An ode to HURRICANE HAZEL- OCT 15 1954 BY DINO THOMPSON.
EXCERPT From my memoir: GREEK BOY- GROWING UP SOUTHERN.
COME MID-OCTOBER, Professor Waldo ran up his squall pennant. Then he ran up the double-squall pennant. Then he ran up the hurricane pennant, two white pennants with red squares. “Definitely gettin some rain this time,” the professor assured anybody who cared to listen.
What was comin was more than a ground soaker, more than a gully washer or a coffin floater. It was a roof-snatchin, tree-flattenin, people-drownin, ass-kicker of a bitch named Hazel. A name that would forever be a date-marker...HURRICANE HAZEL.
The very same Hurricane Hazel that had killed 1000 people in Haiti. Radio weather warnings started cracklin right regular. Late that afternoon Governor James Byrnes
came on the radio.
“This is Governor Byrnes . . . I’m orderin the immediate evacuation of the first two rows in all the coastal areas north of Georgetown . . . Designated shelters are bein readied as of this moment . . . “
Late that night, excited voice on our local radio station is blarin these words. “Myrtle Beach is directly in the hurricane’s path. It’s comin in right at us. The Governor has ordered everyone to leave coastal areas and seek safe shelter inland. Wind gusts of one hundred fifty miles per hour have been reported by hurricane spotters.”
Don’t care what they say, weathermen live for this shit. Hurricanes are a weatherman’s biggest hard- on. Bigger the better. More damage the better. People dyin even better. People smushin transistor radios to their ear holes hangin on to every word like it’s barometric gospel.
All sleepless night and into the mornin, sirens wailed and serious voices boomed from loudspeakers. Vehicles from city and county police, fire department, Civil Air Patrol and civil defense units goin house to house makin people evacuate with whatever they could carry. The high school, my grammar school, city hall and the library were designated shelters for Myrtle Beach. Most people left willingly. A few old codgers, threatenin to go down with the ship, had to be peeled off the door jambs of their homes and trailers.
5AM - THE DAY OF THE STORM.
Nobody slept much that night. We came down from our three-room apartment and made plans to ride out the storm in the Kozy Korner basement, which far as I knew was the only beer-joint bomb shelter in town. Dad and his slick black cook, Marcus Johnson, lay down all the chairs and tables, then X’d up the windows with tape. Yia Yia, thinkin the X a symbol to fend off evil spirits, reinforces the windows with holy water. One by one, downtown merchants start showin up, hopin to huddle with us. Pretty soon we have a herd of about 35 people ready to ride out the storm underneath our restaurant.
Seven Seas Restaurant owner Charlie Kordas is there with his daughter Vesta. Papa Chris, his wife and son Docky are there. Professional gambler Cadillac Joe is there with a grocery sack everybody knows is fulla cash money. Louie Achilles and John Gravis from the Broadway Restaurant. Future Miss Myrtle Beach Barbara Hershman with her sister Betty. The two Hershman girls are huddled into a lump of flannel footy pajamas.Our Syrian neighbor Tony Koury, a restaurateur and a "collector" who use to pay me to cuss, is there.
While Tony Koury eats, he lets me play with his brass-knuckles and sandfilled rubber hose. Miss Lieb, Glamour Shop owner, a Republican even before Eisenhower, is there with her parakeet. Local bookie Mister Harach is there sippin his Hadicol. So is ole man Baba Dinash, a Gypsy who speaks four languages with a palm-reading babushka’d sister. He sells advice, French ticklers, two-dollar watches, Spanish fly, and palm-size comics about a Popeye character with a two-foot schlong. Our landlord Mike Hobeika is there with his very large wife and his pretty stepdaughter Madeline. Eli Saleeby from the Fleetwood shows up with his entire family and a laundry bag fulla bootleg half pints. He slips around pattin everybody on the back sayin, “Here boys,” slippin every man a slider of Lord Calvert. “The ladies’ll help us get through the day and The LORD’ll help us get through the night.”
