Hurricaned!

To celebrate the coming of hurricane season, here is another long piece. It was the hurricane season of 2004. Florida was hit by four hurricanes that year. Here’s my reflections of those events. Enjoy.

Nasa photo found on unsplash.com

Nasa photo found on unsplash.com

Perhaps one day someone will ask me what I did on my summer vacation in 2004. I will tell them that four major hurricanes invaded Florida, gobbled her up, had a good chew and spat her out, and I was there. Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne left Floridians with a big gulp in our throats and a thank-you on our lips for not destroying more than they did. We got whopped by Mother Nature not once but four times, and we acquired a whole new set of exotic terms for our vocabulary, words like “debris,” “tarp,” and “evacuate,” phrases like “category four” and “hunker down.”

The summer of 2004 was the summer I took up a new hobby. Those whoppers gave me something to plan my weekends around. To check out the storms, I went to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website. It’s abbreviated NOAA. Pronounced Noah. Last time we heard from that guy, he had wrecked his ark on a mountain. That’s what happens when you use a dove for a gps.

Because of all the weather changes predicted for the near future, maybe he’ll start selling arks. One can only hope, because, according to Nostradamus, the entire Florida peninsula will be underwater soon and I’m going to need a boat.

If I had lived in ancient times, I might have thought that Jehovah was doing an Old Testament on us sinners that summer of 2004. Or that Zeus was in a tiff and hot under the collar because some woman he chased rejected his advances. Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne were that kind of storms.

Maybe, if we Floridians had sacrificed a virgin or two in the spring, the hurricanes would have gone off to Texas or Louisiana and left us alone. Then we could have played the “I’m sorry you were hit, but I’m glad it wasn’t us” game we had played for so many years before.

In 2004, Florida was hit by so many storms that the schools here now use them to teach the kids their math and their A-B-Cs. C is for Charley, F is for Frances, I is for Ivan, J is for Jeanne. How many pounds of ice does it take to keep a twelve-pound turkey frozen for six days without electricity?

It all started when the Sunshine State was whacked by the double whammy of Mercury in retrograde and Friday the 13th in August. The meteorologists told us that we had a Charley coming. But I wasn’t worried. I’d been through hurricanes before. I speculated that by the time this Charley of a storm moved through Tampa and reached Orange County, and Orlando where I lived, his winds would be reduced to 75 mph. We could easily survive that. Oh, we might get some tornadoes and flooding, but we would get through it and life would return to normal. Besides Charley wasn’t about to hit Orlando head on. He was headed for Tampa. Just to prove it, the Weather Guys were telling the Tampa folks that it was a-okay to c’mon over to the Central Florida part of the state. Book a hotel room, then see Disney World while they were at it.

Then suddenly the National Hurricane Center in Miami went and revised its projections. I hate it when they do that. And so did the folks who evacuated Tampa. Charley was not going through Tampa after all. He had changed directions. We were given only hours to get ready for the disaster heading our way. It seemed that earlier the forecasters forgot something. Being a him-a-cane, Charley was not about to stop and ask for directions to Tampa. He was coming for us with a bear hug of a gotcha.

Many in my neighborhood put up plywood to protect their windows but not me. I wasn’t about to give in to this Charley-paranoia that easily. Fortunately, and I do mean fortunately, thanks to the encouragement of the local news guys, I begrudgingly filled my gas tank and bought batteries. Considering how battery dyslexic I am, that was hard. To determine a triple-A from a double-A or a D from a C, and what takes which battery, I felt like I needed an advanced degree in battery calculus. So I indiscriminately threw a bunch of the little suckers into my grocery cart along with bottles of water, canned food, trail mix, and whatever else came to mind. That included chocolate. I wasn’t about to experience the chocolate d.t.s.

That Friday afternoon I filled the bathtub in case I didn’t have running water after the hurricane. I checked the flashlights, made sure the battery-powdered radio worked, and pulled the plants inside. I tied down anything outside that was tie-downable. I even packed up some things just in case I had to get out of Dodge in my Dodge and get out fast. I wasn’t taking any chances.

“Charley is no big deal,” I kept saying to myself. You know, that self that is all cocky and confident. Thank God, I listened to all that meteorological pep talk and practiced the ain’t-taking-no-chances.

I brought in the cats for the long night ahead. Have you ever tried to keep three cats in a house during a hurricane? It’s not pleasant to listen to twelve hours of meowing from one cat or another. As soon as one calmed down, another started, pacing back and forth, scratching on the doors and the windows with an I-want-out-and-I want-out-now insistence. They were much more worried than I was, figuring they’d be safer hiding outside than inside the house. I fixed myself some sandwiches and waited. I didn’t have to wait for long, only a few hours.

That evening Charley went from a Category Two to a Category Two-and-a-half, then it passed a Three to a Category Four, then he came ashore. He slammed his fist into Southwest Florida and blitzkrieged through Punta Gorde. He shot up the Interstate Four corridor with one-hundred-and-forty-five miles per hour winds, heading straight toward us. This was not your average hurricane. This was Charley and he was in a real foul mood. He was about to stamp his name on the face of Florida forever.

About 8:30 p.m., a little over two hours after he made landfall, my neighborhood went dark. A crackle and a fizz and the TV screen went fuzzy, then a black screen and no electricity. I turned on the radio to hear the announcer say, “We’ve had only sporadic power outages. But the Waffle House lights are out. This must be bad.”

Heavy winds ripped through Orange County where I live for about an hour or so. It seemed much longer. When you’re in the middle of a hurricane, five minutes can seem like an eternity. Gusts were clocked at 105 mph.

Sitting there, listening to the howling wind outside, I was a category-four type scared and wished I had boarded up my house with plywood. As Charley buzzsawed through Orange County with his winds of fury, kicking butt and pulling up trees by the hair, I prayed, I offered bribes, I cajoled the Great Beyond. Charley was enough to scare the agnostic out of anyone, including me. As far as preparation for a hurricane was concerned, I had seen the light, I was born-again, I was converted to the cult of overpreparation. If another hurricane came, I would be prepared. Charley punched that into my psyche, and I wasn’t alone.

Charley gave our trees a buzz cut, removing much of the canvas that had been some of the best canopy in Florida. He took down many of the fifty-year-old laurel oaks in his path. The live oaks managed to hold out against the full force of his winds and remain standing. Then he was gone, just like that, leaving much of the landscape looking like a war zone.

Finally the weather folks on the radio said the hurricane had passed. I checked the outside just to make sure we had seen the backside of Mr. Charley. Then I let the cats out and flopped into my bed, dog-tired from the disaster that had just passed, relieved and glad to be alive.

I woke up Saturday morning, still exhausted from the terror of the night before. There was no electricity to make coffee or a hot breakfast. I grabbed a bottle of water to drink and went outside to survey the mess. I felt like a turtle, sticking his head out of his shell, checking out the world, not sure if he wants to see what he is going to see. There were quite a few large limbs scattered across my yard. But my house and my car had survived intact with no property damage. I wiped my forehead and breathed a gigantic Phew! of thanks.

Like me, my neighbors were out checking windows and doors and roofs for damage. Some on my street had trees down and debris was everywhere. As the day progressed, a number of us went into a picking-up-branches, then a raking-the-yard mode. Others brought out chainsaws and the sound of buzzing filled the neighborhood. We felt an urgency to get back to normal as fast as we could.

As I listened to the radio off and on that morning, I began to grasp that no one had any idea of what we were dealing with. The city, county and state governments sounded overwhelmed. Early on, they told us to stay off the roads as much as possible so that emergency vehicles could get around. The airports and theme parks were not open. If Disney World was closed, and on a Saturday too, there had to be some awesome damage. It would be days before we understood how much Charley had done. All I knew was that it was bad because they kept telling us it was bad over the radio.

There were those whose telephone service was knocked out. But I wasn’t one of them. City and county officials urged everyone not to use our cell phones, needing their frequencies for emergency operations. However there were no such restrictions on land phones. I decided right there and then that I wasn’t about to replace my land phone—a nineteenth century technology—with a twenty-first century cell phone any time soon. We used it to call our family and friends in other parts of the country to let them know that we were okay.

I called around and found a restaurant open nearby. Driving to the restaurant gave me a good opportunity to get a little look-see at how the rest of Orlando was doing. It was like driving through a wasteland. There wasn’t a yard we passed that didn’t have some sort of mess in it. Trees were tossed like toothpicks, some blocking streets, others thrown into roofs and through windows and into cars. Most of the traffic lights were out, so we proceeded with caution.

The restaurant was packed. Though we did not know anyone there, there didn’t seem to be a stranger in the restaurant. Everybody was glad to see that everyone else survived. It sure bucked up our spirits just to eat in the midst of all those people.

In the days that followed, problem after problem came at us as we Florida residents continued to dig our way out of the disaster Charley left behind. We were inundated with news of damage control, heavy lifting and boiled water alerts. We heard stories of the elderly who were homeless, and in some cases, trailer park-less. Schools remained closed. The buildings were not safe for their students. Homeowners were confronted with insurance policies that wouldn’t cover their damages because of hurricane deductibles. People scrounged for tarps to cover their leaky, and in some cases completely destroyed, roofs to keep them from further damage. Tarp Blue became the new Florida color.

Saturday, no electricity.

Sunday, no electricity.

Monday, and still no electricity.

At night, I couldn’t sleep much. The humidity was so humid I felt like I was in a horror movie called “The Day The Humidity Killed Us All.” I tried counting ice cubes, then glaciers. This only helped a little. After tossing and turning for a couple of hours, I finally slept but not deeply.

We Floridians started singing the “Got Power” Boogie. Instead of “How was your weekend?” or “How you doing?” our greeting became “Is your power back on?” Everyone I knew found himself with the jitters, better known as Post Storm Fever.

Some good things did come out of that time after Charley’s visit. Without lights, we saw a clearer sky and the stars we always missed. Stars usually washed out by the city lights. Neighbors reacquainted themselves with each other as they walked their neighborhoods, many for the first time in years. One told me her youngest daughter had gone off to college, gotten married, and now had two kids. Then she showed me pictures. I didn’t recognize her daughter.

“You mean that’s little Annie? The last time I saw her she was only seven. Wow!”

Another neighbor said to me, “I haven’t seen you for years. I thought you’d left the state.”

“Now that you mention it, maybe I should’ve. But no, I’m still here.”

Early Thursday morning I woke up to the news. Our electricity was back on. It was like Christmas, New Year’s Eve, the Fourth of July and my birthday all rolled into one. No more clamminess, no more sweating from the humidity, at least not inside the house. It had taken almost a week to get the power back on in our neighborhood. Unfortunately we were only one hurricane down. Three to go.

Just as things were recovering, we began to hear rumors. There was another hurricane, Frances this time, out in the Atlantic about to crash our “getting back to normal” party. We in Central Florida had been unlucky once. In our minds, it would be a freak of nature if we were unlucky a second time so soon.

Florida might as well have put up a sign, saying “Welcome To A Freak Of Nature.” Because Frances was on her way.

There she stood off the coast of Florida, ready to do some serious carnage and mayhem. On a Labor Day weekend too. What a lousy waste of a good three-day, holiday weekend. At least, if Charley and Frances had come during the week, we’d have gotten a few days off from work.

This time I prepared, and prepared some more, until I couldn’t think of anything else to prepare. Again the car all tanked up, a bathtub filled with water, snacks and canned goods, bottled water, working flashlights and a radio, plenty of batteries, several bags of precious ice, cats in the house. I was not taking any chances with this one.

I hunkered down and waited for the Second Coming. The waiting started to get to us. Our nerves were so on edge that many of us Orlandoans suffered from PHSS, Pre-Hurricane Stress Syndrome. You know the storm’s on her way and there’s nothing, not one thing, you can do about it but wait. We just wanted to get the damn thing over, yet she was out there in the Atlantic, trying to make up her mind. Just as Charley had been punctual, Frances determined to be late.

Taking what seemed like a forever to hit our east coast, she kept flip-flopping on the weather forecasts. She was sounding more like a politician than a storm. She just would not make up her mind whether she was going to hit us or not. It was wait and wait and wait, and wait some more. If only Frances would come and put us out of our misery. The sooner the better. I’m here to tell you we were emphasizing the hurry in hurrycane. Won’t you just hurry up and raise your Cain please, we prayed in our agony.

