Friday, August 25, 2017

If Harvey Be My Destiny

     Fear can have a different effect on all of us. The best thing it does is to bring out a little courage in a few of us. All of mine takes place in the final paragraph, so you can either stay along for the entire ride down Memory Lane or you can jump right to the end for all of the flowery and emotional language. And there is flowery language. A lot of it. You know I don’t use it in my writing or friendly conversation like this, so you’ve been warned of a first here tonight. As Hurricane Harvey looms in the distance and I sit in my home alone—as I have been for some time now, save for a few pets, while other family members and neighbors are attempting to remain safe from the weather in their own homes—I’m doing the only thing that I can think to do to calm my nerves: writing. Saving this every few sentences and having to pick up after one brief power outage already, I face only the unknown as I discover the confirmation that I’ve been coming down with a cold this week. The timing couldn’t be better as I feel feverish and shaky from a combination of frayed nerves over my fears of high winds; a stomach with intense acid reflux at best, an ulcer at worst; and the overall malaise that a cold brings. But I have plenty of cold medicine, bottled water, and boarded windows. Meanwhile, I have two once-feral cats in here with me very unhappy about their situation. They want to go back outside regardless of the weather. Hurricane or no hurricane, this is a cage to them, and I know just how they feel. Glass windows barricaded, all we can do is wait it out. There’s no possible way to get everything of value off the floor in case flood waters reach inside, and we have to hope that the new roof installed after Hurricane Ike will allow us to remain safely upstairs and dry if it comes to it.

     Up to this point, I’ve been through three hurricanes in my lifetime in two states—Texas and Florida—as well as two floods and numerous tropical storms. I have not allowed time to exaggerate the details of any of those stories. I was lucky. The house I am in now stood through most of those. My first hurricane was Alicia. I was very young at the time and don’t feel like looking up exact dates, but it is one of my earliest memories from about the age of three. I remember my family sleeping behind a couch in the middle of the living room for two days, away from windows and without electricity for several days that followed. Our home was sturdy, so I don’t recall anything more than the sound of thunder through it all. I remember the disingenuous bravery of my parents. They were scared, too. You couldn’t see the ground outside when it was over. Leaves and sticks and debris seemed to be arranged carefully to cover any possible view of the grass or soil beneath it. My family had to detour around a specific road a few blocks away because I cried and screamed if I even thought there was a hint that our car might drive down it. A tornado had mangled the telephone poles that lined this road, and it took several months for their repair. The poles leaned and hung over the road even after the lines were repaired, and it was one of the most frightening images of my childhood memory. Within a month after the hurricane, my mother began to lose patience with me over my frightened behavior, but I did not budge. I was not traveling down that road with anyone.

     Coastal Florida was my home during my second major storm, Tropical Storm Marcos. I was about twelve. This storm did not reach hurricane strength, but a trip to the beach the day before it made landfall was a sobering experience of the power of nature. I was hit by a strong crashing wave on shore and very well could have been swept under, but, thankfully, the wave deposited me right back on land after churning me around in a giant washing machine. I laughed. Part of me wanted to do it again because of the adrenaline, and I can understand the feeling of surfers who face that risk for the thrill. But it wasn’t too bright within an hour of hindsight. In 1994 and 2000, back in Texas, I faced the two major floods of my life. The house I am in now, fortunately, was elevated enough to prevent water from getting inside in 1994, but you couldn’t leave the front porch without being up to your waist in flood water. The flood of 2000 was not as intense and receded more rapidly.

     Katrina doesn’t really belong on this list but feel the need to mention her. My brother’s wife was pregnant with my nephew at the time, and my brother was going through army training in South Carolina. Weather or no weather, time marches on, and his training camp was having a meet and greet weekend visitation that my sister-in-law insisted upon attending. A few days after Katrina had passed, we left for South Carolina, forced to take a number of heavily damaged side roads farther north to leave the state and work our way around Louisiana to South Carolina. Once we took the first detour, everything was black except for the headlights, and the tank was on fumes before we finally hit an area with electricity and an open gas station. We were truly afraid we were going to be stranded on the side of the road somewhere because even a full tank of gas couldn’t make the trip from one side of Katrina to the other. When Rita came along a short time later, my family evacuated. It proved to be unnecessary, but Katrina had everyone on edge. The hurricane was nowhere near as miserable as the time I had to spend confined with a few family members I didn’t want to give the time of day.

     Trees fell left and right when Ike hit, but we stayed. One large oak tree hit my childhood home, slid off the side of the roof, and hit the house next to it. I lost most of my VHS collection to the damage, store-bought and broadcast recordings that can’t be replaced in most cases, but I could have lost much more. That night, I saw one of the spookiest images I’ve ever seen in my life. I saw an orb of light floating in the yard and seemingly unaffected by the heavy rain and wind. It looked like a family member stupidly braving 110mph winds out in the front yard with a flashlight. I was quickly cured of this thought when I saw the light pass through the chain link fence and continue hovering across the yard for at least a minute before it vanished. I became that family member stupidly braving the winds to check on my brother’s dog when the storm began to die down a bit. Like a scene from Poltergeist, I had to fight my way past a tree the wind bent over my brother’s front door. It felt like its branches were trying to reach around me and to pull me off the ground, but I managed to get past it. The electricity went out during Ike barely an hour after landfall, and, for my family, it did not return for two weeks to the day. Fourteen days of sweltering humidity, a hand crank radio, a pocket fan, plenty of batteries, and a lot of reading by candlelight. I was still fortunate. For many, it was much worse. My only friends at the time were online acquaintances. Some were mad when I disappeared and couldn’t get in touch with them. They were justifiably scared that I might have died, but I was cut off from civilization.