7AM - WINDS STARTIN TO HOWL.
The entire building is vibratin like a Ford on railroad tracks. Mom and Yia Yia, who both attributed every natural disaster to God’s wrath, are pacin like zoo cats at feedin time. Yia Yia, who has made a career outta predictin disasters, is fingerin her worry beads, recitin scripture. Angie, my mom’s pacin, clawin her fingers over her ears, tryin to drown out the groanin wind. I offer her a Necco mint.
“For godsakes Angie, sit still,” Papa Chris yelps while he munches a Greek meatball chef Marcus has pan-fried for the occasion. Papa Chris passes me a plate but I'm now in war-mode and refuse to eat on anythin cept my army mess kit. Mom, a world-class worrier on a good day, is now in her cataclysmic end-of-the-world mode. In between cleanin and pacing mom's now doin a scripture duet with Yia Yia. She’s cleanin, pacin, prayin, cleanin, pacin, wantin dad to show more concern, thinkin maybe she should faint to get dad’s attention.
Right when a ferocious wind growl shakes the building, and says, “I ever tell you boys bout first time Tony try to go inna beesness for hisself?” Joe didn’t wait for an answer.
“ . . . Wassa 1932 durin the depression. We were livin in Astoria. Tony boughta old Ford truck. Once a week he driva upstate to Farmer’s market, buya truckload tomatoes, bringa them back to the city and sella them to all the Greek restaurants. One mornin he stops at Charlie’s Diner. Charlie’s upstairs so Tony double-parks the truck, walks upstairs to ask Charlie how many tomatoes he needs for the weekend. Two hours later Tony comesa back downstairs, calls a taxi and goes home. Why you think he callsa taxi?” Joe smiles, waits a couple seconds for an answer. “Becausa he lost alla his money in the poker game upstairs. Losta the truck, losta the tomatoes . . . just like that. Boom. Outta the tomato beesness. Thata Tony . . . whatta beesenessman!”
POWER BEGINNING TO FLICKER ON AND OFF.
Ferocious growl shakes the building. People’s faces waddin up with concern. Cadillac Joe wipes back his black moustache with both hands. Me, I’m in my action-adventure mode. Togged out in one of my action suits, a yellow rain slicker, sailor suit underneath. In my pockets is a careful selection of army soldiers, two pocket knives, plastic hand grenade, decoder ring, skull ring, two packs of grape Charms, shark tooth, two silver dollars, four Indian head pennies, six Amazing Spiderman comics. I’m locked, loaded, ready for bear and big wind.
Power keeps flickerin, then fades completely out when the leany pole behind the restaurant crashes in a tangle of explodin transformers. Yia Yia, sensin the end is near, lights a candle and volumes up her bodice-rippin bible voice. In my 8-year-old mind, this whole thing is just a Cub Scout jamboree with grown- ups. I survey all the blankets, pillows, candles, flashlights, transistor radios. Some people have canned goods and water even though we had a whole restaurant fulla stuff upstairs and a 10-foot buffet spread out on the beer counter downstairs. Reminded me of war footage I’d seen on Movietone News bout people hidin under the London streets durin the blitz.
Eli, Papa Chris, Louie Achilles, Cadillac Joe, Mister Hobeika and my dad have cranked up a candlelight game of partner pinochle, but decide to put the cards away when my Yia Yia starts hissin like a possum, shakin her crucifix, swearin it’s sacrilegious to gamble and laugh when God is angry. The boys decide not to make God any madder than he is. Yia Yia’s voice now boomin like the chanter at Greek Church. She’s recitin scripture, slingin holy water in between sips of ouzo. Miss Hobeika is workin on a serious plate of chicken and meatballs.
THE STORM IS HERE.
Right when the storm kicks in for real, dad whispers to mom he’s goin upstairs. My mom jumps straight up, gives dad her craziest Joan Crawford stare.