Finally Frances hit land. She hit hard. After almost a week of trying our patience, this giant buzz saw of a killer ‘cane landed around Saturday midnight at Sewells Point near Stuart, Florida. For hours, wave after wave of feeder bands, those bands of rain at the outermost edge of the hurricane, drove through Orlando while Frances pounded a good part of the east coast for more than eight hours before she moved on through the state toward Tampa and Hillsborough County. As she buzzed her way further inland, she made an X-marks-the-spot onto Charley’s pathway and crossed it. Maybe that’s where the pirates hid their treasure in the eighteenth century or where the e.t.s plan to land their flying saucers.

The 275-mile wing span of Frances touched almost every inch of Florida. She showed no mercy. She brought devastation, devastation, and more devastation as she relentlessly pushed toward the Gulf of Mexico, then turned north and traveled up the Gulf side of the Sunshine State. When it was over, five million people were left without power, 2.8 million evacuated, thousands without water or roofs or homes, and health hazards, such as mosquitoes and backed-up sewage, from standing water. If a picture is worth a thousand words, one newspaper photograph spoke loudly of what Frances did to our spirits. It showed a church spire crashed into somebody’s roof like a missile.

By late Sunday afternoon, Frances had passed and the state, the peninsula that is Florida, looked like the aftermath of an alien invasion from “War of the Worlds”. Then on Monday, just as we were beginning to relax, the rains came. I’d always wanted a swimming pool in my backyard but a swamp was not what I bargained for.

Utility teams came from all over the United States to aid us after Charley and stayed to help us through Frances. The repair workers who showed up on our street on Monday evening were a Chattanooga, Tennessee Power Crew. They turned our electricity back on at 8:40 p.m. It had gone out Sunday at 1:30 a.m., a little over forty-three hours earlier. Since then, I have had a deep affection for Chattanooga.

In a few days, the water in my back yard receded. My life began to feel like normal again. But what about all those others who were still suffering? In my gratitude, a bit of guilt slid in. There were still many without power and water. And there were soon to be more than ever. We were about to face another terror.

We spent a week tracking Hurricane Ivan. He was out in the Gulf of Mexico, holding steady, building up his strength. He wanted to do his bit to spread the love and make sure all parts of the Sunshine State received a piece of the destruction. On September 16, he made landfall and pounded the Florida Panhandle with 130 mph winds. This time Central Florida was spared but Ivan’s wrath left the Panhandle shattered. As I watched the pictures on television, I didn’t think so much about how awful he was. Rather when was the pain going to stop?

After three huge storms, it should have been obvious to Homeland Security and the FEMA folks that the State of Florida had gotten this disaster preparation down to a science. Now we could get on with our lives. But not yet. Not yet. Heading toward us was Ivan Junior, or the Return of Ivan…and Jeanne…and Karl…and Lisa…and who knew who else.

Hurricane Jeanne looked like she was going off to the northeast into the Atlantic and do no harm. But the Curse of 2004 was not over by a long shot. She circled around until suddenly she was coming for us. She was “really packing a hammer.” An audible sigh of “Oh shit, not again” could be heard all the way to Africa. Plywood up…plywood down…plywood back up again. We felt like we were being plywooded to death by these storms.

And now more evacuations were called for. Some had evacuated so much, they met themselves on the way back from the previous evacuation. Some evacuated as they were told, but not nearly as many as did for Charley, Frances or Ivan. Several reasons were given as to why that happened. The one I suspected: we were all exhausted. A month of hurricanes, and major ones at that, and here was another one. Exhausted and angry, we were all beginning to feel like the character in the movie “Network” who said, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” There was nothing we could do but sit back and take it.

All supplied up from the previous hurricane watches, I waited out Jeanne, a storm one shopper at Home Depot appropriately nicknamed the “This Stinks!” hurricane. First the folks at Weather Central predicted that she wasn’t coming. Then she was. Then she wasn’t. Then she was. I found myself singing the Steve Lawrence 1963 hit song, “Go Away, Little Girl,” telling Jeanne that “it’s hurtin’ me more each minute that you delay” going away.

Then Jeanne was upon us. A wiggle here, a wobble there, and here we went again. And there went my house and oops! the cost of my home owner’s insurance and property taxes were going up. At least, that was how I felt at the time. And again I lost power. It went out a third time on Sunday morning at six. A transformer behind my house popped .

As the knuckleball that was Jeanne hit Tampa, I heard one of the reporters on the radio say that he’d seen a large oak split three ways in front of a dentist office. It looked like a giant cavity. Again and again stories like that came out over the news. We were all frightened, very frightened. Then there were the tornadoes. And water, water everywhere. The Orlando Sentinel carried the headlines: “Slammed again” and “The hurricane that ate Florida.”

On Monday night at 12:30, I was sitting, reading by a battery-powered lamp. I looked up and out through my front window. The street lights were lit. I had my electricity back on. I had had Christmas three times that year and it wasn’t even December.

It seems that the third time was a charm in the karmic scheme of things. There would be no more hurricanes for Orlando in 2004. After four hurricanes, the Sunshine State had definitely worked off a lot of bad karma. Of course, it is possible, just maybe, all that water washed our sins away. Even the sin of improperly counting chads in the year 2000.

Two thousand and four turned out to be the Year of Another. There was another hurricane and another and another until all the anothers had run out and we were left with blue tarps and debris. Millions of homes had been without power and there were billions of dollars in damage. Something like 83,000 homes had been damaged. That’s one out of five in Florida. Parts of the state that hadn’t been flooded in years were now underwater. At least, temporarily. Yet we survived with only a very small loss of life.

Often, as I lay in bed in the dark late at night, I whisper a thank you to whomever or whatever helped us through that terrible hurricane season. Just before I doze off to sleep, one particular memory comes to mind. It happened the Saturday morning after Charley made his mark on Orlando. I was out in the yard, looking around, feeling so disheartened. Then I saw something that stopped me in my tracks. How after all that destruction, all the fallen trees, limbs everywhere, power lines down, how after all that chaos, I saw a small fragile flower, a pink one, reaching for the sun, blossoming…and all I could say, “Ain’t nature grand.”

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Patsy Finds Love

The creative life of story making can have the most amazing moments of surprise. From time to time, the piece I am working on unexpectedly yields up a gem of a poem or a stand alone short story. Unplanned, this new work comes about because I was listening and trusting the work. Recently it happened to me again. The following thirty-two-hundred-word story came out of the novel I have been working on since March.

