I’ll never forget Hurricane Andrew. My stalwart-inclined 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 the ground less than four feet deep, and nothing that went underground had less than eight inches of concrete around it. He had a practiced theory that quadrupling everything in dimension and mass was the calculable equivalent to applied engineering, P.E. Stamped and Certified. 2” X 12” pressure treated planks were the usual structural compliment for almost anything else he constructed – including decking.
In his risk calculations to weather the predicted oncoming wind scale, Mr. Booker filled a sanitized tub in the add-on bathroom with fresh water and covered the windows (one assumes with 2X12 remnants of pressure treated wood) 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 through and swept up Homestead proper, leaving nothing but concrete foundations for everything in its path. When the dust died down and the sun shined through, nothing remained except his battered add-on, the opening where the adjacent original wall had been. That fortified closet next to the tub that kept him from the airborne fate of the surrounding buildings, and every vehicle left behind in the senior community village, surrounding homes and businesses.
It was days of worry. Days of trying to get through. Minding the pre-smartphone edict not to tie up emergency-needed lines. Praying and hoping – feigning the reassurance of optimism between us, slowing to a silence that by miracle we’d get word on his survival. The devastation reported was hopeless. Images concluding the all but certain, in what once was Homestead, Florida.
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 kitchen phone. I picked up the call. And on the other end was the voice of my father. It was him. The unmistakeable accentuated tones on which his absolute matter-of-fact undeterred directness would arrive. That military cadence that modulated every instruction and every reprimand of my youth, with one additional affectation – his deliberate and often inappropriate humor. That honeyed flat tone and dead pan delivery, begging for me to pitch him the cooperative line on which his first and next punch lines would hinge.
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, really. Maybe I can make it up to you after we’re done evacuating this disaster zone. Johny … I left you kids a home in my will. Afraid I made it, son. But I’m giving it to you just the same. Most of it is in a bag on my dash board. I’ll 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, if you don’t mind.”
He has me in stitches again. Already. Sarcasm of this kind was the benchmark of a favorable mood. At least for him. This usually-in-pain, comically serious senior and WWII POW veteran – who never engaged mush or sentiment without a verifiable death in the family. And even then, it was an alternate form of “gubment issue” southern style drill sergeant sarcasm. He had been through a lot over the years. Floods to prepare for, and repair after at my childhood home. A fire that burned 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, Johnny. 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 gathering points that we all could 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 my father was a negotiation within itself. Getting him to give you money – that was a feat for a magician. But he gave to the 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’d 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, he’d offer, “though they might have figured it out at some point” he’d conclude. Those envelopes went out to the mailbox after every fundraising campaign. And the unsolicited phone call didn’t elicit the sound of a receiver slamming a wall phone carriage, if it was the Red Cross that was calling. 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. We put out messages through the Red Cross – did they get our messages to you? When did they 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 and flyers somewhere near the shopping center.”
“Allstate came -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. Took a few of us out to the bus station heading for Jacksonville airport.”
“Fuck the Red Cross” he blurted. “I’ll be sending my money to Allstate from now on.”