“Eesai trelos? (You crazy?) You’re going where?”
“Calm down woman. I’m just goin upstairs for a few minutes to check on the restaurant.”
Mom starts crossin herself. Yia Yia does the same. While they both have their eyes closed prayin for dad’s safe return, I follow him upstairs. I know he’s goin upstairs to have a smoke and to get away from Yia Yia’s bible readin. Dad sits on a stool next to the window, lights up a Player. I climb up into his lap. We both watch in amazement as one thing after another sails by.
Gets to be a game tryin to recognize each flying object. Deserted streets have become a warzone. Growly wind is squirtin through doorjambs and roof vents, occasionally grabbin the building by the shoulders and shakin it like Bogart shakin Bacall. I watch a poor moth hangin on to the window get its wings torn off. Dad seems more curious than afraid. He stubs out his cigarette.
“Buckle up your raincoat son. We’re going outside.”
Thought he was kiddin til I see him unlockin the front door. He pushes open the front door and the wind bout rips it off the hinges. Woulda blown completely off if not for the wall stoppin it. Dad has to use his shoulder and foot to lock it back. Holdin me by the back of the collar, he leads me around the corner. Soon’s we turn the corner, a powerful gust whooshes me airborne, blows my feet straight out. But dad snags my jacket collar, scoops me up into the front seat of our open Willys jeep. No sooner he plops me in the seat, he’s wrappin clothesline around me. Probably the first known use of the seatbelt. He pulls himself in, cranks it up and starts drivin through the howlin winds and peltin rain.
“Hey dad. We gonna go fight the hurricane?”
“We’re goin to watch the wind blow. Hold on.” What’s he talkin hold on? I’m tied like laundry to the seat. Several spooky times durin the four-block trip, wind gusts scoop under the jeep and spatula one side off the ground. Whoa. We’re gonna fly to Oz to visit Dorothy. Dad slowly motors us to the West Side of Ocean Boulevard. We park in about three feet of water on the leeward side of the Nu-way Laundry building, directly across from the Ocean Plaza Fishing Pier and Seafood House.
Waves breakin clear across Ocean Boulevard. The two-lane street is now a Level-4 rapids. While I’m marvelin at the number of objects floatin by, advertisin signs, trash containers, soda pop crates, trees, top of a lifeguard stand, dad is practically on the floorboard tryin to light a cigarette. Even recognize a four- foot snowcone replica from a Pavilion concession stand. Like bathtub toys, the debris bobs its way north. I keep an eye out for floatin bodies but only see one trembly dog, soggy ears back, somehow keepin his head above water. I wanna save the dog but dad shakes his head.
“WATCH THE PIER,” is all dad says, still hunched over fastdrawin safety matches.
Wind strong enough to make the space in my teeth whistle and my ole man is tryin to light up a cigarette. Ocean has turned the color of a syrupy Co-cola. Wind snatchin chunks of water off the tops of the swells and turnin it into jet spray. Every now and again a wave would engulf the entire end of the pier, crash downward and splatter into a mist all over the boulevard. Like when a fat man sits in a tub, the ocean has swelled way high. In between the big rollers, the ocean gets so high it’s rollin up over the floorboards of the fishin pier. Sometimes it’d suck way back out like a fighter cockin his right hook and let the pier be tall and important again. For a moment you could walk on the sand around the end of the pier. Then here’d come another wall of water.
Water now jettin right through the Seafood House windows. Huge walls of water climb into big black hands and slap down on the cedar-shake roof. Didn’t take but maybe ten more minutes of foamy right hooks to collapse the restaurant section of the pier. Like a drunk on wobbly legs, the creosote pilings buckle out from under the center section and drop the restaurant building straight into the ocean. For a moment the entire restaurant floats in place like a clipper-ship. Then it boils up on the crest of a humongus wave, higher than it was when it was hooked to the pier. Then like someone pulled a chair from under it, crashes straight down again. I’m imaginin real fish and crabs swimmin through the restaurant insteada the dried ones they had on the wall. Imaginin myself ridin a buckin float through the dining room around the tables and chairs, torpedoin out the front door.
