In the Eye
by Deborah Morris
In June of 1984, after my divorce became final, I moved from Connecticut to the North Carolina coast with my two children to live near my parents, who owned the Columbus Motel on Cape Fear Boulevard in Carolina Beach. I was fortunate to find a job as a physician assistant at an urgent care in nearby Wilmington. Susan, seven and mature for her age, and Jonny, a very rambunctious almost two, lived with me for the first few months in one of the larger motel rooms, an efficiency with three beds and a small kitchen. I had made a successful offer on a three bedroom ranch house near the elementary school in August and expected to close in mid-September.
Mom and Dad lived in a two story house at the back of the large motel lot. Built in the late nineteenth century, it had survived several hurricanes, including Hurricane Hazel in 1954, a Category 4 storm that had washed much the small town right off the beach. Lore had it that the storm surge from Hazel came up to the front steps of the house.
For the previous eleven years they’d run the business, each wearing many hats. Mom was accountant and bookkeeper, general manager, housekeeper, laundress, and daytime clerk, and Dad served as night clerk, maintenance man, pool boy, and social director. Mom was brilliant but so shy as a young woman that she’d dropped out of teacher’s college rather than face student teaching. She worked as a secretary after she thought we kids were old enough. Dad was a retired chemical engineer who loved people and enjoyed talking. They made a great team, though I never understood exactly why they had decided on this late career path.
The motel was busy from April, when the azaleas bloomed and the weather warmed, until October when the fish were running and the water had cooled too much to swim. The town was caught in a 1950s time warp, with its concrete boardwalk that ran along the wide sandy beach, and near antique attractions that included a tacky fun house, bumper cars that hit hard enough to cause whiplash, and a shooting gallery with duck targets wobbling along, and bandits and assorted animals randomly popping up. Grandma Buchecker, nearly blind but even more sociable than her son, spent most evenings playing at one of the bingo parlors near the arcades, redneck bars, and boardwalk souvenir shops. Sometimes I’d walk down with the kids after dinner and find her bent over, nose almost touching the cards, as she listened to the calls.
There’d been some real-estate development ─ condos and larger beachfront homes on the edge of town ─ but there were still hundreds of tiny frame cottages, several rooming houses, and dozens of small motels like ours. Active in the Hotel and Motel Association, the local Chamber of Commerce, and the Planning and Zoning Commission, Dad was passionate about keeping the pace of development, especially along the beach, controlled and rational. He hated what was happening in Florida at the time, out of control development with ugly high-rises for miles along the beach.
In early September, my favorite time of year in Carolina Beach, when the tourists were mostly gone, the fishermen hadn’t yet arrived, and the weather was glorious, the kids and I went to the beach almost every day after work to swim or play in the sand, or to the state park to dig clams, catch crabs, or fish. Susan was settling into her new school and I had found a great home day-care for Jonny. After the previous two drama-filled years with my ex-husband, I found the slow southern pace and peaceful setting idyllic.
One day, a Saturday I think, the kids and I walked along the beach picking up shells. Jonny pointed at the horizon where an oddly intense blue sky met the indigo water. “Blue, Mommy. Look.”
“Yes. Blue,” I repeated, struck by the unusual sight.
That evening we sat together in the living room watching CNN, which played night and day in my parents’ house. “The tropical depression that developed in the Bahamas last week has developed tropical storm force winds. Diana is moving to the west and may impact the east coast of Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas in the coming week.” I mentioned the oddly blue sky and wondered aloud if the storm would come our way. During the years that my parents lived in North Carolina, several tropical storms and hurricanes had threatened, but none came ashore or caused damage in Carolina Beach. Some of the older folks, Grandma’s friends, recalled Hazel, but most people were nonchalant about storms.
“It’ll veer back off the coast like they all do and fizzle when it hits cold water,” said Dad, pooh-poohing my concerns.
As the storm moved closer to the coast, I found myself switching to the Weather Channel when Dad wasn’t in the living room. After passing, and not striking, Cape Canaveral, the storm looked like it might come ashore in South Carolina. Diana seemed to be changing course hourly, and the Weather Service kept updating the watches and warnings, but the winds were strengthening and, by September 10, she appeared to be heading towards the North Carolina coast.