Patsy was thirty-five when she fell in love with a woman. When it happened, it was the first right thing she felt she had done in her life.

Pregnant, she married her high school sweetheart, Jack Pendledon, as soon as she turned 18. She lost the baby a month after the wedding. After several years of marriage, the couple settled into a comfortable existence. They took a yearly romantic cruise, but the passion never returned.

When she was thirty, Jack died of a massive heart attack. His insurance took care of his funeral and paid off the mortgage. She sold the house and decided she was going to college. She was going to be a teacher.

In her sophomore year, she signed up for a Beginning Drama class out of curiosity. She walked into the class. There were no desks, only chairs in a circle. The professor didn’t stand behind a lectern as in other classes. She wasn’t even sure who the instructor of the class of fifteen was.

Unlike students in other classes, these students were dressed not casually, but wild-like. One woman was in goth, wearing dark fingernails and black makeup. She wore a transparent black dress that revealed a black bra and panties. One of the eight guys had pink hair and earrings. Some were tattooed up the wazoo. One woman wore a mohawk. Another was dressed as if she were Mary Poppins’ evil twin sister. Patsy felt like she was crashing a Halloween costume party. She went to leave.

“Looks like we are losing our fifteenth passenger aboard our Titanic.”

Patsy turned and said, “What?”

A small man with a goatee and bowtie said, “Looks like you want off our sinking ship.”

The others laughed.

Out of stubbornness, Patsy took the only chair left. It was between pink hair and goth makeup. She wasn’t sure what she had gotten herself into but she was not going to run away. She came from stronger stock than that. But for a churchgoing, cookie baking, suburban housewife, this was a scary place.

She looked around her. The classroom had open windows. A fall breeze squeezed through. She dropped her books next to her chair, settled back, her purse clutched onto her lap, and listened to the bowtie and goatee.

“Now that we’ve gotten that settled, perhaps we can get on with the agenda. My name is Drew. Not Mr. Such-and-such. Just Drew. Most of you are freshmen. We do have a sophomore in here.” He pointed at Patsy. “She’s the one who can’t seem to make up her mind as to what she wants to be when she grows up. The rest of you pretty well know that something in drama is in your future. Either theater, tv, movies or you just want to be the clown in the circus.”

Drew paused and waited for his words to sink in. There were a few coughs. Patsy realized that she wasn’t the only one who was nervous.

“So, students, close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths. Visualize yourself in ten years. Where you are, who you are with, what you are doing.”

Patsy was seeing herself in front of a classroom of high school students. She couldn’t figure out what she was teaching but she was teaching.

Drew let the vision sink in. He let the students enjoy their little adventure. Then, “Now imagine a stick of dynamite blowing up that scene. Ka Pow!”

Several opened their eyes. They were thinking, “Why the hell did you do that?”

Drew clapped his hands. “Wake up people.” He was standing in the middle of the circle. “Get the hell out of my space. Don’t come back until you are ready to have your dreams fall apart.”

The students got up and walked despondently out into the hallway. One held back. It was Patsy.

Drew looked hard at this woman in her early thirties. “What are you doing? Get out of here.”

“No,” she said.

“NO?”

“No,” she said in a sinking timid voice. She felt like crying but she had done that way too much in her life. She did not leave. She shrank in her chair.

Drew walked out of the room, frustrated and wondering who this freak was.

Patsy stared out the open window. The oak trees canopied the campus park-like. The autumn leaves were still green but would be coloring soon. The breeze felt good against her face. She swiped the tears from her eyes. She didn’t care what was going to happen. She was not going anywhere. She belonged where she was. She didn’t imagine or daydream herself anywhere else. She just sat.

Thirty minutes later, Drew Baker slipped back into his classroom. He watched Patsy with a curiosity he usually didn’t have for any of his students. For the ten years since he had left Broadway and come to this classroom, he had never come across a student like this one. Tears began to flow from his eyes. He had finally found a real, live student who would empty themselves of all their previous lives to become a totally new person.

“Patsy,” he whispered from across the room.

Patsy’s eyes turned toward her teacher. “Yes?” she said.

“Thank you,” he said. These were the only words he could get out. Then he followed those words with the most welcoming of words. “I’ll see you in the small theater Wednesday morning at 10. You think you can be there?”

She nodded yes.

Drew Baker left the room. Patsy gathered up her things and walked outside into the hallway. It was empty.

Nine other students joined Patsy in the small theater Wednesday morning. Five had dropped out.

The ten students took seats on the chairs in the circle down front. From the rear of the theater Drew Baker yelled at his students, “Did anyone tell you that you could sit?”

The students stood up as the teacher ran down the aisle, yelling, “Did anyone tell you to sit? Huh, huh, huh.” He went past the group and climbed up onto the stage and looked down on them. “Has anyone here earned the right to sit?”

A tall eighteen-year-old male student said to the others, “I’m out of here. This guy is nuts.” He started walking toward the exit.

Drew said, “That’s right. Get out of my class. Go back to your momma and bitch.” The exit door slammed close. “The rest of you. Up here.”

The students held back.

“C’mon. Hurry. Hurry. Hurry.”

The nine climbed the stairs at the side to the stage and stood before him.

Drew went up to each of his students and sized the student up for several minutes. He said, “You’ll do.” And moved on to the next student. When he was done, he went back to the front of the group and faced them.

The teacher continued, “I want you to spend the next hour exploring inside this theater. Don’t partner up. Understand?”

The students timidly said, “Yes.”

“You cannot leave the theater. Under any circumstance. You understand?”

They nodded their agreement.

The teacher left the group. One went toward the back of the auditorium. Another started walking up and down the stage. Still another headed to the actor’s dressing room. Each did their own thing. Patsy went backstage and found that there was a basement. In the basement, she found a costume room and another room with props and scenery.

About forty-five minutes later, the fire alarm went off. The students gathered on the stage, trying to figure out where the fire was coming from. Paul, a student with tattoos, jumped down from the stage and headed toward the exit.

Fae, the goth woman, called after him, “Where you going? You can’t leave.”

“I am not going to stay here and get roasted.” Paul slammed the exit door behind him.