“Good thing papa Chris ain’t in there, huh dad?”
He cuts a sorta smile. “Just watch son. Watch and remember.”
Another 35-foot black wall of a wave rears way up and smacks down on the floatin restaurant. Like a dog crunchin porkchop bones you could hear beams breakin and bolts tearin loose. In a few minutes it was like it never existed. Then, like it forgot to say goodbye, a section of the restaurant’s roof-sign bobs up, then sinks back into the foam. One by one, like dominos, the rest of the greenish-black pilings tumble into the black soup. Not til the last plank of the Ocean Plaza Pier floats away does my ole man crank up the jeep.
“Finito la musica. Show’s over son.”
WE START BACK.
He starts us back toward the Kozy Korner. Needles of birdshotty rain slashin our faces. Water sloshin over the rusty floorboards into our boots. Dad’s steerin the jeep like a boat, tryin to avoid gettin broadsided by a street wave. Winds so strong it’s pullin at our clothes, flattenin our face. When we get back to our street, dad notices it first. Motions up with his head.
“Look son . . . sign’s gone.”
I look up and see our 8' Kozy Korner marquee is gone. Torn wires are whippin. Useta hide behind that fish sign and spit on people, shoot people with waterguns. Figured it hadda be lyin on the ground somewhere, but not a shred of it in sight. Figure it to be flyin like a long-tail kite on it’s way to North Carolina.
For a few minutes dad idles right in the middle of the street, starin. We were right smack in the core of a five-way intersection. Every street led to more devastation. Cars floated against buildings or overturned. Esso Station roofless. Like Godzilla just cartwheeled through, every telephone pole in sight leanin or snapped in half. Loose wires whippin back and forth like angry snakes. Right when we pull up to park, a galvanized garbage can explodes through the restaurant window. While dad is unwrappin me from the seat, a traffic light tears loose and heads to the south side of town for a new career. Carryin me under his arm, punchin holes through the spurty wind, dad Quasimodo’s us toward the front door.
Peekin through my fingers, I’m wonderin . . .
Can seagulls fly in such wind? Won’t their feathers blow off? Can fish swim in waves that big? Are all the beach houses gonna be big ole fish bowls? What about Mister Benfield’s gourd bird houses? Did all his purple martins escape? Wonder if my grammar school is still there? Wonder how the Dime Store and Broadway theater are holdin up? Where’s all the stray dogs hidin out? Mister Gus probably has em all in his apartment. Wonder how all my cardboard forts and toys up on the roof are makin out?
BACK TO THE KOZY KORNER.
Dad’s strugglin to unlock the door. I’m squintin into the wind.
Never seen such pure meanness. Not even when I ambushed the two Gatlen boys for usin baby ducks for battin practice. Not even when Whitey sliced up that paratrooper or Maurice Treadway whipped up on the two lifeguards. This was even worse than when Valerie bonked our cook with the big fish platter or when the gator got one of our pointers at State Park.
“Hey dad . . . I seen enough. The wind is stretchin out my eyeballs.”
Dad gets the door unlocked and the two of us fall inside soaked to the bone. Felt good to be inside. I glance at the wall mirror to see if I had holes in my face.
I start downstairs but dad snatches me to a puddly stop. “Son . . . don’t tell your mother we went down to the pier. She worries. Tell her we came out to check on her car.”
Mom is at the bottom of the steps, waitin to pounce. “My God . . . where have you been? Don’t you dare tell me you went outside.”
Puddle under my feet. “Me and daddy went out to check on the car.” I reach in my pocket for a Necco mint. Soggy.
