tall trees were doing a jig. The wind only brushing their tops. We had big trees. When I hugged them my fingers didn’t quite touch on the other side.
My father had recently added on to our house with a family room big enough to skate in, and my parents now had their own room with an attached bathroom. So I no longer shared a room with my older and younger brother. I had a room of my own. When they asked what color I wanted the walls painted I said, “Aqua, of course.” And so the walls were aqua, with one wall of wallpaper with ballerinas dancing across it. Curtains to match. And my own closet. I was a princess.
In the process of adding on to the house my father dug trenches in the backyard for the sewer. Brother Jon and I had a wonderful time playing trench warfare. The pipes were only part of the hardship. Our creed was simple: The life of the soldier is tough. And don’t eat the dirt, no matter how hungry you get.
After the trenches were filled in the swing-set appeared. We were thrilled. Now we could swing up and see over the wood fence into the neighbor’s yard. The neighbor was a wicked witch for two reasons. Instead of a cat, she had a stupid beagle that bark-howled all the time. We beat on the fence to make it stop and it got worse. We hated that dog. She also had a huge wisteria bush that grew over into our yard, which was okay by me. It was a fort. But one day my older brother trimmed the vine and tossed the trimmings over into her yard and she screamed at him. That was the second reason why she was a witch. At least I think that’s what my brother called her.
The wind was getting wild by this time. The trees limbs whipped and punched at the ground. My mother pulled me from the window. We had to get on the floor in her bedroom. She pushed my baby brother under her bed a little while she kept an arm around me and my little brother. I was on the outside of that circle by choice, having scooted as far away as possible to keep an eye on the drama outside.
The color turned sickly, first greenish and then almost purple as the wind pushed against the one tree I could see. It lay almost sideways in the wind. The whistling noise grew into a low moan and then into a high-pitched howl. My little brother was fidgeting. He kept pushing against me. It made me mad and I pushed back. But every time I got mad enough to DO something to him, some other noise outside distracted me.
A window broke. I jumped. My mother held me down. She had curlers in her hair. She always had curlers in her hair. But on this day, some of them had come out and bits of her hair stuck out from the tight pin-curls everywhere else. It made my stomach sick when I saw the tears on my mother’s face. I asked about daddy and Bobby. She said don’t worry. I worried. The carpet smelled like baby powder and a strange mixture of dirty feet and the perfume my mother liked. “Intimate”.
Our house was built on a cement slab so we didn’t FEEL the wind inside the house but we could hear it like there wasn’t anything between it and us on the floor. It was like a wild animal trying to get in. I was scared. It seemed to go on forever. Then it stopped.
I jumped up. My mother said, don’t go outside but I ran, out into a changed world. The trees didn’t look so well, drooped to one side. Our sandbox was gone. The swing-set remained but the chains were wrapped around the other parts and our “carriage” the two person swing-part was twisted. Before I could look at much more the wind picked up. Why? My mother yelled. I zipped safely inside.
Back on the floor. My mother told me the “eye” had passed over us, that was only a short calm spot. Now the back side of the hurricane would have to go over us. SWEEP through was more like it. This time the tree I could see from the window twisted backward as the wind whistled into a frenzied howl that seemed louder than the first time. And it took longer. Worse. This wasn’t exciting, or fun. It was terrifying.
But it finally ended.
The days following the storm were cool and breezy, as if nothing had happened.
We came out of it with some broken glass and debris and rainwater on the floor. The baby was fine. My mother’s relief washed over all of us.
Now the exploring could begin. Outside was a wreck. Our garage leaned even more than ever. There was a handy hole in the back wall that we found useful when playing hide and seek. If you used the alley behind our house to count you could sneak a peek at what was going on through the garage.
Some of our fence had blown down. The part between the other neighbor and us, the cowboy neighbor. It took some months to get that fence up and so my brother and I watched as they brought a calf home from their ranch soon after the hurricane. The calf wouldn’t stand. They tried everything to get it to stand. They’d hold it up, prop it up. They even fed it from a bottle. Finally, they must have seen us watching and said something to my mother. She told us we had to come inside. My mother told us later they had to put it down because it couldn’t nurse. It made me ill worrying about that calf, thinking about that poor mama cow not knowing what was wrong with its baby.
I discovered where my father and older brother had been during the storm. They had at first decided to go down to our bay house to see to tying things down and getting the fishing poles, but they didn’t have time. And a good thing they didn’t go. The hurricane touched land a mile south of the bay house. That was where the storm surge was twenty feet. There was nothing left of that neighborhood except the bay house. All the pretty shingle houses – gone. Our ugly ramshackle wood house – fine. Much to my embarrassment, my uncle and father had allowed a tree to grow up through the eave of the roof. They simple added more roof around it. But this eyesore saved the house. While all the other homes were being washed away, leaving only brick chimneys to mark their former places, our house was lifted up and twisted around that tree and set down again. Except for the outhouse. IT was washed away. When they repaired the bay house, they added indoor plumbing. YES!
Instead of going to the bay house, they were caught by the fierceness of the storm at my grandparent’s house, not a mile from our home. It was fortunate they were there. A tree the size of Houston blew down, barely missing their home and while they sat inside praying for safety, the wind lifted their home right off its pier and beam foundation and set it down sideways in the yard.
I always loved the Wizard of Oz movie. I never disbelieved for a second that a twister couldn’t pick up a house and put it somewhere else.
Hurricane Carla was the largest category 4 hurricane to hit the Texas Gulf Coast to that date. Forty seven years later, Hurricane Ike rivaled Carla in size but not in strength. Though a killer, Ike was loosely woven and disorganized. Carla was tight and mean. Ike’s storm surge measured eight feet. Carla’s storm surge measured twenty.