Dad continued to ignore the storm warnings. “Pah,” he said, as we cleaned the pool, me in my swimming suit scrubbing the tiles from the water and Dad emptying the leaves and bugs from the traps along the pools edge, “We’ve had warnings before. Nothing to worry about.”
Meanwhile, Susan went to school, I went to work, Mom engaged in deep cleaning the newly empty motel rooms, and Dad continued his routine of staying up until the early morning, watching CNN and C-Span, and sleeping during the day.
Sitting around Grandma’s old oak dining room table Monday night, we talked about whether we should evacuate if the storm was going to hit. Mom said, “I guess we could close and spend a couple of days in the mountains.”
Dad put down his fork and said, “Well, I’m not going anywhere. Someone needs to keep an eye on the place.”
With a wrinkled forehead mom replied, “If you’re not leaving, I’m not.” Mom had never gotten a driver’s license.
Grandma Buchecker, always an adventurous soul, grinned and said “I’ve never been in a hurricane.” Mom frowned. She had almost been hit by a falling tree when she was twenty, during the 1938 hurricane that devastated New England.
“Hmm,” I said, “If you’re staying I guess we will.” I imagined the misery of evacuating to a high school gym in Wilmington with the kids. I had some misgivings, but I’d always liked storms. And I felt like I needed to be there to help Mom and Dad, though I didn’t know exactly how.
“Well,” said Dad, hitting the table with his hand, “That’s settled, then. But don’t worry about it. They always put up warnings.”
Meanwhile the hurricane had stalled off the coast, moving in a circle as if it was trying to decide where to go next.
Wednesday morning I drove into Wilmington for work. The sky was gray and wind was gusting enough to rattle the palm leaves and bend the pines. The on-again-off-again hurricane warning for our area was on again. After the first couple of patients were treated and left, the clinic waiting room was empty. Petra, the lab tech, had called in. Everyone was preparing for the storm. Mom called around eleven to tell me that school would let out early and the wind was picking up. I asked Dr. Joslin if I could leave; he decided to close the clinic and let everyone go home.
When I got to the motel, Mom was dragging an upholstered chaise lounge into the shed. I helped her with the Adirondack chairs and took down the volleyball net in the side yard. She went to wake up Dad as I pulled the wooden benches and chairs along the front of the motel into the rooms. Wind gusts were pushing at me and slamming the room doors hard if I didn’t prop them open. And the shed was out of space with nowhere to put the plastic and aluminum chairs, chaise lounges, heavy round tables, and multicolored metal umbrellas set up around the pool.
Dad came outside, sleepy, unshaven and grumpy. We stood in the gusty rain next to the pool, watching the wind flex the ten foot wide umbrellas and talking about what to do. We decided to push everything into the pool, but we had to fight the wind gusts to keep from losing control of the huge and heavy umbrellas as we pulled them out of pipes set in concrete and toppled them into the water. We could hear sirens and Mom came out to the pool to tell us that the local news reported that the beaches were being evacuated. “Maybe we need to leave,” she said.
“Nah, they’ll come tell us. They just mean the folks along the beach. See, the store is still open,” said Dad. The Columbus Motel was set back a block and a half from the boardwalk, across from the A&P, catty-corner to the small town library and the water tower that stood next to it ─ really a perfect place for Mom, non-driver and voracious reader. She headed over to the store, wearing her rain coat and leaning into the wind, to pick up a few things. She came back with the last package of D cells, a box of Saltines, peanut butter, English muffins, and canned soup ─ no bread or milk left. We rummaged through drawers, closets, and the attic to retrieve batteries, flashlights, candles, matches, propane lantern, and the camp stove.
Dad and I used up several rolls of masking tape making x’s on the picture windows along the front of the motel and the house. I wondered what good tape would do, but it was too late to board up the windows. Dad said he didn’t know, either, but that’s what the other business owners did.
As afternoon turned into evening, the weather got steadily worse ─ windier, rainier. We had spaghetti for dinner and then settled into the living room to watch CNN alternating with the Weather Channel. The kids and I cuddled on the couch while Mom, Dad and Grandma all settled into their recliners. Horizontal sheets of rain and nearly continuous flashes of lightning raged outside the living room picture window.
