I’ll never forget Hurricane Andrew. My father decided to weather it out in Homestead Florida where he had a condo with an add-on room. When my dad built something, it pretty much stood. He had an affinity for 4X4 pressure treated posts (even for studs) – nothing went in less than four feet, and nothing that went underground had less than eight inches of concrete around it. He always believed that quadrupling everything was the calculable equivalent to certified P.E. stamped engineering. 2” X 12” pressure treated planks were the usual structural compliment for almost anything else he constructed – including decking.
He filled a sanitized tub in the add-on bathroom with fresh water – covered the windows (one assumes with 2X12 remnants) and hunkered down for the duration. Homestead Florida was the location where the category five hurricane known as Andrew first made landfall. It literally swept right through Homestead proper, leaving nothing but concrete foundations for almost everything in its path. When all was over, there was almost nothing left except his add-on, the opening where the adjacent original wall had been – and the closet next to the tub that kept him from the fate of the surrounding buildings that were once the senior addresses of his over fifty community.
It was days of worry, days of trying to get through while also not tying up lines every moment. Praying and hoping that we could just get word on his survival. The devastation reported was hopeless and all but certain in Homestead. Cleiborn Usry Booker had been reported dead before however, and this wasn’t the only situation he’d been in that experts said no one could survive. On the fourth day, a call rang through to my sister’s phone. I picked up the call, and on the other end was my father. It was him, and his absolute matter-of-fact directness that intonated every instruction and every reprimand of my youth, with one additional affectation – his deliberate and often inappropriate humor. That honeyed flat tone and cliff hanger delivery just begging for me to pitch him the line on which his first and next punch lines hinged.
How are you, Dad? “’bout dead, thank you.” “We’ve been trying to reach you for days. We’ve all been worried sick,” I told him. “Yeah, sorry to cause so much trouble – thoughtless of me. Maybe I can make it up to you after I get the fuck out of here.” I left you kids a home in my will, Johnny. Afraid I made it – most of that house is in a bag on my dash board. I’d like to bring it to you personally if you don’t mind wading through a few more of my problems … before we discuss the strain this put you all under.”
He has me in stitches again – already. Sarcasm of this kind was the earmark of a favorable mood. At least for this usually-in-pain serious senior WWII POW veteran than didn’t engage mush or sentiment without a death in the family. And even then, it was an alternate form of “gubment issue” southern sarcasm. He had been through a lot over the years. Floods to prepare for at my childhood home. A fire that burned him nearly 65 percent of his body – a condition he was not initially expected to survive. Then there was WWII – shot down over Germany, operated on without anesthesia to remove shrapnel from his body – followed by an eighteen month internment at the infamous Stalag 17 American POW and Jewish concentration camp. And last but not least, one California earthquake and one Florida category five hurricane.
“Tell me son, any wildfires out your way?” No Dad. “Aairraids?” No sir. “Mud slides, flooding, earth quakes – any river on the rise – twister weather – loud music – anything like that out your way?” No Dad – everything is calm and peaceful here. “You sure?” he asks me. “Yes Dad.” Then I’d like you to rent me an apartment. Clean, serviceable, away from any aqua ducts or shooting ranges – nice quiet and not too much over $1000.00 or so. Can you do that for me son?” “Yes Dad – we can get on that right away.”
We used to watch Hogan’s Heroes, Johnny Carson, Carol Burnett, All in the Family and a Christmas special or two. Those were the things that we all seemed to do together in full agreement. Outside of that, there were quite a few gaps we assigned to the disconnect of our respective generations. The Red Cross was something my father had always given to charitably. Pulling money you earned working for him was a negotiation within itself. Getting him to give you money – a feat for a magician. But he did give to Red Cross. “The care packages” he said, “never made it to us. We never received the candy bars or cigarettes intended for POW’s. Even the first aid and reading material ended up in black markets or on sale to officers only” he used to recollect. Often times when Hogan was bribing Schulz with a Hershey bar, he would say … “so that’s where those went” with a smile and a rock in his chair – as though we’d never heard him comment before. Still, he revered the Red Cross – “it wasn’t their fault – though they might have done something about it” he’d conclude. Those envelopes went out after every fundraising campaign. And the unsolicited phone call didn’t just hang up if it was the Red Cross. He spoke politely, and thanked them for the opportunity to do his part – his Red Cross duty.
“So Dad, how did you get out of Homestead. The Red Cross get our messages to you? When did they finally get you out?”
“No, Johnny, he continued “it was my insurance company that came and rescued me. Actually, they came and rescued people that didn’t even have a policy with them. No, it wasn’t Red Cross. They were handing out shoes somewhere near the shopping center.”
“Allstate pulled up in a four wheel drive. They’re the ones that came out into the mess of things – had a list of names. When I gave mine to them, they handed me an envelope with $1000.00 cash in it – had me sign a receipt, then took a few of us out to the bus station heading for Jacksonville airport.”
“Fuck the Red Cross” he uttered in a modulated and gravely sincere tone. “I’ll be giving my money to Allstate from now on.”