Monday, August 3, 2009

Hurricane of '38

On September 21, 1938, Winston Churchill condemned the coming annexation of Sudetenland by Adolf Hitler's Nazi government in Germany. This area in what was then Czechoslovakia was primarily German-speaking, but had been denied Germany in the reshuffling of Europe after WWI. Hitler's move to annex was a big story internationally, but on this side of the Atlantic the story was quickly pushed aside as a late summer hurricane moved north at previously unheard of speed and made landfall on eastern Long Island, with its far western edge just brushing NYC.

A loyal Forschungsjahr reader recently left a comment and a question asking if I could report on the 1938 New England Hurricane. Can I ever. One of my earliest memories is of my father's stories of the Hurricane of '38. One story involved a double date with a couple of gals from Brooklyn on the night of the storm. My dad was working in Manhattan and after a movie (presumably on 42nd St.) it was decided that the group of young revelers should take a drive out to Jones Beach. It was a silly night to take such a drive. Even though NY City didn't get the full force of the hurricane, they were still driving in a blinding rain and trees were down on the way to the huge public beach on Long Island's south shore. My father described how he pulled into the parking lot, disoriented by the wind, rain and darkness. He saw lights and commotion ahead of him, stopped the car, and one of the gals (I'm reasonably sure she would have been named Doris) opened a door and stepped out. Into ankle deep water.

Record hide tides drove water inland all over New England and most older buildings in towns like Providence, Bridgeport and New London have brass plaques showing how high it went. The 1938 Hurricane may be nameless to this day, but its presence is still very real to New Englanders and to Rhode Islanders in particular. About 600 people died in the hurricane, and most of them died in Rhode Island. My wife recently met an older man at the hardware store here in town whose sister died in what may well be the most tragic event of the '38 Hurricane. It took place at Mackerel Cove in Jamestown on the afternoon of the 21st. Mackerel Cove is a narrow strip of sand that connects the main part of the island to the southern Beavertail chunk where I live. I ride over this strip every day and yesterday I stopped to photograph the 1938 highwater markers that have recently been placed on all the telephone poles along the road. On the afternoon the hurricane hit, a school bus tried to cross here to Beavertail, bringing a group of kids home, some of whom lived at the light house. The bus stalled in the waves and the kids held hands as they tried to cross to safety in the rising waves. Seven of them drowned that day including the sister of the man my wife spoke to. The bodies were washed up on shore all along Narragansett Bay.

The destruction from the storm was so wide spread that even into the fifties, after the results of Hitler's move into the Sudetenland had played out fully and Germany was well into the Wirtschaftswunder period, some damage could still be seen around New England. More often though, towns and people rebuilt. My dad went back the next summer to Lamphier's Cove and rebuilt the family summer dwelling. Lamphier's Cove was a community of New Haven residents who moved to the shore for the summer months. Property owners all pooled their tiny plots and created a resident association, sharing a spring for fresh water and some communal outhouses. It all sounds vaguely socialist to me, hard to reconcile with the fact that, as far as I know, my father voted for Nixon every time he got the chance. But every summer the Terry family moved to the end of the trolley line in Branford and lived in a tent on Lamphier's Cove.

It was the tent and the wooden platform it rested on that went north with the hurricane and in the summer of 1939, my father worked with his brothers and my grandfather to rebuild. In its second incarnation, the tent became a two room cottage where I spent a lot of summer weekend days myself, alternately pulling eels out of the questionable waters of the cove, or avoiding the attention of my two maiden aunts who lived there with my grandmother. These two aunts were well-meaning, but in an effort to appear "with it" they often used the expression "Super!" Imagine my surprise when I landed in Germany thirty years later to find that "Super!" was a completely standard expression, having no undercurrent of dorkiness associated with it. Some people use the alternate, "Supi!" but I never hear either expression without thinking of Harriet and Dottie and those filthy eels at Lamphier's Cove.

1 comment:

Charlie H said...

Thank you for this fascinating report. I had watched a documentary about "The Long Island Express" on the History Channel (motto: "All Nazis, all the time") though, amazingly, they failed to make the link to Germany you made so effortlessly in your first paragraph.

According to the documentary, the only survivors of the bus tragedy were the driver and a young boy. I can't imagine the hell of being that driver, reliving that incident and guilt for the rest of one's life. The boy, it seems, survived because he was very lucky and an excellent swimmer. Later on, he fell through some ice, but was lucky once again and saved by his friends. Then, as soon as he was an adult, he joined the Navy and drowned in a pool in California.