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We were sitting around a campfire on the banks of the
waterway when we noticed a big storm begin making up to the
south of us. The black clouds began boiling and running together like the smoke from the stack of an old steam
locomotive under forced draft. When you saw that happening, you
knew one of two things were wrong; either the engineer was
mad with the fireman and was knocking his fire out, or else he
was late and making up time. We figured that the Lord was
late with His watering and pruning and was going to catch up
with both at the same time. Now we saw white clouds under
the dark black ones and that made us know that the pruning
winds would be here too.
Ahead of the storm came a pair of bald eagles. The female
perched on the top of an old dead cypress tree while the
male showed us some real flying. He would spiral straight up
toward the heavens and then swoop down past the female. She
looked unperturbed but maybe his fancy acrobatics were getting to her.
The scientists tell us that the eagles fly high in a
storm, or just before a storm, to relieve the atmospheric pressure on them.
Maybe, but I don't believe it was atmospheric pressure nearly so much as spring pressure that was bothering
this bird, for it was springtime. The eagles moved on before
the storm broke and I hope they established a happy home
back in the deep forest. To look at the countenance of an eagle
you would wonder how anything could love one, but apparently another eagle can and does.
John Brooks tells of a bad storm he went through. "My
mother was cooking a pot of black-eyed peas on one side of
the yard when the storm caught the iron pot and blowed it
across the yard. The lightning struck at it three times and
missed it every time!"
I saw twin water spouts off the coast at Neptune Beach and
that was awesome. They were quite some distance apart when
we first spotted them, but after dancing around for a few minutes they finally
came together and eventually disappeared
altogether. No boats were near, but if a small boat had been
caught in that action he would have hated the word "action"
from then on; if he were able to hate anything. Those things
make you nervous and give you a true perspective of just how
small we are when nature calls. Life Magazine did carry a
picture of these spouts and maybe some of you saw them.
The dust storms of the early thirties were, to me, tragic with
the good top soil of several states moving out to sea. I stood
and watched as the dust clouds passed over the beach and on
out over the ocean. It amazed me when I went west in 1924
and was told that they did not use fertilizer because the ground
was rich enough. Afraid things have changed out there now. It had to be good ground to support millions of buffaloes that
roamed the plains at one time.
The 1928 hurricane that hit south Florida and killed so
many people taught the building people one thing: Build it
strong and reinforce everything with concrete—both vertical
and horizontal. As long as people can sing in adversity they
will rise again, and here are verses from some of the songs
written after the 1928 hurricane:
God A'Mighty moved on the water
And the people in Miami run
Yon stand the lady standing in the back do'
Singing if I git back to Georgia
I won't go to Florida no mo'.
God started riding early. He rode till very late
He rode out on the ocean
Chained the lightning to His wheel
Stepped on land at West Palm Beach
And the wicked hearts did yield.
I don't know the name, or the names, of the people who wrote
these songs but whoever did write them, was there.
There was, at one time prior to 1930, an entire block in
front of what is now the bulkhead line at Neptune Beach. The
street out there was named Atlantis and the last house was
wrecked in the 1928 storm. The foundation was washed from
under the house and when you walked through it you got the
sensation of always walking uphill. It was called the "crazy
house" and probably for good reason. You had to be crazy
to go into the house.
The Atlantic Beach bulkhead was made with a concave surface on the
theory that waves would hit the surface and be
thrown back out to sea. The Neptune and Jacksonville Beach
bulkheads were put straight up on the theory that they would
stop the water. All of the bulkheads have been breached by
high water and waves. After standing on shore during a storm,
feeling the earth quiver under you as the waves hit, you no
longer wonder why! Maybe they will have to do it like they
did the old hard pressure auto tire. For years they tried to
build a tire hard enough and tough enough to stand the impact of the road
with the tire carrying sixty pounds of air pressure. In 1925 someone
said, "Let's build a tire that will give to
the road rather than fight it." Today we have a tire carrying
twenty-eight pounds pressure, riding good and lasting so
In the year 1926, we had a punishing storm at the beaches
that blew down some buildings along with our roller coaster.
