12 October 2015

A Columbus Day Recollection


T
he Columbus Day Storm took place fifty-three years ago. I meant to write something about it back in 2012, on the fiftieth anniversary, but things have been chaotic for me for the past several years. Here I just want to put down a few memories of what happened, mainly written in 1993, just for the record.
I can remember coming home from school that day. I was in sixth grade at John Rogers school in Vancouver, Washington, and my brothers were in fifth and second. At 2:30 the first and second graders got to go home, but the end of the day came for the rest of us at 3:15. My brother and I went home along 18th Street with some friends. The wind was coming in strange fitful gusts, as it sometimes does in the autumn, and there seemed to be an extra energy to the day, though that may have been because it was a Friday, and we had the weekend coming.
My brother and I would have gone up Todd Road to Fourth Plain where our house stood, a vacant lot with several Douglas firs on it to its west, and a gravel pit to its east. A dirt road ran along the edge of our property between it and the gravel pit; we used to race our bicycles there. There was a place where a fir grew on the gravel pit side and an old apple tree on ours; an imaginary line between them served as the finish line for our races. The remains of an old outbuilding of some kind stood there, one wall relatively intact but fallen to one side, berries growing around it. My brother and I, after we got home from school, must have gone out back to play.
At least the next scene I actually remember comes from that afternoon, not long before sunset. I was outside, playing some game with my brothers and a neighbor. The wind was blowing strongly, more than usual, and it made me feel zippy. It comes to me now; I remember jumping with the wind to feel it give me a boost; I don’t know if it really did, but it sure seemed as if it did. Suddenly the sky took on the strangest color; I remember it as a sickly green to the west. As others who saw it described it as an orange light to the east, I suspect the west may only have looked green by contrast, but I write here what I remember, even when I have doubts of its strict accuracy. It wasn’t long after that that my mother called us in for supper; it wasn’t ready yet, but we couldn’t stay out till it was. She told our friend that he needed to go home. Now. Something about a big wind coming.
I know I didn’t take it that seriously; I thought my mother was being over-cautious. I remember that as a feeling, not as a concrete thought. I suppose I was having too good a time outside on a windy Friday to want to give it up, really.
I don’t remember dinner. I think we had it before the storm hit, but I really don’t remember. I do remember sitting in the living-room, listening to the Nutcracker and doing some math homework, when the power started going fitfully out. (I can’t help but wonder now about that math homework; I never did homework on a Friday. But that’s how I recall it.) By about the third time the Sugar Plum Fairy (or was it the Reed Pipes?) came grinding to a halt I took the needle off the record, but didn’t put the record away, expecting to resume playing as soon as the power came back on. But the next time it went off, it went off for good. We didn’t get it back for nearly two weeks.
Things got pretty wild outside before we lost the twilight altogether. We all grouped up in the living-room and watched and listened as various improbable object blew about, hitting the windows and banging the roof. Pieces of shingle and twigs from trees seemed to be most of it, though there were other things, too. Our two cats, March and Jamie, were safe inside, but not happy about the situation. They went wandering around the house wailing like banshees, though I think Jamie gave that up fairly quickly in favor of hiding somewhere. March wouldn’t settle down; she seemed to feel that somebody should be doing something.
Then darkness closed in, and we could only hear what was happening, not see it. We heard trees go down, some frighteningly close, but fortunately none of them fell on us. At one point my father went out into the fury to help somebody out; I don’t know why. I looked out through the glass on the living-room door; a flash of light showed one of our apple-trees in the process of going over, its roots torn out of the ground.
Apparently the storm was declining by 8:00, though I could have sworn it must have lasted until about midnight. The winds went on blowing through the night; I know that; I remember quite distinctly the sound the fir limb made as it scraped the roof over my head in my bedroom that night, something it had never done before, but continued to do from then on. But it surely must have been after the worst had blown by when my father brought in an ancient battery radio with a glowing eye, to see if we could get some news. There were no local stations on; the best we could do was KSL in Salt Lake City, and it only mentioned us in the most general of terms, saying that there was a storm going on in the Northwest. I think we finally did get some news that the storm had passed, because I think that was when my mother sent us up to bed. I was very reluctant; it was dark and scary up there, but I went. It took me a long time to get to sleep, though.
The next day we went out and surveyed the damage. Some of the Douglas firs on the vacant lot next door had gone down and at least one of them was partially blocking Fourth Plain Road. The leaning wall of the old outbuilding in the back yard now lay flat to the opposite side; the wind had flipped it over. The fir tree by the gravel-pit road had come down across our apple tree and both were inextricably entangled nearby. The entire yard was covered in debris.
We started cleaning up, though the process took weeks. One of the oddities of the storm was that our phone never went out, and at some point I talked to my best friend, whom I had last seen just before the storm when we walked home from school. He told me that his father (who worked for the phone company) had been out all night repairing damage to the lines. He’d called before the storm hit to say that a hurricane was coming. I asked what they’d done, and he told me that his mother had called all the family together, and then gone out and closed the garage door.
School started again on Tuesday, after power had been fully restored throughout Vancouver, according to news outlets. Apparently our neighborhood didn’t count; houses along our section of Fourth Plain and the adjacent streets were electricity free until Tuesday a week later, by which time we were getting fairly well used to candles, Coleman lanterns, and portable gas stoves. During that week somebody working for the gravel pit people considerately removed the fallen trees from our back yard, apparently under the impression that our back yard was part of the gravel pit. With all the debris about it was probably hard to tell the difference. Less considerately, some car skidded off the road and took out our phone, finally—though, as it was an easy repair, it was back in service a couple of days later.
My cat, March, had made her presence felt throughout the storm and its aftermath, but my brother’s cat, Jamie, had disappeared, and was gone long enough to worry us a bit. I don’t know what corner of the house he had hidden out in, but he didn’t emerge from it until the storm was safely passed and we were sifting through the debris. Abruptly he was once again among us, nonchalant and wondering about the feeding arrangements in this new post-storm order. I don’t think he approved of the storm, exactly, but he didn’t seem traumatized by it either. I suppose that went for all of us, come to think of it.

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