“You went outside! PA-NA-YEEMOU!” Slaps her cheeks. Crosses herself. Busted. After several rib-smashin hugs and praise-Gods, mom is dryin off my hair and threatenin to kill me if I go outside again. When she sees drippy dad walk in, she threatens to kill him for takin me outside. We wait out the rest of the storm by candlelight. My grandmother, a woman who crosses herself whenever she sees a church or bible, is ready for the cataclysm. She’s swathed in mourner’s black from scarf to foot, prayin like Easter mass. I’m huddled in the corner with our two dogs, Sheba and Turk. Whisperin in their twitchy ears in dog language . . . “Hey, you ever seen a bird fly backwards?” Their eyes were sayin hell yea.
IT'S OVER. When it seemed the wind would never stop, it finally did. One by one, we all leave our bomb shelter and venture upstairs for a look. Rain still comin down but not sideways. Streets flooded knee-deep, waist- deep to me. My Yia Yia, Greek bible in one hand, three-inch crucifix in the other, looks up, sees a patch of blue sky toward the south, crosses herself, kisses her bible and smiles. She’s a woman who believes in miracles, believes in the power of prayer. I could tell by the radiant look on her face she’s confident she has prayed us all alive, prayed the storm to a standstill. Tony fires up another Player. He puts his arm around my shoulder, stares out at the damage and
shakes his head. Within a few minutes, the few others who hunkered behind plywood and tape in their downtown businesses are comin out into the street. First few minutes everyone is speechless.
Miss Lieb stands there, hand smashed over her mouth, chokin down the tears.
“Oh my sweet God, look at our little town. It’s ruined.”
Missus Hershman, standin in two feet of water, holdin her dress up, puts her arm around her. “Now hush that talk. We’ll build it back.”
Papa Chris nods at my dad, mumbles. “Hestickame.” Loose translation, “We have shit on ourselves.” My dad nods back.
He spots Mister Jereboam wrapped in a rain slicker, standin out in the street in front of the drug store. “How’s your shop?”
“Lost my awnings, windows and bout all my inventory.”
Every downtown awnings shredded into flappy pennants. Every window shattered. Roofs ripped off. Everything that was once vertical is vaporized or flattened. Every sign and painted window smashed. Every business all along Broadway Street looks wounded or dead. The Broadway Theater sign is gone. Marquee danglin, few letters from War of the Worlds somehow stuck. All the gourds around Mister Benfield’s Esso Station gone. Cars upside down against buildings. Mack’s 5 & 10 has lost their awning, three windows blown out. Toys and housewares floatin in the aisles. Even the huge pecan tree near the cabstand, the best climbin tree in town, is uprooted and layin across Broadway Street.
We’d later learn Hurricane Hazel claimed almost 1000 lives in Haiti, but only 20 in the Carolinas. Savaged over 20,000 structures, twice that many damaged. Storm surge the meanest in Carolina history. Came in durin a full moon high tide. Flood waters reached 18 feet. Steamrolled twenty foot sand dunes. Uncovered a hundred year old shipwreck on the beach. Chopped barrier islands in half. Rearranged lot lines and topography forever. Tainted fresh water lakes with brine, crabs and seaweed.
“Ole Professor Waldo had called it right,” somebody said.
Me, Tony and our two dogs wade out into the intersection. Worried I might step on a jellyfish or stingray, I’m tiptoein through the deep water. Dad’s wadin like there ain’t no water. The dogs, who think we’re goin duck huntin, are waggin their tails. Far as we can see, everything chewed up and spit out. Looks to me like a foreign country in the Movietone News.
Dad tells me to hop in the jeep. The dogs also hop in. He tells mom, “We’re going for a ride.”
Mom’s eyes bug. “Goin for a what? It’s dangerous out there. There’s wires and sharp things and . . . ”
“We’ll be careful.”
“You’re just going to leave me here?”
“You’ll be okay. Stay inside. We won’t be gone long.”
