January 16, 2020

The Hurricane.

Island Park, Portsmouth RI. 1938 Hurricane. National Archives.

Gordon realized his 1935 Ford pickup could hit 60 mph on paved roads, but on this shorter route of mostly dirt country roads, 60 mph would damn near shake the vehicle apart. He hated being so far away from his wife all day, but knew he was lucky to have a job, despite the nation’s depression and high unemployment rate. But he still didn’t like it. 

He noticed something was different that afternoon when the sky turned a sickly yellow and the light breezes started whipping up. His war injury had been trying its best to warn him bad weather was coming, but the weather report on WPRO-AM disagreed, predicting only more of the same muggy weather and perhaps a slight chance of rain.  

As the skies began getting darker, Gordon shook his head with the realization he and his shoulder could do a better job at predicting the day’s weather than any fancy scientist.

Peering out of his driver-side window, he noticed flocks of birds flying north. He decided he’d go a little faster and hoped Henry Ford had made the truck sturdy enough to withstand the beating it was about to receive, meanwhile saying a little prayer he wouldn’t have to borrow money to cover any major repairs.

Unknown to Gordon, forty miles south of him, vacationing families living near the beach and in low-lying areas were able to get to their roofs as the water level very rapidly rose over two stories. Thankfully, he didn’t find out until days later that the Gincardos, longtime Bendett family friends, were spending the last remnants of warm weather at their beach cottage. They barely made it to the top floor and would’ve drowned in the roiling waters if the porch roof hadn’t peeled off and provided a makeshift life raft.

Beach Homes washed Out. 1938 Hurricane. National Archives

Gordon was extremely nervous. He had lived through the category-five Labor Day hurricane when it struck Florida. Prior to separating from the Army in September of 1935, he was temporarily stationed at Fort McPherson in Atlanta and had volunteered to assist with clean-up efforts alongside the National Guard, VFW, and American Legion. Visions of the nearly total devastation sometimes appeared in nightmares and made him wary of sudden weather changes this time of year.

Right now, his paranoia was causing him to think of all the worst-case scenarios, especially with the baby due any day now. He stepped on the gas pedal harder, and the truck immediately responding by lurching forward, kicking up dust and rocks behind him, and shaking the frame so much he could no longer hear the radio.

When he started seeing building materials, lawn furniture, street signs, and toys flying past him, he knew his worst nightmare had come true. Rhode Island was experiencing its own weather disaster. 

He was in South County, about twenty miles left between him and his family. It would normally have taken him about thirty or forty minutes to get home, but decided to increase his speed. He figured he could be there in twenty-five minutes tops — as long as the truck held up and God was on his side.

He was horrified to see, off in the distance, a tree flying through the air. All the blood left his face and his heart sank. The closer he got to town, the worse the damage and the more he worried about his wife.

Unknown to him, the hundred-foot-high storm surge had rolled through the beaches and downtown and had continued to advance up the Providence River, slamming into downtown Providence, destroying city docks, washing out shops, and killing many customers and pedestrians.

Flooding Providence Business District. 1938 Hurricane National Archives

Shoppers had been sucked out of the stores through broken show windows, and he watched in horror as a piece of sheet metal flew through the air, cutting someone in half. Thirteen feet of water flooded most of lower Providence as falling trees crushed people trapped in their vehicles.

Gordon was able to close the gap between him and his wife with only about ten miles left to go. He pushed down hard on the gas pedal and sped faster into the storm while people sped past him in the opposite direction.

While turning a tight corner, the strong winds pulled an old oak tree out of the ground. It fell across the road a few car lengths in front of him. He smashed down the brake pedal, and his truck bucked and fishtailed on the dirt road. As his truck slid closer and closer to the downed tree, he knew this was it. What irony! He had made it through the big war at the age of sixteen only to die at home in a Washington Trust courier truck! In the milliseconds he had left, he promised God that, if He got him out of this in one piece, he’d go to church every Sunday.

Unable to completely stop in time, he was forced to turn the wheel hard and hope for the best. The left side of the truck hit the tree, scraping paint and aluminum from the hood all the way to the rear. The front left tire grabbed the tree trunk and lifted the vehicle into the air, causing it to flip on its side, slide down into the drainage ditch, and land hard on a boulder.

The crash slammed Gordon against the steering wheel and his forehead against the visor and windshield.  He slumped onto the passenger side. Blood streamed from his forehead and scalp and into his eyes and mouth. The salty blood burned his eyes and, along with its metallic taste, brought him back to his senses. He ripped off a sleeve at the shoulder seam and wrapped the long strip of cloth tightly around his head like a bandana, slowing the bleeding.

Atlantic Avenue, Misquamicut, RI. National Archives.

Despite his dizziness, he managed to right himself and stand on the passenger door, pulling himself up onto the left side of the vehicle. The wind had picked up, and he could hear the sickening sounds of the storm destroying everything around him.

Luckily, Gordon’s house was on Tower Street in Westerly, a few houses down from the water tower at the top of a high hill. Because of this, Gordon was confident his house wouldn’t suffer any water damage, but there were plenty of old trees on the property and around the neighborhood that would be ripped out and tossed around, increasing the chances of catastrophic building damage. 

In downtown Westerly, large plate-glass windows moved back and forth like they were made of rubber. A mailman was picked up by the wind and slammed into a telephone pole. Trees planted before the Civil War snapped and flew around like they were balsa wood.

Three Story Home Demolished. 1938 Hurricane. National Archives

Gordon left the wrecked truck and walked slowly at first, trying to get his sea legs, as his father liked saying. The bleeding seemed to have stopped, and he wasn’t as dizzy as he had been. He counted each step and imagined how many total steps remained between him and the warm embrace of his wife, his beautiful, very pregnant wife.

He started crying. Here he was, probably suffering from a concussion after almost dying in a car accident because he couldn’t avoid a fallen tree. He tried to pick up speed, but the wind gusts were so strong, he thought he might have to get down on all fours to prevent his body from flying backward.

He couldn’t stop his sobbing. He was brought up never to show emotion, never to let anyone see weakness in him as a husband, a father, and a grown man. But whatever this storm was going to take away from him, he most feared losing his family, a far greater possibility than losing control of his emotions.

As he struggled to continue walking through the gusts, he thought of every way he had wronged his love — every anniversary or birthday forgotten, every time he had been mad at her and yelled at her, every time he had made her cry. He couldn’t stop the tears and had as much control over them as he did over the wind that was dismantling the area piece by piece.

Pages ( 2 of 4 ): « Previous1 2 34Next »

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: