The weather lady on television tried to muster seriousness in her voice but failed. She was hired for her sunny disposition and unflagging smile, and the perky way she spoke. She announced Hurricane Donna as if it were merely a fall spate of rain. The truth is, the eastern seaboard was about to experience eight days of terrifying natural violence. Donna was a category five storm that pushed winds of 160 mph and greater. It was 1960 and Khrushchev was pounding his shoe on the United Nations desk he sat at. Francis Gary Powers had been shot down in his U-2 spy plane by the Soviets and John F. Kennedy was about to be elected in the closest race ever to date. But none of that really mattered for those who lived on the Atlantic coast.
Our home was a typical colonial. It had columns and a portico, ivy growing everywhere and even running up the trees and areas of the house. It was a mere 50 feet from the giant bay window of our living room to the 35 foot cliff down to the sound. Straight ahead was Greens Ledge Lighthouse, whose lamp played green and white and its foghorn was a single mournful note that seemed to carry with it the sounds and smells of the ocean. Usually the waves were perhaps four to five feet when the sound was at its angriest, a gentle lapping for the rest of the time. Long Island took the brunt of oceanic abuse and left the sound in its lee to a great extent.
For the first few days of September it was merely unpleasant to go outdoors. The winds were gusting and often drove rain before it that stung as it hit the head and shoulders. Most people just sat at home and weathered it out, as the expression goes. A week into the month saw Donna make landfall, its eye not very far south of us in Darien, Connecticut. It was just after 8 pm and I was watching television –I can’t remember the program, when the light went out. I heard my father swear in the living room where he and my mom were sitting and reading, a good fire radiating its heat from the fireplace. My sister, upstairs, yelled out, asking where the flashlights were. My mother yelled back, explaining they were all downstairs. Both she and I arrived in the living room at the same time. It was lit by the fireplace and had a homey look and felt comfortable in spite of the winds. The winds had been amazing. They howled and buffeted the big, heavy house, making the walls sound with an ‘oof!’ every minute or two. The trees outside, even in the dark, could be seen leaning, their branches twisted at impossible angles, trying to go with the wind.
My mother was on the couch and my dad was looking at her. “Jade,” he said quietly, “you should probably move over here, away from the window.” As I looked, I realized the with each gust, the window was bowing deeply in at the middle. It was a huge window, made of of many panes. It didn’t bow out like most bay windows, instead, its 22 by 8 foot size was flat to the wind, a huge and annoying obstacle to mother nature. My mom got up and crossed the room and stooped to sit on our love seat when a particularly heavy gust struck and the majority of the window exploded into the living room, casting broken glass and wood everywhere. The wind was in the house suddenly, and doors both up and downstairs began to slam, angry ghosts having tantrums through the house. The rain was riding the wind, and in no time our sunken living room had almost six inches of water sloshing around, driven by the gale. My sister screamed and ran to my father who nestled her in his big arms. I looked through the open wall that once was a window and saw that the waves were breaking over the top of the 35 foot cliff, and constituted much of the water streaming into the house as it rode the wind. The noise was suddenly thunderous, the wind a shriek that could bend metal. The fire, one moment a dancing illumination of yellow flames was suddenly dark, the only light the occasional blink of lightning whose thunder was masked by the locomotive winds. I was wide eyed and realized that for the first time ever, I couldn’t see the light house. I sat down on the floor with a splat, the carpeting soaked. I began to cry, but the rain and sea water driving into the house soaked me, and I was able to hide it from my father. For some time after the storm, my dad bragged at how brave I was and I would look at the floor, and shrug off the compliment. I was terrified. But I was also energized and awed by what I was experiencing during the storm. I’d never seen such anger and violence in nature. The stories I saw on television or before the Saturday matinees were unmoving to me. But this, this was God’s own hand and as much as it stirred the air and water, it stirred the soul as well. It wasn’t fright so much as excitement and awe that I felt –plus the adrenaline pulsing through me electrically.
My mother sat on the love seat, oddly calm. She had glass all over her and all around. I got up and went to go to her, but the wind was so powerful it pressed me off course. I staggered like a drunk sleep walker, my hands outstretched, weaving a serpentine course. I took my mom’s hand and pulled at her, telling her to come away from the soaking debacle that was tearing the drapery and throwing pictures from the walls. I remember that she looked at me and smiled; she said something that I didn’t hear. I yelled ‘what’ at her and she said “My little man.” But she came with me and we made our stumbling way to the front hall, and from there into the pantry and kitchen. My father and sister followed right behind. It was oddly quiet in the kitchen. Water covered the floor, debris mixed in made of pine needles, leaves, seaweed and twigs. The water an across the floor and ran down the basement steps, sounding like a water feature as it made its way. Our coats, which hung next to the back door, were dry and my dad had us put them on. He guided us down to the basement and into the garage where we got into his heavy Packard. He loved that car, having been the first ever he bought brand new in 1951. He drove us just down the block to our neighbors house, and bidding us to stay in place, he ran to the front door and knocked with the large brass knocker. It opened and we could see him speaking, then turned to us and waved us up. We spent the rest of the night there, listing to the wind scream complaints and threats it never managed to fulfill.
It took three more days before the weather fully subsided. It took three weeks to fix our home. Like many along the coast, our house lost shingles from the roof, our shrubs were torn up, and we had tons of debris to clean up. As to the interior of the house, Donna produced a makeover of sorts. My parents replaced furniture I’d grown up with, although they selected things quite similar to the items destroyed by Hurricane Donna. New paint, new carpets, new furniture. Of course, a new window as well. The replacement window was made of safety glass panes, but looked exactly like the one destroyed in the storm. As if by a miracle, none of our trees were felled in the melee, a fact most of our neighbors couldn’t claim. In the following summer I earned gas money for my boat splitting the round chunks of trees into firewood for our neighbors. The boat, my brand new Boston Whaler, was safe ashore at Jenkins Boatyard as was the family’s Henry Lures sea skiff, both having been pulled from the water and placed in the racks for the winter. We were among the lucky whose watercraft were spared. Other boats dry docked for the winter suffered as other boats were ripped fromthe water and flung at the rows of stacked boats along the harbor shore.
I learned respect for nature during those amazing and awesome days. Driving around with my family afterwards, we saw many homes damaged by the fury and pounding given them by nature. My father commenting that we got off lightly in contrast to what might have been. Our home was like a jutted chin asking for a knockout punch yet all it suffered was the broken bay window. At least structurally. Art and memorabilia was destroyed by the rain and sea water driven into and through the house. I remember thinking about our friends up on the Cape and the Islands, and wondering how they fared. It turned out they did just fine. And, in the end, so did we.