The others looked at each other and wondered what to do. The fire alarm stopped. From backstage, Drew Baker walked out on stage.

“Where’s Buttface?” he asked.

“He left. The fire alarm,” Trey, the pink hair and earrings, said.

“I see,” the teacher said. “He just decided he didn’t want to take my class. Right?”

“But—“ Fae said.

Paul opened the front door and ran down the aisle and up on the stage. Out of breath, he was smiling.

Drew Baker couldn’t believe the arrogance. But he kept himself in check and smiled. “Mr. Paul Gruber, what do you think you are doing?”

Paul answered, “Rejoining the class.”

The other students moved away from Paul like he had leprosy.

Drew Baker walked up to the student. The teacher must have been two inches shorter than Paul. The student shrank with Baker staring at him eyeball to eyeball. “Mr. Paul Gruber, what do you think you are doing?” the teacher repeated his question.

“Rejoining the class.”

“Mr. Paul Gruber, what do you think you are doing?” Baker repeated his question.

Suddenly Paul got it. He had disobeyed the instructions not to leave under any circumstance. Now he had to face the consequences. Paul turned around and left the stage and down the aisle toward the exit. Patsy had never seen anyone so dejected in his life.

Drew Baker turned to the other students. “Tomorrow night at 7 p.m. Here. Now go.”

The eight students still in the class walked slowly out of the theater, not sure what had happened, but glad they had survived. There was nothing they would let stop them from attending the next drama class. On their way to their other classes or events, each imagined themselves as a part of something special. Drew Baker could have told any of the group to jump off a cliff and they would have done it.

That evening Patsy was studying in her dorm room alone. There was a knock on the door. She opened it. There stood Drew Baker. “Drew?” she said, surprised to see him.

“May I come in?”

“Of course.” Patsy opened the door further. She invited him to sit at her desk.

He took the chair and turned it around and straddled its back. “Sit,” he said, pointing to the bed.

Patsy did what she was told. She looked confused.

“Do you have something you want to ask me?” he asked Patsy.

“Yes, sir,” she answered.

“Don’t call me Sir. My name is Drew.”

“Yes, Drew.”

“Go ahead.”

“What’s going on?”

“Good. I like that. You don’t mess around. You get right to the point. Don’t like to waste time, do you?”

“No.”

“You don’t like my methods, do you?”

“No, Drew. I don’t.”

“Good. That’s good. You are willing to face your fears. What do you think I am doing?”

“I really don’t know. I just want to know. Am I wasting my time?”

“Do you think you are wasting your time?”

Patsy thought for a couple of minutes. The past two classes of Beginning Drama had thrown her off-balance. But off-balance was okay. Then her teacher showed up at her dorm room wondering what she thought. Finally, she answered, “No, I don’t.”

“Good. Very good. Now I have a favor to ask of you.”

Uh-oh, here it comes. Patsy had been through this with professors before. Two had wanted to sleep with her. She had refused. For some reason, she didn’t feel that from this teacher. “Yes, you can ask.”

“I want you to show up to my class at 7:15 pm tomorrow night. Not 7:00. Can you do that?”

Patsy hesitantly nodded yes.

“There will be no consequences. I will just go on with my lesson. Totally ignoring your lateness.”

Drew Baker left.

Patsy didn’t know what to make of his visit.

At 7:15 pm the next night, Patsy walked into the theater. Drew Baker and the students were down front in the circle of chairs. She hesitantly walked down the aisle, feeling the other students’ eyes on her. There wasn’t an empty chair for her. Drew Baker turned to Trey and said, “Will you get another chair and let Miss Pendledon have yours please?”

Trey reluctantly got up and went backstage for a chair. Drew Baker beckoned Patsy to take his place. Trey returned with a chair and joined the circle.

“Thank you, Trey,” Drew Baker said and smiled. “Now I want each of you to give me your impressions of the theater yesterday.”

Drew Baker focused upon each student and listened. No student brought up the fire alarm. After the students had finished, he asked them, “How many of you students think I’ve been sleeping with Miss Pendledon?”

The students were stunned at the question. Patsy most of all. They were thinking it but they were too scared to say it out loud.

“Let me see your hand if you think I’ve been sleeping with Miss Pendledon.”

Slowly all the students, but Patsy, raised their hands.

“What makes you think that?” Drew asked.

Fae said, “You didn’t kick her out when she wasn’t on time.”

“Is that your only evidence?”

Trey said, “I saw Patsy leave after you went back into the classroom the other day.”

“Couldn’t I have requested an academic meeting with Miss Pendledon?”

“Yes, Drew,” Fae said.

Drew then spoke, “Ladies and gentlemen, I assure you that I am not sleeping with Miss Pendledon.”  Then he dismissed the class.

The students slowly left the theater, shaking their heads, wondering what the hell was going on.

The next morning Patsy was five minutes early. The rest of the class was already in the theater, none taking any chances on getting kicked out of class. They weren’t sitting. Mostly they were standing and waiting and not saying a thing. It looked like no one had slept the previous night. Patsy nodded good morning. The others nodded good morning back.

Drew Baker came out from back stage. “Good morning. Please have a seat.”

The students made a semi-circle to face their teacher on stage.

“Welcome to the world of the theater. I suppose all of you have been wondering what the hell is going on. Who is this crazy guy?”

They nodded their heads. There were two or three yeses from the group. Mostly they waited and listened. Drew Baker had their attention.

“Here’s the deal. I have spent the last few sessions weeding out those who think the theater is a game. That it’s a job. That they can damn well show up if they want. If you are not willing to show up and do a show with a 103 degree temperature, you don’t belong here.”

Drew Baker unknotted his bowtie and pulled it off. “Damn thing. I hate these damn things.” Then he jumped off the stage and pulled up a chair. “Circle please.”

They all joined him in the circle of chairs. He scanned each of their faces. Then he said, “I didn’t choose you. You didn’t choose me. You are here because the theater chose you. Some of you may do very well. Have fame and fortune. I can’t tell you which. All I can tell you is that your life will never be the same. This is your world now. Love it and it will love you back. Not with rewards you can see or touch or feel or taste or smell.”