Glued to the TV, we watched the radar and satellite images as the spirals of clouds moved over land. At 7:00 Mom answered the phone. The owners of Cole’s Motel, on the next street over behind the A&P, had decided to leave while they could still get across the bridge and wanted to let someone know. Mom and Dad had almost bought Cole’s years before, but thought that the Columbus was in better condition, if a little smaller, and they loved the old wooden house. Cole’s had an owner’s apartment in one of the parallel, long, rectangular, concrete block buildings.
Dad turned on his police scanner and we alternated between the TV and the radio whenever the squawks and cop-speak became intelligible. By 10:30 Grandma was snoring in her recliner; Jonny was asleep on a pallet of blankets but Susan was wide awake. The wind howled and the old house creaked on its century-old twelve by twelve heart pine timbers. We heard thumps and bangs as unidentified objects hit the house, but were comfortable and felt prepared, safe. The police patrols on the radio announced that conditions were worsening, and finally that they were returning to the station.
Susan, Mom, Dad, and I heard the CNN reporter say, “As many as a hundred and fifty people are thought to be trapped on Pleasure Island near Wilmington.” Susan turned to me. “Oh, Mom, that’s terrible,” and Mom and I exchanged looks, knowing they were talking about us. She hated the Chamber’s name for the barrier island, saying it made her think of the cursed amusement park in Disney’s Pinocchio.
Then a flash brighter than daylight and a roar of sound, an explosion. The TV and lights blinked off and then on again. The motel sign, which had been lit, was now dark, and a ball of light blazed just outside the living room window, almost hitting the house as it blinked out. Jonny cried out and Grandma Buchecker snorted awake. For a few seconds I was blinded.
The house smelled of burning insulation. Mom said she’d seen lightening strike the sign. Dad got up to go look at the fuse-box and feel the walls in the motel office near the sign’s switch. I comforted Susan who wanted to know what had happened, and patted Jonny’s back as he went back to sleep in his nest of blankets and pillows. Somehow, the electricity continued to work, and our hearts and breathing slowed down. After a while we settled back into our seats, still watching our story on CNN. “The eye wall of the hurricane is about to come on shore at Cape Fear and with winds at seventy to eighty miles an hour.” The meteorologist explained that Diana was now a category 2 hurricane, not the category 3 and 4 it had been just a day or two before out at sea.
That sounded reassuring, but I no longer felt safe. I imagined an electrical fire between the walls and nowhere to go. The wind blew against the front door and we could no longer open it. We could open the back door but there’d be no way to close it. Then what? Flying debris, shingles, and trash crashed outside and littered the roads. Driving would be impossible. We really were trapped.
It became hard to hear anything over the wind’s roar. Sounds like human screaming from wind whistling through the kitchen window AC unit made Susan sandwich her head between pillows. A window on the seaward side of the house shattered, glass and rain and debris blowing into the dining room. Jonny slept through everything, but Grandma was restless and woke when the window broke.
And then, over perhaps five or ten minutes, the wind and the rain died down and I knew we were in the eye. Dad and I stepped outside and looked up. We could see stars. It was warm and peaceful. I looked at my calm, rational father and wondered what the hell we were doing here, surrounded by a vortex of chaos and danger.
We walked back inside. The police radio was alive again. We heard a discussion of the need to turn off power to the island. No-one had thought to do that before and there were live power lines down all over town. We saw a cop car drive slowly past on the street, then heard over the scanner, “I’m out here on Cape Fear by the water tower. Wait, where’s the water tower? Can’t see it. Whoa, it’s gone!”
Susan, who still hadn’t fallen asleep, though it was after one, said, “Oh no! Grandma, what about the goat?” Mom and Susan regularly walked over to see the goat that grazed inside the fence surrounding the town’s water supply behind the library. Mom told her that she was sure that the goat was somewhere inside and just fine. I wasn’t so sure.
Then the power went off, and the TV went blank, though the police radio still squeaked and squawked. Mom and I lit candles, checked flashlights. The phone rang, I jumped, and Dad answered. Grandma was back to snoring in her recliner. Dad spoke calmly into the phone, “Yes, it’s been pretty bad but we’re in the eye right now. The wind is starting to gust, so I think it’s about to start up again. No, we haven’t had much damage.” He chatted away, calm as always.
