- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
I was on a highway deep into the New Mexico desert when Hurricane Hugo hit my town. I bent toward the radio speaker, leaning in against the static, listening to a man who was reporting live from a hotel lobby 12 blocks from my house in Charleston, S.C. He was describing how the roof above his head had flown off into the night, how chandeliers were crashing around his feet, how sheets of horizontal rain were slamming the windows. I looked out the window of my rental car: yucca plants, tumbleweed and cactus in the still moonlight, no moisture for miles except the recent road kill. I caught a red-eye home.
I pulled into Charleston the day after Hugo pulled out. Through the wreckage and rubble I drove, crunching over shingles, shattered glass and downed power lines, weaving around fallen trees, telephone poles and road signs, staring up at the obscenity of facadeless houses, naked toilet bowls and underwear-strewn bedrooms with wedding photographs still hanging on the walls, for all in the street to see. Houses that had survived earthquake, fire and the Civil War, torn to pieces or pancaked; stately shingled churches looking like scaled fish. But this is silliness. No metaphor or photograph can catch what this hurricane did. A man can only know it with his guts.
It took three approaches to find a road to our house through which our car could fit. One road was blocked by centuries-old trees, which had been ripped up by the roots and had brought the sidewalk and sewer system with them. Another road was filled up by a 50-foot sailboat on its side. A 200-foot-high crane atop a barge that had been in the middle of the Ashley River two days earlier, lifting sections for a new bridge, leaned against the telephone wire in a lot a few blocks away.
When I did reach my house, I jumped out to survey the damage. I had lost a section of roof. I had lost a pear tree and a wax myrtle. I had lost a garage door, which the five-foot wall of water surging up our street had slapped out of its way, along with some sheetrock and some tools I had never known how to use anyway. Not bad, I thought, gazing at the calamities all around me. It was right about then that I realized I'd lost my manhood in that hurricane too.
"Garrrryyy," my neighbor called, "where the hell were you?"
"Damn right I stayed," said my neighbor. "How could you, being a writer, have taken off? It was the most intense night of my life. Man, I can't believe you left. Decades from now, people here will know who left and who stayed. This hurricane was a test of character." "But...but I couldn"t stay here with a two-year-old and a four-year-old," I stammered, "and with every radio station telling people to get the hell out."
"Nobody's blaming you, having little kids and all," he said. "But what other men did was send their wives and kids out of town and stay with their houses."
For the next week, that was all I heard, three or four times a day. How could I have not been there—to hear Hugo put his lips to our chimneys and howl down them, to feel our three-story houses sway, to turn and run, during the eye of the hurricane, from the frothing wall of water bursting down our street? my neighbor kept wondering. Not exactly in those words, but close, because he's a lawyer and he loves to see grown men squirm. What could I say? I had never been in this old city for a hurricane; I had lived here only two years and didn't know the rules. I dug out a flannel shirt, my ugliest pants and oldest sneakers, and I went out into the muck to recapture my manhood, if by chance I should see it floating by. I helped clear mattresses from sodden houses, a giant oak from a schoolyard, a shattered magnolia from an old lady's front yard. Was that enough to get it back? I wondered. Could I show my face in Charleston a hundred years from now?
There was nothing to do but work. The hungry and homeless were everywhere, and there was no electric power or water safe to drink for nearly a week. Chopping wood, stacking it, sweeping rubble and scrubbing away the pluff mud heaved up from the bottom of the harbor was all a man with a livable house and a guilty conscience could do.