“You are not going out with that boy unless his parents are driving and that's that. I'm not just Spitting Grits here, young lady!”

. . . My father, John Thomas Cravey, USAF, to me in 1956.

In Remembrance of Camille

Tonight as the remnants of tropical storm Claudette track through Alabama and Tuscaloosa, I’m remembering. I couldn’t be at Woodstock in 1969. I was in New Orleans and Hattiesburg, Mississippi, facing Hurricane Camille that weekend. That is all in long-term memory and even 40 years later, the fear is memorable.

My close friend Shirley drove down from near Huntsville, Alabama, to pick me up in Tuscaloosa, and her dad was mad. She may remember different details or remember the experience differently. This is the way I remember it.

I had just finished taking Master’s comps. I was stressed and tired, hadn’t been watching any television, and didn’t really know what Mr. Dowling was mad about. Besides, why did he even know we were headed on a road trip to New Orleans?

We were to stop at Camp Shelby near Hattiesburg where Shirley’s husband Mac and my soon-to-be husband Joe Lee were suffering through Army summer camp. We’d be late getting to the Monteleone Hotel on Rue Royale in the New Orleans French Quarter, maybe midnight or so, and the partying would start in earnest. I don’t really remember.

“Daddy is mad because there’s a hurricane headed for the coast. He thinks we’re being irresponsible or something,” Shirley said.

“Hurricanes are a dime a dozen. What’s the big deal?”

“I don’t know,” answered Shirley.

That was as much attention as we’d give that subject. Until Sunday.

Dancing Weathermen

Imagine Dave Letterman as the weatherman. In fact, he was one in 1969, and his antics typified TV weathermen back then. They were either a joke or joke-tellers. They were mostly silly, standing at a map of the U.S. that had a plastic sheet covering it. They drew on it. They pulled out umbrellas. They danced around. They mostly knew as much about weather as Dave Letterman did. Or as I did. Shirley’s dad probably knew more weather than they ever knew, as he was a peanut famer (and a banker).

Satellites existed, but just barely. They made maybe a pass or two across the U.S. daily. There is a satellite view of Hurricane Camille still in the Gulf, and she is huge. But I don’t remember any reference to or display of it on TV.  (See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yBsHreetAe4).

Meanwhile, at the Monteleone, all bets were on the elevators. Mac and Joe Lee would, and still will, bet on anything. I don’t remember if anyone else stood at the elevator to watch this fiasco. Next stop would be the revolving bar, then the streets.

The details are fuzzy, but we had a great time. Sunday came soon. As I remember, we stopped at Brennan’s for breakfast before crossing Lake Ponchartrain and picking up I-59. I remember that someone was nailing boards to the windows, but that’s always been common practice in warding off hurricane damage.

It was raining when we got on the interstate, and we realized that there was a long line of traffic going our way; the highway patrol was closing the southbound lanes into Louisiana. Did we start taking things a bit more seriously? Did we listen to radio reports?

We must have, because it was Sunday and we were supposed to drive all the way back. I was to start teaching freshman composition courses Monday.

Between New Orleans and Hattiesburg we decided that Shirley and I should stay in a motel and not drive back. We pulled off the interstate when we saw a sign for the Hattiesburg Holiday Inn. Why it wasn’t already full still amazes me. We got a room. I guess we used the room telephone to call whoever to let them know where we were. Cell phones were still in someone’s imagination where scientific means of reporting the weather also lived. As I remember, Shirley got the nerve to call her mother and father in Dothan. I don’t think I ever told my parents in Montgomery that I was going to New Orleans, let alone tell them where I was that Sunday, August 17, 1969.

The Party’s Over

Joe Lee and Mac had to check back in to Camp Shelby. We dropped them off and went back to the Holiday Inn. I parked on the west side of the building. Our room faced south. I looked out the curtains through the big plate glass window and noticed there were dog houses in the back, then a woodsy area. Mac and Joe Lee sneaked back toward the end of the afternoon. The rain was heavy and winds were picking up speed by then. We sat on the bed and played Hearts. We also had the television on. They said they had to be back on base by 11 p.m.

Something about the weatherman must have caught our attention. We started really paying attention, letting go the immediacy of the Hearts game.

“The viewers must pay close attention to what we are saying about this hurricane Camille. We are dead serious. This is a huge and dangerous hurricane, regardless of other hurricanes you have been in. We’ve not seen anything like this in our lifetimes,” the weatherman said in an urgent tone not familiar to weathermen. We had certainly never heard a weather report like this one before.