That roller coaster was really something! It scared me so badly
every time I got on it until I just finally gave up and watched
other nitwits ride it. It was so tall and had so many nearly
straight down dips that I could not see how it stayed on the
rails. Besides, it was not going anywhere, for it always came
back to just where it started.
One of my most vivid recollections of a storm was standing
in an upstairs window along First Street and watching a storm
come in while a northeaster was blowing. That was a real battle
of the elements. When the two met, just a few feet from the
bulkhead, the spray must have risen thirty feet high and we
could feel the whole shore tremble.
Usually, we heard the weatherman announce that there was
a tropical disturbance somewhere off the coast of south Florida and then it might be days before it got to land, if it ever did.
The hurricane hunter planes were on the job and kept an eye
on it wherever it moved. My hat is off to any man who will
fly a plane into a hurricane, not one time, but day after day.
The planes certainly must not have been built by the lowest
Sometimes the storms were seeded to make them dissipate
but it was not considered safe to seed a storm closer than
twenty-four hundred miles from land. The meteorologists tell
us that our chances of having a direct hit by a hurricane here
are fifty to one against it. You don't need a direct hit to make
for some miserable weather. You usually have great downpours
of rain and exceptionally high tides, sometimes covering the
streets too deep to drive on. With debris washed in covering
the streets, it is not safe to drive anyway on account of ruining your tires.
When it seems entirely possible that a storm may hit here
then our plywood sales go crazy. Everybody wants to board up
their windows at the last minute. Many people tape their window glass
thinking that might keep the glass from being blown
out. I don't know if it helps or not, but it does help our sales
volume and usually for cash, too.
If our electric current is off for two or three days, it is remarkable
how generous people can get in offering you steaks,
chops, fish and many other goodies. A family can eat only so
much food and then if you don't have any way of cooking it,
what good is it to you? Some people have gas, some kerosene
stoves and a few have charcoal pits. It really brings the people
closer together for at a time like this they need each other.
Many people like to put on slickers, stand on the ocean-front,
and watch the storm as it pounds the coast. It's fascinating and
if you are one of Altheiser's disciples, you can get a head full
of unanswered questions.
Atlantic, Jacksonville and Neptune Beaches all sit in a cove,
and take a much worse licking than does Ponte Vedra Beach
where there is a heavy accumulation of coquina in front of
their bulkhead. A storm is nothing to trifle with but it is exciting,
like walking in the rain or through a heavy falling snow,
only more so.
The natives have a saying: "left-handed weather is never settled!"
They mean by that, when the wind shifts counter clockwise, or
right to left, we will continue to have bad weather until
such time as the winds begin shifting from left to right, or
clockwise. Their term for threatening weather is "The weather
is all drawed back." In the summer we have lightning, lots of it,
and while I know it is dangerous, it is a beautiful sight out over
the ocean. Good idea to get out of the water during lightning
storms. Notice where the jury once gave a girl $50,000.00 because she was
struck by lightning while waiting under a shed,
on the golf course, for it to quit raining. Their verdict was that
the shed should have had lightning rods. Bet old Benjamin
Franklin turned over on that one. The defense lawyers contended that it was an act of God. No soap.
One New Year's day a group of people were fishing out on
the pier in very balmy weather. Someone remarked, "Look at
that haze coming our way." Less than five minutes later, it was
on them with the thermometer dropping some forty degrees.
That was a "blue norther" and the less I see of them, the happier I will be. Makes you want to stay inside and watch the
It is an interesting thing to watch a barometer after you hear
of an approaching storm. Generally, the lower the pressure goes
the more danger you are in, and we have seen some low readings around here.
The locations or positions of storms are usually given over the radio, and
many people have maps to follow
a storm's progress. We have never bothered too much, guess we
are more or less fatalist. If it is going to hit, it will hit and
there's nothing we can do about it.
I stood in my living room during one storm and watched the
wind twist a sixteen inch hickory tree off four feet from the
ground. That was sheer power and makes you realize how puny
we are. Wood could be cheap after a storm if you could only
find someone to cut it up. For some reason, most of the Spanish moss died a
few years back and now that the trees are not
draped so heavily with wet moss, they seem to take the winds
much better. Guess there is compensation in everything, although I do think the moss is beautiful.
