In early September of 1960 Hurricane Donna struck New England as a category 2/3 storm. The radio station WBZ announced numerous school closing led by Beaver County Day School and closely followed by my primary school on the South Shore, Our Lady of the Foothills. My older brother and I were happy to stay home. We were new kids in town.
That morning a raging gale howled against our split-level ranch house and the windows vibrated in their sashes. The electricity died at noon and my father lit a kerosene lamp, which he placed on the kitchen table.
Our family of seven huddled around the flame like Neanderthals sheltering in a cave.
Several hours later the howling hurricane abated to a whisper.
“Where are you going?” my mother demanded with hands on her hips, her voice ringing with the authority of a woman, who had carried five babies in her womb.
“Outside to show them the eye.” My father loved a good storm.
“Hurricanes are not a joke.” My mother had experienced the 1938 hurricane. That tempest didn’t have a name, yet hundreds of New Englanders had died in its path.
“I know.” My father shrugged in weak surrender to the truth.
"You act, as if you don't."
Hurricane Edna in 1954 had destroyed his sailboat on Watchic Pond. The hull lay in our backyard.
Six years later he had yet to repair the damage to the mast.
He never had much free time.
Five kids under the age of ten were a lot of work.
“The skies have cleared." My father looked out the window and then back to my mother.
"We’ll only be a few minutes.”
“I wanna go too.” My two-year old brother bounced off his high chair.
"Not a chance." My mother grabbed his wrist. Padraic had almost died at birth from pneumonia. She wasn't giving Nature any second chances and sternly regarded by father. “Only a few minutes.”
"Maybe even less."
"Then go." My mother trusted my father to obey his promise, since he loved her enough to convert to Catholicism.
“I’ll keep them safe.” My father led us outside.
We lived in the shadow of Chickatawbut Hill.
A sultry wind raced through the trees. Branches were scattered across the yard. Overhead a counter-clockwise swirl of the cloud funnel opened to the blue heavens.
“That is the eye of the storm.”
The three of us 360ed on the lawn to gawk at the storm’s awesome power and glory.
Lightning pulsed within the cloud wall like the Aurora Borealis. If my best friend hadn’t drowned a month ago, the cyclonic display would have reinforced my faith in the Almighty. Instead I said, “Wow.”
Rain dotted the walkway. The wind was soon a gale. The raindrops stung our skin.
My mother yelled at us to get inside.
My father lifted his finger to indicate we wanted a few more seconds.
He had fought the Maine’s Great Fire of 1949. I never had seen him scared of anything other than my mother’s wrath. He quickly explained to my older brother and me how hurricanes formed in the tropics. We were 9 and 8. His meteorological lesson was lost on us and the oppressive pressure of the powerful storm weighed heavily on our skin.
“Remember this for the rest of your life. Few people see this.”
My mother’s next demand was an ultimatum.
“If you don’t come in, I’m locking the doors.” She was serious.
“We better do as she says.” My father guided us inside the house. He gave my mother a hug. She was relieved to have us back inside.
The second half of the hurricane stuck within minutes and lasted into the evening.
The weatherman on WBZ radio announced the all-clear message wagon, as we were going to sleep. School had been cancelled throughout New England. My father was excited as a child on Christmas Eve and he whispered, “Tomorrow Revere Beach.”
The beach there was ideal for watching the storm die against land. Giant waves would slap the concrete flood walls with a force strong enough to make the streets shudder with fear.
The boyish joy in his voice kept us awake for another three minutes, for tomorrow promised to be a day of big waves and wild sea spray.
We could hardly wait.