Maybe they showed a satellite image from the first pass that day, which showed the storm out in the middle of the Gulf. It had to be a lot closer to landfall by the time we decided to get serious. It made landfall at Pass Christian and Gulfport about midnight, I think.

(See NOAA's Web site at: http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/HAW2/english/history.shtml#camille)

By 9 p.m. the weathermen sounded completely frantic. We were feeling frantic as well. Shirley and I would be alone after about 10:30 p.m. After they left, Shirley and I were left to just looking at each other -- until the power went out, leaving us in pitch black dark. The party was really over.

By this time the wind was howling. I had never heard weather sound like this before. The rain was coming down sideways. I remember saying that we’d have to keep the curtains closed over the window in case it was blown out.

We decided that we should try to get some sleep. About then, the power went out.

I lay there, staring into nothing and listening to the fierce winds; it felt like hours passed. I know I was getting scared. I looked in the direction of the window, thinking that thing could come crashing in at any moment. I covered my head.

Suddenly, from Shirley’s bed came a wee, small voice. “Joanna?”

I jumped up with the pillow and blanket. We probably realized at the same moment we needed to get into the bathroom. We must have used cigarette lighters to get in there. It was hot, stuffy, and suffocating.

A Night in the Tub

We felt around for the bathtub, got in, and pulled blankets and pillows around us.

That was about 1 a.m. Camille must have been directly overhead. It didn’t sound like a train. It sounded like all the trains in the train yard colliding over and over and over.

The Rockers rolled around in mud at Woodstock. We spent Camille in the tub until dawn. The winds had subsided enough for us to feel some relief. I remember thinking I’d better find shoes before venturing to the curtains to look out, as glass was probably everywhere.

I crept to the window. Slowly I parted the curtains, waiting for all the glass to fall toward me.

The glass was intact. It was amazing. No glass. No hole in the wall. I peered out. We then decided to open the door. It was raining and the wind was blowing. I would guess tonight that it must have been blowing between 30- and 50-mph. Every dog house was gone. The fence was crushed from trees and debris. I looked at the lot full of cars. Not one was spared. Every one has windows blown out. Tonight I think that my mouth must have fallen open. We later learned that the wind blew 125 mph as Hurricane Camille passed through Hattiesburg.

“How are we going to get home, Shirley?”

“I don’t know.”

We decided to get clothes on, go look at the damage to the car in the west parking lot, and make our way to the front entrance lobby.

I gasped. “The windows are still in the car,” I said. We had windows. But I had rolled the driver side window down about an inch, and the floor of the car was filled with water and the seats were saturated. There was a gash taken out of the front windshield, but it didn’t break the window. We could drive.

We got to the lobby. It was filled with people who had found shelter and were sitting and sleeping on all the chairs, floor space, and up the halls. Miraculously, a waitress was getting everyone coffee that they must have percolated on gas stoves. I don’t think I could forget what she looked like – long blonde hair, about 35 or 40, and weary.

We got our stuff, put it all in the wet car, and drove down the exit ramp to the interstate. We had no idea if we’d be able to make it. The interstate looked like the proverbial war zone. Entire trees blocked two lanes, forcing us into the median ditches. We limped along at 20 or 30 mph. As I recall, it took nine or ten hours to get to Tuscaloosa. But we made it and were grateful. I don’t really remember getting out of the car and into my apartment. I do remember going to teach class the next morning.

Hurricane Camille still holds the record for the lowest barometric pressure, even lower that Katrina. Camille wiped Pass Christian and Gulfport off the earth. They lie in the Gulf of Mexico somewhere. Nearly 300 people were killed.

When I think that two category 5 hurricanes hit the Gulf coast within about 100 miles of each other in my lifetime, I shake my head. When I think how many deaths were the result Hurricane Camille and how lucky we were to have had a bathtub and blankets to protect us, I shake my head again.

We were all novices in 1969, including the weathermen. Experts knew what was coming with Katrina and couldn’t get the attention of the people who could have prevented the aftermath of death, disease, and tragedy. If any American were to let that happen again, having the technology we have to know what’s coming, they should be deported immediately to whatever country would have them.

Special Note: My Patty Cake is hanging on to life by a thread. (See the previous post for an account of what happened to her.) If she doesn't make it, it will be because of the massive infection. I took a towel with Maggie's scent all over it to the vet to be put in her cage with her. I want to think it will help.

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