Drew Baker touched his heart. “But here. It isn’t the most talented that succeeds. It doesn’t matter a bit whether you have talent or not. You now belong to a family that goes all the way back to the Greeks and well before that. Since man first lived in caves, there have been theater people. So welcome. You are a special breed. Never forget that. The others that dropped out or that I kicked out don’t belong.

“Now let’s begin. I want each of you to take a turn and go to the stage and face the audience and just look. Pretend the seats are full. Just look for five minutes. Then come back down to your seat. The next person will take your place.”

When the students completed the exercise, Drew Baker said, “Our next class is Monday here at 7 p.m. Prepare to work all night long. One final thing. Please do not share the process you went through the past few days. If I find out that you did, you will be out. And don’t think I won’t find out about it, I will. I always do. Now go.”

On the way out, Trey and Fae pulled Patsy aside. “Patsy?” Trey said. “Fae and I were wondering if you want to share a house with us.”

Patsy nodded yes.

One of the other students, a student dressed like James Dean, moseyed up to the three of them. “Can you take a fourth?”

The three new roommates looked at the student. He looked young, real young.

“I’m 18. Okay? Okay. You can call me J D. That’s who I am.”

The three breathed easy. Fae said, “Yes. We can have four. Let’s go find a house.”

J D piped in. “I have a house.”

“Let’s go look at it,” Trey shouted. The four went through the front door and out into the afternoon air. They locked arms and began to dance through the parking lot, singing.

Drew Baker watched from his second story office above the theater and smiled. “Yep, this is going to be a good group. Maybe the best he had ever had.”

The students were an hour early for class Monday night. They were anxious to get started on their new life.

“Have all of you seen Romeo and Juliet?” Drew said from the stage.

They nodded yes.

“Okay. Everybody scatter out in the audience and take a seat. Settle in and imagine you are watching Romeo and Juliet on stage. Do not sit next to another student.”

Five minutes later, Drew called them back to their chairs. “Describe to me what you saw.”

He went around the circle, each student detailing what they had seen.

Then Drew said, “Theater is an art of illusion. Nothing that happens on stage is really happening. It is a re-creation. Creating this illusion is a work of imagination. You have just used your imagination to re-create Romeo and Juliet. I have four films about magicians on reserve in the library for you to see before the next class. See if you can figure out how they do their illusions. Now, let’s get to work.”

All semester of the Beginning Drama class was refreshing to Patsy. She had never experienced anything like it. By the end of the semester she knew what she would do for the rest of her life.

Thirty-five years later, lying in the hospital bed dying from cancer, she vividly re imagined each class and how alive she felt. Sewing Fae’s costume was the last thing she remembered as she fell asleep. She did not wake up. Fae leaned over and kissed her lover goodbye, then she left the hospital room, crying.

Sarah and the Lighthouse Keeper

Usually, on Wednesdays, I post a piece of my ongoing conversation with “Hamlet”. But this Wednesday is a little different. Today is Veteran’s Day, I thought I would post a short story I wrote several years ago and never published. It is longer than my other posts and I beg the reader’s patience. I hope it is a story you will find particularly timely for today.

“Where’s your nose, Grandpa?” Sarah asked. It was a mid-April afternoon, 1963—a time when most Americans wanted to know what they could do for their country, not what their country could do for them. Sarah, six-year-old, blonde-haired, brown-eyed Sarah, sat on her grandfather’s lap. She ran her fingers across his face, stopping at the open cavity just above his mouth.

The man in his sixties with eyes so blue his granddaughter thought they were made from the Florida sky outside, her grandfather, Henry, gazed into her smile and smiled back. He worked her question over in his mind the way he did the music he played on his violin to get the best sound possible. Just like his wife, Rose, had taught him.

“I don’t have a nose,” he said. Though he had lived in the United States since 1920, he retained a bit of the Southampton accent he had grown up with in England. “I’m a gargoyle.”

“A gargoyle?” Sarah asked as she rubbed the light whiskery growth on his chin. Then she played with the lighthouse keeper ring on his right hand, stroking it as if it were magic and had a genie inside.

“Yes. A gargoyle.”

She had seen gargoyles in a picture book of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. They were gray, ugly things, their heads sticking out of the side of the church’s roof, and they had horns. Her grandfather was no gray, ugly thing, and he did not have horns, not even small ones. She knew. She had felt the top of his head.

“Oh,” he said, “I’m not that kind of a gargoyle. I’m a Gargoyle with a capital G.”

Sarah snuggled against him. Henry felt the question unresolved in her body. How could he tell her, he wondered.

How could he tell her of the places he had tried to block from his memory, places like Armentières, the Somme, Passchendaele where the shrapnel smashed into his face, leaving him without a nose and marked with the name of Gargoyle? How could he tell her of the mustard gas, the fleas, the lice, the God-awful stench from the excrement and the piss and the death filling the trenches day after endless day, of the rains and the wet socks and the slogging through the muck up to his knees, of the shit the British Expeditionary Force called rations, the faulty equipment like the bolt-action rifle he had been issued that had misfired and shot off his toe, and the lampoon of a lieutenant—Little Fuzzy Butt they nicknamed him—he and his buddies endured after a sniper’s bullet killed off their popular Captain Percival Montford? How could he tell her about the guts of his best friend splattered all over him like vomit when Albie was sprayed with machine gun fire, about the horror on the face of the German he bayoneted again and again out of revenge, about the boredom, the terrible terrible boredom that often went on for weeks and drove him nearly mad before the adrenalin rush of the charge over the top and into a no-man’s land? How could he tell her about the shelling, the constant noise of the artillery barrages booming around him during the battles? How could he tell her of the loss of over half of his fellow Southie townsmen, stupidly thrown into hopeless battle after hopeless battle and ground up like hamburger? How could he tell his granddaughter that, forty-some-odd years later, those visions, those sounds, those smells of the Hell-to-End-all-Hells were still with him?

Sarah hugged his thin body, her small arms almost reaching around him. “I understand,” she said.

“You understand?”

“Yes.” She released him from her hug, then slid off his lap and onto the floor.

“You don’t want to talk about it. When you do, Grandpa, you can tell me. I can keep a secret.” She winked and ran giggling into the next room to play with her four-year-old brother, William.

“Dad,” Henry’s daughter said as she brought a tray of biscuits and hot tea into the living room. The tall, slender woman, his only child, carried it over to the coffee table and set it down.

