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Heavy Weather

Posted on 28 August 2008

By Harvey Jacobs 

After an electronic beep, a red snake crawled across the bottom of the TV screen. Whenever that serpent appears, it trumpets something ominous. This time, the alarm warned of approaching heavy weather. Very heavy—the whole spectrum, high winds to drenching rain, even donut-sized hail and, good luck kids, one of nature’s worst rages, a possible tornado!

The tornado warning was not directed at a trailer park in Kansas. It alerted the North Shore of eastern Long Island. Prime target of the storm was the area just across the water from Sag Harbor. The frantic funnel might be only minutes away, moving fast, in a southeasterly direction. It didn’t take too much algebra to realize that the thing was headed right for us.

We interrupt this potential disaster to digress for a moment:

At first, I was surprised that a possible tornado would aim its possible frenzy at the North Shore before dropping in on the Hamptons. I know the North Shore has been gentrified, that real estate has done very well in recent years, but after all, it’s the Hamptons, not Greenport or Orient Point,  that invigorate Page Six in the New York Post– along with countless (literally) glossy magazines that trumpet our Eden’s glory.     You don’t see too many celebrity/socialite tales of the North Shore, not yet anyhow. They have a way to go.

And since Sag Harbor is now, for all practical–or impractical–purposes, considered a Hampton, one wonders why any self-respecting tornado would decide to squander its fury on the North Shore, however gentrified, before dropping in here?

Well, who can question the whimsies of weather in these days of Global Warming.

End of first digression.

Getting back to our story, aside from social considerations, the red alert made it clear that it was only a matter of moments before we’d feel the brunt of the storm. That early warning TV snake now advised smart people to seek shelter, and fast.

Was it time to unlock the basement bilco doors, grab a flashlight, a portable radio, a bottle of water, maybe a can of King Oscar sardines and get down there to hide out? Thunder rumbles were getting louder by the boom. Flickers of silver lightning slashed the night sky…

Please hold on. It’s time for another digression:

This would be my second tornado. One tornado is plenty, two tornados teeter on the brink of insult. The first hit, of all places, in West Stockbridge, Mass. about thirty-five years ago. Like the Hamptons, the Berkshires were not famous for breeding tornados. In those days there were no warnings. Tornados had no press agents. They just came knocking.

It was in the afternoon. The sky darkened, the wind and rain turned malevolent. There was the trademarked sound of an approaching express train. We knew something big was about to happen.

That summer, we’d rented a barn made of match sticks. It’s best features were a large picture window overlooking a beautiful vista, and a site which included a generous piece of land. 

I’d been working on my first novel. The first draft was done, sitting on a table inches from that window with the postcard view. I could stare at the book and the Berkshire hills with equal satisfaction. When I wasn’t staring, I affirmed a close connection with the land. Fulfilling an old fantasy, I’d planted a garden; corn and cucumbers in neat rows.

Amazingly, the seeds actually germinated. By then, the corn was not quite as high as an elephant’s eye but it was as high as a cow’s udder. Pinky-sized husks had already spouted. Both the baby corn and my baby manuscript were lovingly cared for and well defended. Just as each kernel of corn was unique, each typed page of the work was one-of-a-kind—I’d run out of carbon paper long since.

When the tornado hit, of course first thoughts went to family survival. The barn had no cellar. We could crouch under furniture or squeeze into the fireplace hoping for the best while we waited for our ancient barn to blow away.

The whole event lasted about a Massachusetts minute; it was over as quickly as it came. We were still intact and so was the barn. I shuddered, first thinking of what might have been our fate, flying toward Boston along with the five-hundred pages of a glorious addition to American literature. Then I looked out that picture window toward the garden.  

Alas, while the cukes were indifferent to mayhem, the poor corn was bent and bowed. The stalks looked like strands of boiled spaghetti.

Ignoring some blue sparks from a downed wire, I ran outside, furious that my crop seemed doomed. I bent to the Earth, shoving each stalk back into position, trying desperately to save any salvageable corn children.

A police cruiser stopped at our rural paradise. Seeing a crazed farmer cajoling wounded corn into mounds of mud, one of the cops shouted, “Are you OK?”  I shouted back, “What kind of question is that? Do I look OK? Does the corn look OK?”

The trooper gestured for me to come toward the road, then pointed out at the landscape. What I saw wasn’t very funny. A whole forest adjoining our barn had simply vanished. Houses down the road were rubble. “The tornado bounced right over you,” the cop said. “It destroyed the truck stop just down the road. A million gallons of gasoline are stored there. If that had gone up, this whole hill would be history.”

That tornado was a catastrophe. The cost in lives, and property was huge. We realized we’d miraculously dodged a vicious bullet. The strangest part of this drama is what happened in the next few days.

The Berkshires are host to a pretty sophisticated group of people, tourists and residents. But very soon after the full extent of the storm’s harm was known, people began blaming its victims for their fate. “They must have been up to something weird.”  “They brought it on themselves.” “There are no accidents.” Phrases like that were whispered around towns famous for passing as civilized enclaves, only a short distance from Stockbridge, where Norman Rockwell painted his blissful scenes, and Tanglewood where the world’s greatest musicians brought their magic. The tornado was seen as another kind of magic at work,–black magic.

It was like living inside a Shirley Jackson story.

The idea of random destruction was impossible to accept. The many spared from pain or worse, pointed fingers of blame at shadows. It was a frightening lesson in human nature. Being out of control was an unacceptable notion.

End of this digression.

Now, back to our own possible tornado which, for whatever reason, never happened. Oh, the rains came, great bolts of lightning flared, there were some tiny crystals of ice, a few floods, the usual summer perils– but no tornado. Give or take an electrical failure and a downed tree, the possible tornado turned out to be a storm in a teacup. Or champagne flute.

I couldn’t help thinking what might have come to pass if the storm did hit Sag Harbor.

The iconic movie theater with its splendid sign might have disappeared from Main Street. The slightly shoddy pier could have morphed into an upscale mall. Chain stores like CVS or Ralph Lauren might have replaced our ancient Five & Ten, and who knows what else might have headed out to sea.

Our Town might have become a memory. And it wouldn’t have been called an accident. Certainly not chalked up as an Act of God. Or blamed on good old-fashioned fate.

No, it would have been blamed on somebody, on something done–or left undone. And this time, the doomsayers might have been right. Because, thank the stars, some things are still in our control.

 

Harvey Jacobs’ first novel, “Summer On A Mountain Of Spices,” written in the eye of the storm, is still being read.  

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