Our Happy Place
The green-painted wooden deck located at the rear of our home is, for all intents and purposes, our happy place. When the weather moderates, you can find us—my wife, Elisabeth, pups Ila Mae and Boo Boo, and any assortment of neighbors, sons, stepsons, friends, and mothers (mine)—seated there in our inexpensive aluminum-and-red-vinyl patio chairs (twenty-dollar finds from Home Depot) around the glassed-top table.
For better or worse, our happy place sits between two bodies of water—the Matanzas Bay, six blocks to the east, and the San Sebastian River, three blocks to the west. During Hurricanes Matthew and Irma, the salt water encroached from both east and west to merge in our yard. Last year, thanks to Matthew, the deck was completely submerged. This year, Irma only brought the waters up to the second step.
We have been fortunate. The wooden floors of our home remained dry through both hurricanes—although, during Matthew, less than two inches separated us from the water lapping just beneath the floorboards. Many of our friends have not been so lucky.
Last year, the homes of both my stepsons, Ryan and Christopher, flooded—and this year, Christopher’s flooded again. Flooding during Matthew meant our friend and attorney, Tance Roberts, had to rebuild her St. Augustine home—and this year, during Irma, a tornado struck her beach house, removing its roof completely. Both Mary Urcuioli’s home and her restaurant, Mary’s Harborview Café, a landmark in downtown St. Augustine, flooded this year and last.
The list goes on.
The Southern Red Cedar
But back to our deck, our happy place. Above it, hang the protective branches of an old Southern Red Cedar tree—Juniperus Virginiana, in case you wanted to know. The Southern Red Cedar can live for three hundred years, and we believe the tree that stands at the edge of our deck is nearly as old as the house itself, which was built in 1924.
Last year, as Hurricane Matthew approached last year, we worried for the safety of the cedar almost as much as we did for that of our home. This year, we worried, again, as Irma’s winds howled and the sea rose, covering the tree’s roots in almost a foot and a half of salty water. Without its sweeping branches towering over us, shielding the corner of our home, we would feel naked, exposed to all manner of dangers and threat. And not only is this lone Southern Red Cedar our protector, a sentinel standing watch at the edge of our deck. Its gnarled trunk and twisted limbs also serve as a reminder of the history that surrounds us in our downtown St. Augustine home.
In fact, I often wonder about the things it has seen. Every now and then, I play a game in which I try to imagine what our house and the surrounding neighborhood must have looked like when this tree was first planted, almost one hundred years ago. Sometimes, if I focus intently, I receive flashes from those days—the two-story Victorian home that once stood next door, a young boy in a red cap chasing a ball, an old couple walking along Grove Street, hand in hand. I believe the tree transmits these images, favorite snapshots from its long life in our yard.
Interestingly, during the many years that I have played my “reach back in time” game, the cedar has never offered up impressions of a flooded yard nor of any of its limbs snapped and lying on the ground, both of which we witnessed in the aftermath of Matthew and Irma. In the last hundred years, only one other hurricane, Dora, has brought such wind and destruction to St. Augustine—and that was on Wednesday, September 9, 1964, when I was eight years old.
Remembering Hurricane Dora
In those days, my parents, sister, and I lived in Jacksonville, but my grandparents were St. Augustinians. Their split-level, brick-and-frame home was located just over the Bridge of Lions, at 32 Dolphin Drive, a quiet residential street in the Davis Shores subdivision. During the land boom of the 1920s, the north end of Anastasia Island had been filled with sand dredged from the Matanzas River to create their neighborhood. Floor elevations for most of the original homes, including my grandparents’, were below the present nine-foot building requirement.
Luckily, most of their home was situated on a higher level. Unluckily, the Florida room where my grandfather smoked his Hav-A-Tampa cigars with wild abandon and tapped his brogan-clad feet to Hank Williams Sr. records was just a few inches above driveway level. When Hurricane Dora flooded the entire island, it deposited eighteen inches of mud and silt in my grandfather’s favorite room. Fortunately, his phonograph and all his Hank Williams records survived the ordeal.
I remember Dora very well, my grandparents who rarely visited us in Jacksonville, had come from St. Augustine to ride out the storm with us. As it turned out, our southside Jacksonville neighborhood, Montclair, was without power for over a week, and school was out for two. A young boy seldom forgets such an extended vacation from elementary school. But I also remember the winds of Dora, which reached a fever pitch at our home near the St. Johns River. The winds and power failures were not the worst Dora had in store for us, however. There was the loss—with a sickening crash and resounding thud—of the giant oak tree that fell on our flat-roofed home during the height of the hurricane. The beating of the big tree’s limbs banged at our roof like a wounded mastodon thrashing in its death throes, frightening all of my family, save my father. Instead, the thrashing of the downed tree drove him out into the storm, with a Home-lite chainsaw in his hand, to fight his personal battle with Mother Nature. The wind howled and the rain drove at him in sideways sheets, but regardless of Dora’s ferocity, from inside, we could hear the Home-lite’s ongoing high-pitched whine. I believe my father secretly relished climbing upon our roof to save our home. He was a man who loved a challenge—man-against-nature was his favorite sport.