The wind now blew steadily. Mom and I wondered who he was talking to, one of my brothers? A relative in Pennsylvania? “Hello, hello? Are you there?” He hung up the phone. The wind had to be back up to sixty miles per hours, over just a couple of minutes.
“Who was that?” asked Mom.
“A radio station in Pittsburgh,” said Dad. “They said they were calling numbers from the phonebook to talk about the storm. But the phone just made a crackling noise and died. Bet they think we got blown away,” he chuckled.
The wind noise was different now. Thumps came from the other side of the house, less frequent because that side was shielded by the two story motel. The whistling from the bedroom AC unit was higher pitched but less disturbing. There was rain again, horizontal and intense, and lightning flashed continuously, illuminating the dark living room in random pulses. Susan had fallen asleep on the couch. Mom was dozing in a recliner and Dad was still sitting in an armchair, ears bent close to the police scanner with the volume turned low. I lay down on the floor next to Jonny and slept in brief interrupted moments, sometimes awakening from disturbed dreams into the noisy storm. I went to the bathroom to pee. When I flushed, there was a strange gurgling sound in the pipes.
The last time I awoke, diffuse light filled the living room. Steady near-vertical rain fell from a gray sky. The palms had no fronds left. Grandma and the kids slept soundly. I smelled coffee and found Mom and Dad sitting in the kitchen, with the propane camp stove and an old aluminum percolator on the counter, coffee made with the distilled water she’d found in the utility room. Dad offered to get some buckets of water from the pool for flushing.
Grandma and Susan wandered into the kitchen together, and I gave them cereal with still cool milk from the fridge. It was dim in the house, and we decided to take our coffee out to the front porch. Mom, Grandma Buchecker, Susan, and I went out through the front door. The pool was full to the top and the street was flooded with several inches of water, rain still falling. I could see the furniture had settled into the deep end of the pool and wondered how the hell we were going to get those damn umbrellas out.
We were silent as we looked at the mess ─ shingles, branches, palm fronds, twisted metal, broken plastic, clumps of pink and yellow insulation everywhere, some with attached foil and paper. I noticed something huge in the A&P parking lot, twisted and folded and mostly white. “What the, what’s that?” I asked. Mom peered through the rain, opening her mouth as I realized what we were seeing. “It’s Cole’s. Look, the roofs. Cole’s lost both its roofs. Oh my God. What if they hadn’t left?” But I was thinking, What if that was us? What if you bought that motel instead of this one? What if whatever tore those roofs off and knocked down the water tower had come to this side of the street? What if the storm had come in on a rising tide instead of a receding one? I pulled Susan close to my side.
An SUV came driving slowly down the street towards the boardwalk and the beach. It had to navigate around various obstructions but moved steadily. The front passenger window was open and there was something sticking out of it, covered in shiny black cloth, pointing at the four of us, four generations of women, standing on the porch. We stood there silently, watching, wondering, when Mom said, “That’s a video camera. Must be the news.” She looked at me, and we started laughing. Grandma joined in. Susan said, “What’s so funny?” but she giggled too. We all stood there laughing out loud as the car rolled by.
We, watchers of the news, were the news. We’d survived, but news isn’t about survival. It’s about death and destruction. Later, I saw footage of our street, taken from a moving vehicle. We saw the twisted wreckage of the water tower and of Cole’s Motel over and over, from every possible angle and direction. We saw Carolina Beach and all the wreckage and mess. But we never saw ourselves standing on the porch laughing, though that’s the image that should have, but never did, make it into the story.
Deborah Morris is an Associate Professor at Methodist University in Fayetteville, NC, teaching physician assistant students. She uses art and literature to assist in teaching the art of medicine, and encourages reflective writing in her students. She writes primarily memoir and creative nonfiction and has published pieces in The Examined Life, Blood and Thunder: Musings on the Art of Medicine, GreenPrints, The Journal of Physician Assistant Education, and Clinical Advisor. When not teaching and writing she plays with her grandchildren, pulls weeds, pets her dogs and goats, cooks, and generally has fun.