My friend Bruce Cox told of being stationed down in Texas before the
second world war and of how he could always predict the weather there with maximum success. "Sunny and
bright with not a cloud in the sky. I've never gotten so tired of
pretty blue sky and sunshine." Someone has said that you
never miss the sunshine until the rains come, but not for me—I like a mixture of both.
Bruce was from the hills of Kentucky and his brand of philosophy
I really liked. He told of how they treated troublesome boys in his small school. Bill Wilson was told by his
teacher that she was going to whip him for misbehavior and he
told the teacher, "Miss Minnie, you ain't going to whip me!"
He was told that if he couldn't be whipped he could be expelled and his reply was "I'll go home but you ain't going to whip
me!" So, Bill went home. In about thirty minutes, there was a
knock on the school house door and when the door was opened there stood Bill and his father. "Miss Minnie, Bill tells me
that you want to whip him and he won't let you. It ain't no
trouble. Here, let me show you." And with that Mr. Wilson
slapped Bill to the floor and the boy made the mistake of getting up—only to go down again.
The father's parting remarks
were, "Anytime he needs it and you can't do it, just let me
know." Bruce said that from then on, that was the finest kid in school.
The eye of a storm is really a spooky place to be. The wind
will be ripping off roofs, blowing down signs and anything else
that is movable, when all of a sudden all is still, for you are in
the eye. Looking to the east, dark clouds were in a turmoil and
the ocean waves were still rolling in. But in looking around you
at the twisted trees, debris from the houses, an eerie look from
the skies, it made you feel very much like the dog who had
been doused with "High Life" and after a short run, suddenly
found out there wasn't anything wrong with him. If you had
a dry place to stay you were thankful, and then the winds shifted and more rain until you wondered if it would ever let up.
Being in the eye of a storm is like nothing you have ever experienced before—it
is simply uncanny. The strange feeling of
being suspended in time, with your barometer almost bouncing off the bottom,
and a low barometer itself will give you a queasy feeling. Most people had nowhere to cook and usually
two or three families would gather together in a house that had
the best roof and share their food and tribulations. Most everyone was
cooperative in helping one another and it is amazing
how people come to accept and almost enjoy their hardships. It was a great
experience, but now that I have had it, I am willing for someone else to enjoy the next one.
After the storm came the insurance adjusters, hordes of
them, from all over the eastern part of the United States. We
found the adjusters a fair minded group of men, but they had
their troubles with some people. Sometimes we were caused to
wonder why the beaches had been criticized for so many sub-standard
homes when you saw the adjustment requests that
came in. Made me think of Bishop, Georgia when the bank
went broke on Christmas Eve—and the next day we were amazed at how much
money everyone had in it. As the old man
said, "With all the lovely brides' pictures in the papers, where
do all the ugly married women come from?" I'm sure that
man was a bachelor and loved seclusion.
Some of the old homes along the ocean front have withstood
the storms for over half a century. The reason they endured
was not because they were so well built but because they were
built of such good lumber. There has never been better lumber than virgin yellow pine, and these early homes were built
of this. It gives you cause to think of how we have depleted
and wasted our natural resources. All of our early buildings
were built of yellow pine or cypress and there was no fire protection to keep them from burning down. I have a picture of
the old Continental Hotel built in Atlantic Beach in 1901, and
it burned as did all of the others. That huge Continental Hotel
was a thing of beauty and they had a golf course about where
the Selva Marina course is today. Many of the homes along the
ocean front were secondary homes to begin with and were not
always built for permanent residences.
On March 8, 1957, this community suffered a great tragedy.
Three Mayport fishermen were caught in a hurricane and went
down with their ship after radioing for help because they were
taking on water faster than their pump could take it out. The
Coast Guard responded and started to their rescue, but picked
up another boat instead. I've heard a lot about this but everything is still
not clear in my mind so I will not attempt to explain. These were fine young men whom I had known for
years. They were Floyd Rhodes Wylie, Johnny Gavagan, and
Melvin Singleton. The boat was The Donald Ray out of
The Atlantic Beach bulkhead was begun about 1934 and
the entire town was taxed to pay for it. Residents west of Mayport Road who
never used the beach were assessed a certain
millage each year to pay the indebtedness. This may have been
(I'm a little confused) for the proponents of this bond issue
said that the back area would be in danger if the front was not
properly cared for. The beach was wide and there was plenty
of room for both people and automobiles. Each house had its
own steps down to the beach. This was fine as long as the sand
stayed at the same level, but when the winds shifted and carried out the
sand, then the bottom of the steps could be six or
seven feet from the beach.