It took Dad several hours, but eventually, he prevailed, as I knew he would. My mother, on the other hand, was certain his handyman escapade during the raging hurricane would leave her a widow. But, true to form, my father reduced the once mighty oak into a mound of harmless billets, which he rolled with seeming ease off the roof and into a tall pile alongside our home.
The day of Hurricane Dora was one of the few times I ever saw my father in blue jeans and sneakers. For the first ten years of my life, dad appeared each morning dressed in either chocolate brown or charcoal gray western-cut dress slacks, a short-sleeved white Arrow Dectolene shirt, brown suede roper-style boots, and a matching black or brown alligator belt with a small, but rather stylish, silver belt buckle engraved with his initials, H.A.H. (Hugh Alexander Holborn). Later in life, I understood his buckle as a quiet pronouncement to the world, “HAH, I can do anything”—a scoff at anyone who challenged him.
Dad was anything but a fashion maven. However, he always looked rock solid in his daily uniform. In it, he radiated strength and stability. But his sudden appearance in blue jeans, shocked me. Suddenly, he seemed to be someone other than my father. He had transformed himself into a hulk. As our very own Paul Bunyan headed out the back door, chainsaw in one hand and a dirty towel in the other, I held the hand of my weeping mother, attempting, in my best eight-year-old fashion, to quiet her as she whimpered, “Honey don’t go. It’s too dangerous.” I, though, was simply transfixed. My heart leapt with pride as my windblown father ascended the aluminum ladder, biceps flexed, hoisting the chainsaw upwards, to face the ire of Hurricane Dora. Witnessing his courage, I asked myself, “Who is this superman willing to brave the storm to save us?”
The next day, when the storm had passed, he herded the entire family—Marny and Grandpa (my grandparents), my mother, sister, and me—into his green beater Jeep wagon and toted us out of Jacksonville as if we were on safari. Which, in this case, was the thirty-five-mile trip to St. Augustine to see how my grandparents’ home had fared. We soon found that the main Highway, US1, was severely flooded, though, and my father was forced to turn around. Determinedly, he took us on the long drive east towards the beaches, then south along the beach road, Highway A1A, toward the nation’s oldest city.
Hurricane Dora made landfall a mere six miles north of St. Augustine, with sustained winds of 100+ mph. There weren’t many houses in south Ponte Vedra Beach in those days, but of them, Dora took her share, sweeping several beachfront homes into the sea.
Large sections of A1A were completely washed out, leaving giant craters in the pavement, where foamy surf boiled many feet below. We were all anxious, shocked at the destruction we were witnessing. Power poles had fallen, trees lay across the narrow pavement, ditches along the roadbed were overflowing and in places water still covered A1A. At one point, Dad pulled the old Jeep to the side of the road to engage the four-wheel drive hubs. This was a manual process, and he had to get out of the Jeep to accomplish it. Then my father continued his steady progress, and we pressed on towards St. Augustine and my grandparents’ home.
My mother was frightened and inched closer to him along the bench seat, making the springs creaked like brittle old bones. Mom’s voice quivered as she implored, “Hughbey, don’t you think we should wait a few days? This looks dangerous, honeeey.” She sniffled. But my father would have none of it. He loved the chaotic and tattered world we’d entered.
Dad was in his element.
Our Very Own Apocalypse
Driving slowly down A1A, he pointed out to his cringing family one disaster after another. Then he would rattle off all the measures the highway department, the power company, or the poor, victimized homeowner would have to undertake to repair the damage. Even before the relief crews arrived, my father was rebuilding it all in his mind. It was a mental game he played his entire life. To him, the entire world was an erector set—and he enjoyed tearing things down and rebuilding them even better than he enjoyed building them in the first place.
At the time, Dad was a vice president of a large construction firm whose business it was to build the impossible. The company, Continental Consolidated, routinely took on John Wayne-scale projects. Things like top secret military projects, giant power houses, launch facilities at Cape Canaveral, nuclear missile silos in the mid-west, and highways through dense jungles. As we rolled down the highway, my father reveling in every apocalyptic detail we encountered, invigorated by our post-hurricane outing, I could tell he was in his element.
As I look back to that day, my memory of my father evokes Robert Duval strutting shirtless on an annihilated beach in Apocalypse Now. As fighter jets bombard a nearby shoreline, Duval comments to a frightened Martin Sheen, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning. It smells like … victory.” That was my father. He never shrunk from a storm of any kind. The bigger the calamity, the stronger and more determined he was.