He looked over at Alice as she sat down. There was loss in the eyes of both father and daughter. A deep loss. Henry’s wife, Alice’s mother, Sarah’s grandmother, Rose had died from cancer seven years earlier. Three years after that, Alice’s husband, archaeologist Jack Waverly, was killed in an airplane crash as he flew over the Madidi in Bolivia.
Henry pulled his weather-beaten body out of his armchair, moved over to the couch, and sat down next to Alice. He picked up a biscuit and started on it. Though he had no sense of smell and could barely taste it, he enjoyed its crunchiness in his mouth.

He finished his biscuit and said, “Only your mother could make better biscuits than these.” He poured himself a cup of tea, dropped two lumps of sugar and a slice of lemon into it, and stirred. He raised the hot tea to his lips. Pleasure from teas-gone-by appeared on his face for the several seconds he sipped. Then he set the cup back on the tray.

“Dad?” she said a second time and wiped a crumb off his chin with her napkin.

“You know I can’t stay.” He reached for her hand to reassure her. He would be all right back at his house on the beach close to two hundred miles away, living alone in the white house Rose inherited from her father. “I’m not an invalid. I can take care of myself.”

Alice pulled her hand free. She poured herself a cup of tea.

“It’s not that, Dad. I’m sure you can. But I want you to stay here. With us.”

Henry studied his daughter as she sipped her tea. She had her mother’s features—blonde hair, brown eyes, a long face, a dimple on her chin. But there was something different about her as well. Somehow, when Rose first saw her, his wife knew what that difference was. She knew what a wandering soul her child would be. Alice was the only name they could think of for a girl whom they knew would seek out dark and dangerous places.
Alice had lived up to her name. She was so curious about nearly everything that her friends called her Wonderland. And she was fearless with her curiosity, afraid of nothing. Not even of the rattlesnake she trapped when she was eight.

“She’s such an independent,” Rose often said. As a teenager, their daughter went off exploring and stayed away for weeks, sometimes months at a time. She traveled to faraway places like Teotihuacán, the Amazon, Machu Picchu, Morocco and the Nile. The one place she regretted missing was Antarctica. She swore she would get there eventually. Her mother called this wanderlust of hers a search for enlightenment; Henry called it going into the heart of darkness.

Alice became an expert in primitive architecture and building in extreme conditions. While working on her doctorates in anthropology and architecture, she met Jack in Peru and married him. Then came Sarah and William. It looked like the Antarctic would have to wait, at least, until their kids were grown. Then there was Jack’s death and no more talk of Antarctica. It seemed to Henry that the passing of her mother and her husband had wrung the glory out of her, leaving her with only responsibility. Since then, she had turned into her mother, someone Henry had once overheard her say she would never become.

“I’ve been here two weeks,” he said as Alice finished her tea. He could not understand how she drank it without sugar or lemon or milk. It was such a strong tea she made, and quite bitter. “That was a week longer than I intended. It’s time you drove me home.”

It wasn’t just the solitude he missed. It was the beach within walking distance from his house and the shells scattered along the seashore and the cool, wet sand between his toes and the salt in the air against his skin. It was the giant sea turtles, coming ashore in the spring and laying their eggs. It was the ocean and its great loneliness. Late at night, he loved standing on the shore, watching the horizon swallow up ships.

Then there were the nights he spent with his telescope, waiting patiently for the moon and the planets to cross the sky. Sitting there in his backyard, he studied the constellations, their seasons and their paths mapped out in his library of charts, birthday and Christmas gifts from his wife. Most of all, he was homesick for the refuge Rose had spent years readying for the two of them while they waited on his retirement. Now he was retired.Now she was dead.

Alice surprised him with her next words, a question. “You recall Mom’s favorite proverb?” Then she turned her head toward the next room. “Oh, no. Sarah, William.” She jumped up. “When they’re this quiet, those two are up to something.” She hurried into the family den where her two children liked to romp and play and tumble on the huge teddy bear Henry had purchased by mail order the previous Christmas.

While he waited on Alice, he crunched on another biscuit and finished his tea. A cup of tea and a biscuit always helped him think about things, especially particularly difficult things. He might not settle on what course of action to take, but he felt comforted just the same.
Alice interrupted his thoughts as she returned to her seat beside him on the sofa.

“Those little hedgehogs,” she said. “They’ve fallen asleep and they’re in the Never Never. Anyway,” she said, “where was I?”

“Your mother’s favorite proverb.”

“Oh, yes. I believe it was: ‘The stars are dripping down upon us one by one and, along with them, a little of the moon.’”

“I’ve been having these dreams for the last three nights. Mom keeps appearing to me and that’s what she’s saying. It’s like a premonition, you know. Like the one I had just before Jack died. Something nasty’s about to happen if you go back. I can feel it. So we’ll bring your things down here and you’ll live with us. We’ll do it this weekend.”

Henry broke out in a cold sweat. A panic rose in his chest until it was ready to explode like a volcano. If he moved in with his daughter and her children, Alice would come to depend on him. He would be the one to see that Sarah made it to her first grade class, to make sure William got to his doctor’s appointments and went to kindergarten, to plan parties for the kids, to chaperone them. He might even have to go out shopping. He knew this would free up Alice’s time to provide for her family and allow her to pursue her career, teaching anthropology, doing research and fieldwork, giving papers at conferences. But he would not be able to hide his deformity of a face away from the strangers and their gawking. He had been through it all before and it scared him. A long time ago, he promised himself he would never go through that again.

After the war, and before he emigrated to the United States, he had thought about plastic surgery. That was much too painful in those early post-World War I years. He tried on false noses. They gave him a rash. For a while, he wore a mask but that called way too much attention to his face. The solution he settled on was to keep away from a gaping public, to be seen only by those who accepted his wound without prejudice. Like Rose. From the first moment they met, she intuitively understood his fear and she had protected him. Until her death.

He wiped the cool sweat from his forehead, then choked back the panic and the dread, and shook his head no.

“No need to worry about me,” he said.

“It’s not just that. I really need you here to help with the kids.”

“Why not get a nanny?”

“I’ve tried several,” she said. “They just don’t work out. It’s very frustrating.”

“What do your friends do?”

“They’re either married, or they have family. Dad, you’re the only family I have.” She knew some of what he was going through. But her nightmares gave her no other choice. Henry had to come to live with her. Her intuition had saved her skin too many times for her to ignore it.