When the tail end of a storm came by you usually lost your
steps and some of them were found floating blocks away,
while many were never found. There are not many things
which a floating palmetto piling can't tear up with the proper
propulsion from the fury of wind and waves. It seems to me
that the thinking has crystallized into letting every property
owner take care of bulkheading his own property, and with
ocean front property being as expensive as it is now, that is
the way it will probably be.
When you wake up in the morning with the smell of the
ocean in your nostrils and the feel of freshness everywhere,
then you are about to experience a northeaster. No one can
more fully appreciate a northeaster than the person who has
just been through the Hudson tunnel. It wipes away fumes and
as the winds begin to increase, palm fronds and other loose debris come
hurtling down the streets. It always gives me an exhilarating feeling. The winds usually bring rains and cloud
weather, but the ocean with its waves being whipped into
froth is beautiful. Some people complain of gloomy weather
but I remember Longfellow's Rainy Day: ". . .
into each life some rain must fall, some days must be dark and dreary "
love every day of it, especially after the storm when everything
is so clean and beautiful. There may be a more beautiful place
to live, but I'm not looking for one.
For some reason that must have been rationalized by a bachelor, all of our
storms for the last several years have been given
ladies' names, starting with Agnes for A and I suppose Zuleika
for Z. We have never reached very far into the alphabet but if
we ever get to Z then there will be no population worries, along
the coast anyway. Hurricane Dora called on us in 1964 and
that was a doozie! She wandered around some, but when she
finally decided that we were her lost love, she really came to
see us. Some houses were washed into the ocean; roofs were
ripped off, signs were blown down and general havoc was
created. The streets were so full of broken glass and debris that
it was difficult for the police to move around since the water
was too cloudy to detect anything through it. All electric power was off and
our only means of communication with the outside world was by battery radio. We were used to the power
being off, for it was said that in the early thirties and forties
every heavy dew caused a power failure. We woke up at night
not once, but many times to see a light pole on fire caused by
leaky wires and salt incrustation from northeasters.
Shortly after Dora, oceanfront property was almost impossible to
sell, and now it is almost impossible to buy. Things
change and I'm glad to see so many people with so much
money investing it here, for water front property anywhere
is not cheap. It is wonderful to live where your front door
neighbor is three thousand miles away. That is even better
than Daniel Boone when he looked out and saw smoke coming
from someone's chimney on the next mountain. "This place is
getting too crowded. I'm gonna move on."
Up in the hills we mostly had our excitement on Saturday
nights, but here every day is filled with excitement. I was
teaching a Sunday School class one Sunday and the news
came that someone had drowned. It shook the visitors from
other places, but the local kids had very little to say. The life
guards save probably a hundred or more each year and yet
very little is said about it. We can go out into the street and
see the astronauts as they take off, and we did have some real
excitement during the war, but I'll tell you about that later,
If you are looking for excitement here, just stand still and
keep your eyes and ears open. It will happen.
Nelson Howard enjoyed a storm more than anyone. When
one would come up and power went off so that he could not
work in his garage, he took to the streets in his pickup truck
with his radio on. He did not even carry any tools with him, so
no one could accuse him of soliciting work, but he did want
to know what was going on. He saw the power lines as they
blew down, the roofs as they blew off, and found where the
water was too deep to cross even with a pickup truck. We were
kept well-informed as he stopped by our home from time to
time and gave us a blow-by-blow description of things as they
Nelson was from Georgia but when he landed here in 1945,
flat broke and with a burning desire to do better, he adopted
this country and no over ever loved it more. He loved the community and its
people with a fierce loyalty. His favorite saying
when someone did not agree with him was, "That's why they
make chocolate and vanilla." I still miss being able to have a
chocolate or vanilla ice cream with him. His kidneys failed
him some three years ago and he went home where there is no
bickering, no strife and all automobiles run perfectly.
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