Trying my best to draw from his exuberant bravado, lest he think his young son weak, I shouted, “Let’s go, Daddy! This is great!” from the back seat. Everyone, save my father, turned on me with their glaring eyes. If looks could kill, I would have been found in a shallow grave somewhere along Highway A1A. Shrinking back, I focused on Armageddon outside the Jeep’s windows and kept further comments to myself.
Continuing south, we finally reached a spot where the ocean was visible from the highway. I was astonished to view a calm sea. As Dora followed its track into Georgia and Alabama, the winds had switched directions from northeast to southwest, calming the rough waters. But the wind was still strong, and enormous wave sets still crashed over the rooftops of homes that had fallen into the surf. These were chiseled, ten-to-twelve-foot waves, creating magnificent tubes that surfers could only imagine in their dreams. Enormous plumes of white spray peeled off the backs of those perfect waves, as they rolled effortlessly over the rooftops of what had been, just the day before, beachfront homes.
The Angst of Both Coasts
It was an image I have never forgotten, and it has always served as a reminder that the sea lords over the residents of St. Augustine and the rest of coastal Florida—like the underlying fault lines lord over the residents of the west coast, who live with the threat that the Big One could strike at any moment. The anxiety of the anticipation of such a calamity must be like an itch that never really goes away, a chronic tingling just beneath the skin. But, while geologists have warned that a catastrophic quake is long overdue, life goes on, the hope being that the cities will survive a tectonic upheaval—because, for most, the idea of the California coast slipping into the sea seems something out of a Hollywood movie. It would be a disaster on such a scale that the mind is unable to grasp it. And so life on the west coast continues in its predictable track …
In a similar way, we who have made our homes along the coast of Florida become anxious as hurricane season approaches each June, and never really rest easy until after Thanksgiving. But, for most of my life, we residents of Florida’s First Coast have felt as if our geography insulates us from the worst of the wrath of most storms.
The North Florida Buffer Myth
Prior to Matthew, I’d often heard neighbors say, “There’s that bend in the coast. You know the one? Starts about New Smyrna and continues all the way up to Fernandina. That bend, right there,” they’d say, pointing to the imagined map of north Florida in the air between them and the person they were reassuring. “It’s that little sucker that keeps us safe. Kind of acts like an air bubble.” “A meteorological cushion,” the more technically-minded would add.
And, for the last hundred years, save hurricane Dora, those who espoused that theory were, for the most part, correct. But then, last year, Hurricane Matthew rewrote the north Florida hurricane playbook. With a follow-up revision this year, courtesy of Hurricane Irma.
Truth be told, I had bought into the “we are protected” story myself and, on occasion, had drawn a similar line in the air for others to see. And for good reason. Over the years, I witnessed, first-hand, sinister hurricanes making a hard run at us only to see them veer off their threatening tract and leave St. Augustine unscathed. And these were monumental hurricanes, like Hugo in 1989 and Floyd in 1999. But as each came close, it seemed as if the invisible hand of God pushed them away from the shores of Florida’s First Coast.
A House With No Roof
The Saturday following Hurricane Irma, I drove south along A1A to Crescent Beach to help a friend in need. One of many who had turned out to help Tance and Mike Roberts clean, sort, carry trash, for several hours, I worked alongside them to make sense of the scattered belongings at their oceanfront home.
The night Irma came to town, our local weather channels had reported on the numerous tornadic cell formations moving onshore throughout the night. One of those touched down directly on top of the Roberts’ home. In a matter of minutes, the funnel cloud peeled off the entire roof structure—rafters, trusses, and any sign that a roof had once been attached to the four walls of their concrete block beach house—as cleanly as if a team of carpenters had worked for a week to remove it all. It was unnerving to walk through the house while bright sunshine streamed down unimpeded and billowy white clouds sailed through a brilliant blue, post-storm sky where a ceiling should have been.
The twister had touched down at the northeast corner of the home, creating a long diagonal crack in the concrete block, which stretched from roofline to the foundation. Several windows had blown out, a result of the pressure differential between the inside of the house and outside. Other than broken windows and the crack in the wall however, the rest of the home escaped serious damage. Repairs wouldn’t be simple, but a new concrete tie-beam could be poured at the top of the block walls to make way for a new roof.
With the broom and flat spade I had brought along, I began to sweep and shovel sand and broken glass from the back patio and deck, reasoning that, maybe later, Tance and Mike might like to sit on a clean deck, pour themselves a cocktail, and forget for a while they no longer had a roof on their home. For several hours, I lost myself in the meditative flow of “sweep, then shovel,” barely looking up from my task to view the ocean. But as I was finishing the job, I took a few moments to lean against the east wall, the side of the house that had taken the brunt of the tornado’s impact, and look out at the wild sea.