“God knows how much I’d loved to come and live with you and the grandchildren, Alice. But I can’t. I need to be alone. That’s the way I am. That’s why I was…am a lighthouse keeper. Because of the solitude. I just need to be alone…” and left alone, which was what he really meant. It was the first time Henry had ever voiced to her anything remotely close to his fears about his face, fears he first felt when he arrived in the hospital from the trenches and saw how some of the nurses reacted to him.

Alice bit her lip, then said, “You mean you won’t live with us. But you’d love it here, Dad. You know you would. You know how Sarah dotes over her grandfather. And William too.”

“No, I can’t stay,” Henry repeated himself and turned away from Alice. Almost as an afterthought, he reached over and picked up the large book, American Lighthouses, off the coffee table. His wife and his daughter had produced the volume of photographs and commentary fifteen years before. Rose wrote the words. Alice provided the pictures.

“Please, Dad.” There was a desperation in Alice’s voice.

How could he refuse her? How could he refuse her anything? This was his daughter asking, pleading, almost begging. From his very first glimpse of her at her birth, he had been deeply moved. What an amazing thing. This tiny being was his child. As he lay depressed in his parents’ apartment after the war, he could never have believed he could be so happy. Now here he was refusing her. He…felt…awful.

A postcard slipped out of the book Henry held on his lap. He set the book down on the couch, reached to the floor, and picked up the card. It had a sketch of the Taj Mahal on one side. It was from his friend, George Drake, who left the trenches and went off to a low-level bureaucratic job in India to help run the Empire for King and Country.

George’s scrawl across the back of the card spoke of the loss of another of his trenchmates. Good Old Philip Carrick was no longer Good Old Philip. He hanged himself while on duty with the Botanical Society at the Darjeeling Hill Station in northern India. Philip simply could not rid himself of the nightmares from the war, the note said. He finally did himself in, another casualty of the Great War.

Henry thought, “How had that card gotten there?” He had last seen it the afternoon he met Rose. That February day had been a particularly hard day of work at Light Station. He had just completed his duties for the day, readying the lens for the night ahead, winding up the cables that powered the rotating mechanism of the lens, and making necessary repairs. It was time for his daily tea break.

He sat in the watch room of the tower with his tea and listened to the caw of the sea gulls outside. His dog, Basset, rested against his leg while he read the postcard for what must have been the fiftieth time. He dropped it on the table and ate a final biscuit. Then he tucked his violin under his chin and ran the bow across the strings several times.

“My God, stop that,” a voice came from behind him.

He stopped and half-turned to see a seventeen year-old Rose, her blonde hair bobbed and under a red cloche. She stood at the top of the granite stairs. She walked over to him. He turned away from her to hide his face as she took the violin out of his hands.

“How can you be so sacrilegious, punishing the world with your lack of musical ability.” It was not a question. It was a statement.

Henry was dumbfounded. He had done all the things the books on violin playing said to do.

“I was just thinking about my friends, George and Philip,” he said. In his amazement at her criticism, he forgot the deep gash on his face. He turned and stared at her incredulously. Basset looked incredulously at her too. Some watch pooch he turned out to be. Henry remembered his face and lowering it into hiding again as he leaned down and scratched the hound’s ear. The girl knelt and patted the dog’s head. Then she offered him her hand. He hesitated, then showed her his face. He was surprised that she didn’t seem to be horrified.

“I’m Rose Hastings,” she said as they stood up and shook hands.

“Henry Todd,” he said and smiled. “I’m the keeper here. And not a very good violinist, I guess.”

“I deliver your groceries on my bicycle. I left them in the keeper’s house next door. My dad owns the general store.”

She slipped the violin under her chin and played. He pulled his chair around to halfway face her. Then he sat down and listened.

Who was this creature who had just plopped down into his lighthouse and was not repulsed by his disfigurement? he asked himself.

She finished the composition and handed the violin to him.

“Wasn’t that a Bach?” he asked, turning away from her.

“Johann Sebastian himself,” she said. She seemed pleased that he had recognized the composer. “His Violin Sonata No. 4 in C minor. One of my favorites.”

He offered her tea, but she gave him, “Can’t stay. Got to get back. Why don’t I come out tomorrow earlier in the afternoon and give you a music lesson? Say, around three. I think you can use it. Otherwise you’re going to push your violin to suicide.”

He nodded a yes. She uttered a “see you” to his back and skipped down the stairwell two stairs at a time, humming a tune he thought might be “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”

Over the next few weeks, her “see you” turned into a daily activity of violin lessons and beach walks and lighthouse painting and Henry began to feel comfortable around her. He liked her and so did Basset, and soon they were engaged. She turned eighteen, and they were married. It was a private ceremony with only her father and a minister present. Her mother had died when she was born. She moved into his cottage next door to the lighthouse tower. There they lived together for thirty-three years.

Henry stared at the postcard again. My God, how he missed Rose.

“Dad,” Alice pleaded. “Look at me please.”

“I can’t stay,” Henry said, turning back towards his only child.

At just that moment, Sarah came into the room, rubbing her eyes awake. She climbed onto her grandfather’s lap. She had white confetti in her hair. It looked like Rose’s long, curly hair after she had let it grow.

“Haven’t I told you, Sarah Roselyn Waverly to keep out of the confetti? We only bring it out for special occasions, and this is no special occasion.”

“But it is, Mommy.”

“What occasion is it, dear?” Alice asked.

“Grandpa’s here.” Sarah hugged her grandfather and whispered in his ear, “I love you, Grandpa.” She relaxed on his lap. “I had a bad dream,” she said.

“A bad dream?” Henry asked.

“I dreamed that you had a nose,” Sarah said, gazing up into his eyes. “I didn’t like it. I like you just the way you are. You’re my Grandpa Gargoyle, and I love you.”

Henry stared into his granddaughter’s eyes and Rose’s eyes smiled back at him.

The Battle of As Samawah

Today I am re-posting a fellow blogger’s post called “The Battle of As Samawah”. It is long piece based on his experiences in Iraq. Don Gomez is an Iraq war veteran and member of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. He blogs at “Carrying the Gun”. Here’s what it is like to be at the front lines in a war where there are no front lines.