     Remembering the difficult parts never comes easy. The saddest image of my life from a hurricane is one that I never really wanted to share, but I feel I should. Just outside of the house, barely a few feet from my door, a possum was wedged in a y-shaped tree branch. It had drowned during the night from the heavy wind and rain, and it looked like it was still alive and sleeping, suspended in the air like a baby in a harness swing. The entire branch had to be cut down with an extended tree saw to dislodge it, and I buried the possum as I would have a loyal pet. It broke my heart to think that I was so close to this poor creature and unable to rescue it from the weather. It’s burned in my mind how this possum must have climbed the tree for shelter and fallen or been blown down onto this branch in just the right position to be trapped helplessly overnight.

     Uncertainty rules the night. The storm is picking up audible strength outside as I type this paragraph, stronger with every temporary lull. It’s the strike of 9PM Central, a time I usually enjoy a great deal on Friday nights. There is no enjoyment tonight. Harvey is making landfall, and several cities closer to the coast are feeling it already. I’m tired and weak enough to try to sleep through it, but I doubt that will happen even though my bed is in the safest spot in the house. I continue to write as I wait for the inevitable power outage. I’ve managed to appease much the anger that inspired me to sit and write this in the first place. There were several things I wanted to say under the heading of “nothing else to lose” and “don’t leave things unresolved or unspoken.” As I said, aside from a few pets, I am alone here. Most of the loved ones I had during past storms are dead and gone. I have not spoken to a few of the online acquaintances I had during Ike for some time, and even a few of them have passed away since then or drifted apart. At first, I felt as though much of what I wanted to say at the outset was simply cursing and lashing out with my emotions, and I could just as well scream it into the storm like Lieutenant Dan. But this first stage of Harvey has given me plenty of time to think about it.

     My flaws, my response to the world around me, and my hopes for something good to come of all the bad happening in the world. Maybe none of it matters that much to convey even in the face of potential disaster. I have to settle, as many of us do, for doing as much as I can to preserve a small area of space around me. Easy access to people and events around the world through the Internet brings with it feelings of helplessness to some and apathy to others, lets others into your life to worry about you and vice-versa. The helplessness comes from wanting to preserve things beyond that small area of space, and the apathy, for some, comes as either a coping mechanism or, sadly, just an inability to care about things over which you have no control. Despite everything I have seen and endured in my life, I still believe in the essential truth that the apathy of the latter only comes from a very small percentage of humanity, even if that small percentage receives the most attention.
     Please take care of yourselves and each other. Oh, and if you’re looking for poetic wording here or hidden messages in the first letter of every paragraph, then I’ll just confirm for you right now that it says exactly what you think it says. I don’t care if it’s hackneyed. It’s from the heart, and it can be my epitaph. Fuck you, Donald Trump. Fuck you, with your “good luck to everyone” on your way to another weekend vacation on our tax dollars while many of us face death and devastation that you, no doubt, will use to your political advantage. Fuck you, Donald Trump, for pardoning that piece of shit Arpaio. Fuck you for your nonexistent wall and your “very good people” marching for a white power America. Fuck your transgender military ban and your administration’s attacks on women, people of color, immigrants, the LGBTQ+ community, and the poor. Fuck Steve Bannon, Breitbart, Alex Jones, Fox News, and all of your other Fake News supporters that have exploited your complete lack of fitness as a world leader to their mentally deranged advantage. Fuck everything else you stand for. And if—and this is a big “if” that probably doesn’t apply because I have known and respected a lot of people for many years, but I’m covering my bases—you have a problem with what I’ve said here, think I’m just being hysterical, think I’m tainting a nice little story about my past experiences with bad weather, or are disappointed in me for buying into all of the “fake news” to prove I wasn’t as intelligent as you thought I was, then fuck you, too. I love you, and I’d still give you the shirt off my back on the street if it came to it, but fuck you. There’s a storm coming. I don’t give a shit about your political disagreements. I’m going to care more about picking up the pieces of my home than any pieces this writing leaves of my reputation. That, if nothing else, is the one thing I couldn’t go without saying with my mortality—and with the inevitable, perhaps countless, and likely preventable deaths that will come of Harvey, citizenship status be damned—bearing down on the state of Texas, its surrounding states, and the people of Mexico. I wanted to say it a long time ago, and I thank Harvey for at least giving me the courage to be open about it. Once the lights go out, at least I won’t have to listen to it for a little while. Or forever, come what may. None of my feelings on that are going to change the slightest when the storm clears, and the power has held out long enough for me to be absolutely sure I mean it. I always argue with myself about making judgments about people I’ve never truly known, but not tonight. I’ve seen enough. I’ve read enough. I’ve heard enough bigoted support of you from the mouths of my own family members. This is on your plate. All of it. I hope 11 million more illegals swim over the border overnight. I hope the news to come is loaded with stories of transgender military personnel rescuing people heroically from the storm. And since none of that really matters to you anyway, I hope you never sink another valid hole at golf, either, you greedy, petty, attention-whoring orange troglodyte.

No matter who you are out there tonight, please try to stay safe.