Mike appeared as I was gazing out at the waves and told me that, after Matthew, things looked much more desperate than now, after Irma. I raised my eyebrows, thinking, “No roof seems pretty desperate to me,” but Mike was talking about the condition of the beach, not the house. After Matthew, he told me, the beach was littered with palm trees. “It looked like a bomb had gone off. There must have been a thousand trees lying on the sand.”
I looked around at the relatively clear scene before us and nodded.
A Bad Omen
“But,” Mike added, “right after Irma blew through, we saw this old wooden church steeple buried in the sand, right there.” He pointed to a spot a hundred yards in front of their home.
“What? A church steeple?” I asked, not quite believing what I had heard.
“Yeah, it was made from one continuous piece of wood. Barnacles had attached themselves to it, and the wood was cracked and worn, like it had been adrift for some time. Amazingly, the cross at the apex was still together. A few friends and I tried to dig it out, but it was buried too deep. I guess the next tide took it back out to sea—because, the next morning it was gone.”
He paused for a moment, then said, “Weird, huh?”
I didn’t know what to say. There is something about a church being torn asunder. You just kind of expect a church to beat the odds, to be the only structure standing after a storm. Which sounds lame even to me. And since I didn’t want to ruin Mike’s discovery with my superstitious thoughts, I just agreed with him—“Definitely, weird, Mike”—and let it go at that. But the fact was, the steeple story creeped me out.
The image of the steeple buried in the sand opened a Pandora’s box of ideas I did not wish to contemplate. It conjured sounds of disembodied voices, old tales of voodoo curses, lost faith, broken promises, and the crumbling of a historic pledge that many believe protected St. Augustine’s coastline from mighty hurricanes.
The Turbulent Sea
As Mike returned to his duties, I just stood watching the beach and the charcoal gray ocean beyond. The dark water seemed so angry, currents were running amok, crashing into one another, creating explosions of white caps as far as I could see. I was struck by the chaos, the turbulence, and the dark, deep, brooding sentiment emanating from somewhere out in the Atlantic. A strange scent hung in the air, a different kind of incense was burning that afternoon, and I didn’t enjoy the aroma.
Then, I understood. The angry ocean is an analogy of our times. Everywhere I turn, things are crashing into one another. Hurricane Irma. Hurricane Matthew. The election. Harvey. Maria. Mass shootings. Terrorist attacks. History seems to be acting out a great drama we know little about. A drama beyond our control.
The progression of events on our planet has ratcheted up a sense of anxiety that is difficult to deny, and, to be honest, I feel weary. “Something has changed.” I spoke this aloud, and as I did so, a strong wind plucked the words from my mouth and carried them away before I could even digest their meaning. What’s changed, I asked myself? The climate? Yes, but it’s not that simple. The planet is hotter, but maybe we are, too. Seven-and-a-half-billion people living inside a pressure cooker. The lid’s gonna blow.
I stood another moment wondering, What next? Another hurricane? An earthquake? A war? Nations clashing? Millions more fleeing terror? It feels like history is winding up for something big, and everything is oozing turbulence. Even the sea.
Praying for Superman
Having paid my respects to Tance and Mike, I headed home. On the way back to town, I drove past piles of tree limbs, broken furniture, stained mattresses; past mountains of plastic garbage bags, filled to overflowing; past hot, tired, sweat-smeared people, brooms, rakes, and shovels clutched tightly as they attempted to make sense of the giant mess around them. And when I had taken in as much of the chaotic aftermath of the storm as I could, I thought about our happy place—the deck, and the Southern Red Cedar, whose branches lean down like two big outstretched arms, providing us with comfort and protection.
At that moment, everything seemed to collide inside me, much like the ocean currents I had witnessed earlier. I wasn’t happy with anything—the presence of two hurricanes in less than a year, the turbulence in our politics, the state of our world in general. I understand that things come in waves, good and bad, but I don’t like the way everything seems to be stacking up. I want something solid to hold onto. I want to connect to a happy place and disconnect myself from the world.
Pulling my old silver Caddy, Miss Lillian, into our driveway and seeing our miraculously intact home, I suddenly thought of my father up on the roof of our house during Hurricane Dora, his Home Lite chainsaw screaming away in the howling wind. I thought how courageous he had been that day, how one man had chosen to battle the storm and won. My mother cried, but my father showed us he was our Superman. No cape, just blue jeans, sneakers, and a white, V-neck t-shirt—not to mention two, big powerful arms that could reach down and embrace us all.
I sat in the car for a few minutes, lost in the warmth of that long-held memory of my hero dad. If there were ever a time for a Superman, I thought, it’s now. We could really use a guy like that. Someone to reach out to us, and help us believe everything will be okay.
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