WE HIT THE BOULEVARD: We drive south on the flooded, debris-strewn boulevard. Dad cowboy’s through the deep water like he’s darin the jeep to flood out. Cars flipped on their backs like beached turtles. Trees uprooted. Roofs Frisbee’d into the next block. Several buildings, even their concrete foundations, completely washed away. The beach, like somebody took a giant dragline to it, is carved 15-feet lower, riddled with debris. Roads and bridges gouged out.
The once squooshy ocean floor now a 50-mile yardsale of frigerators, stoves, roofs, toilets, concrete and twisted lumber. Every summer day, for years after Hazel, some swimmer would be rushed to a local doctor for stitches and a tetanus shot after a run in with a man-eatin stove or frigerator. Somebody joked they oughta set up a tetanus-shot booth at the Pavilion.
Buick-size chunks of concrete boardwalk rudely tossed through beachwear and hotdog shops onto the boulevard. Mister Hobeika had left our restaurant and walked to his house. His roof is gone. We stop to see if we can help. He asks if one of us can swim through his livin room to rescue his dog. Dad gives me the nod. I frogkick through four feet of salt water to rescue a wet-rat trembly Chihuahua ridin the back of a floral couch. Mister Hobeika tips me a quarter. Savin Chihuahuas don’t pay much.
WE KEEP RIDIN SOUTH.
2nd Avenue Pier is vaporized. Spivey’s Beach Pavilion has “poof” disappeared. So has the duckpin bowling alley. Ride by Professor Waldo’s house. Chunk of his roof ripped off. His leanin flagpole still standin. His two hurricane pennants ripped to tatters still flappin. We ride up some side streets. Past Jimmy Brown’s house whose dad had a bathtub buried in his backyard with a screen door over it to use for a minnow bucket. A tree has fallen over his bathtub. We stop to comfort an elderly
lady who’s on her stockin knees weepin for a huge mossy oak leanin on her house. My dad asks her if she needs help. “My daddy taught me how to swing in that tree,” she says, rubbin the tree the way a nurse caresses the forehead of a sick child.
Not too far from the old lady, we spot Miss Rosie Saleeby, purple scarf fortuned-teller’d around her head, long black dress tucked in rubber boots. She’s out in the street, slappin her thigh, mumblin, carryin on somethin terrible. “Oooooh, lookit my house . . . will you lookit my poor house.”
Miss Rosie wassa helluva entrepreneur. she'd rent out every room in her house durin busy weekends and sleep in her car. She’d even rent out her rickety porch. She’d even rent tent spaces in her back yard. Miss Rosie didn’t let a little discomfort stand in the way of a dollar.
We dodge debris all the way down past Springmaid Beach to Nash Apartments. Pop Nash is standin on a mountain of rubble, starin back at his buildin that somehow survived. My father speaks Lebanese with Mister Nash. We turn round and head back north. Things look worse as we head north.
KEEP RIDIN AND GAPIN.
The houses that weren’t gone were in the wrong place.Dad rides us by to check on a new Greek family. I’m shocked to find out they have a son named Dino. I thought I was the only Dino on earth. This is really a bad day.
Norther we get worser it looks. Whole forests swatted flat or snapped off. Three rows back there’s a boat in a tree. Stop to watch a group of men, some wearin hip waders, gathered on a Cherry Grove sidestreet a few hundred yards from the ocean. Some have cameras poked in front of their face. They’re oohin and spoutin scripture. Gawkin at a 40-foot creosote piling stickin into a house. It jus don’t seem possible waves could ride somethin big as a piling so far inland. But there it is, a 40-foot creosote pole, pokin right through the front of the house like Poseidon fired a giant arrow.
Dad puts his hand on me. “Everytheeng looks like hell huh son?” I’m noddin. My eyes mist up. Even the bird dogs look sad. That’s the first time I knew what hell looked like.