A hard rain, and no escape: The forgotten man's lament

Help me make it through the night

6 minute read
'Duck and Cover Drill,' by Nancy Baker: What do you do in a mass shelter?
'Duck and Cover Drill,' by Nancy Baker: What do you do in a mass shelter?
When I was a young man I worked on a construction gang. I spent two years laying six-foot-diameter pipe and building box sewers and making about eight dollars an hour. This was good money 30 years ago for a college ejectee with a young family, a mortgage and a union-protected job.

Every Friday our foreman would show up with a pack of envelopes filled with cash: a week's pay. He would meet two cars at the curb— the union rep's, who had to get paid off, and the general foreman's, who'd pay him off. Two cars, two colors. A white Cadillac, a black Lincoln. When the foreman walked up to the union rep with our checks, somebody would inevitably say, "The Eagle flies on Friday," or "The Eagle has landed." The American eagle, and its stork's delivery, was our weekly pay.

That year we were on a job at the Philadelphia International Airport. We were laying 72-inch pipe near a runway extension. I remember standing by new manholes while the jets revved so close that the noise was deafening and the heat from the turbines recooked the cooked air. When it got close to 100 degrees that week of June, we ran out of pipe and were put to work shoveling mud of out a clogged sewer.

An empty house and a hurricane

On a Tuesday I came home to an empty house and a note from my then-wife. She had taken the baby to the doctor's for an ear ache. The note sat on top of the unread newspaper with the news about the new hurricane, Agnes, which was heading up the coast. But the only news that mattered to me was my kid's earache: how he was, how long he had wailed through the night, how much it would cost.

By Wednesday we finished shoveling mud and Agnes had moved farther up the coast. By Thursday we were back laying sewer pipe and the headlines were all about Agnes. We were dead center of her awesome spin cycle. Over New York, she was dropping a hard rain and heading for us.

Thursday night I walked around the sleeping house, staring into the baby's crib, walking past my bedroom, heading downstairs, then going to the enclosed porch to look up to the southern sky over the airport, wondering vaguely what I'd do if Agnes struck. Colossal Lear-like wind and rains roared down Croskey Street. I saw uprooted sycamores, windows blown into rooms, bedrooms and nurseries. Then I'd walk back upstairs, check the baby's crib, pass the bedroom and head back down to the porch. I repeated this routine this all night.

"'Duck and cover'

Once, years earlier, when I was a fourth-grader, the noon lunch siren opened up over the playground at Edgar Allan Poe School and I bolted from a half-ball game and ran home to see if we were at war. Those monthly duck-and-cover drills had fried my brain so completely that the impossibility of escaping nuclear holocaust had annihilated my rational instinct of self-preservation.

Was I alone? Nobody with sense really believed in hiding under a desk and or inside a doorframe and staying put. During the Cuban missile crisis of '62 every adult in the neighborhood talked porch to porch and in huddles by their cars about getting out of the city. One of our neighbors began hoarding food and stashing it in his trunk.

Where to go?

To be at the center of an ICBM's target radius was one thing— and we were: my house in South Philly stood a mile from the ARCO refinery. But the instinct to get out was an insufferable additional burden, really a psychologically unfair addition. Missiles on the way, maybe 30 minutes to clear out, but how exactly do we get out?

My two younger brothers in the back seat of my father's Buick, my mother in the passenger seat up front. Had Pop remembered to keep the gas tank filled at all times? Would there be other gas stations? Would there be room for our "stuff," and especially my stuff— the Tom Corbett series, my collection of Mad magazines, my baseball glove? What about Mitzi, the cat? And where exactly do we go? Just follow the car in front? My brother Dan always had to pee. Suppose we had to stop the car for him to pee?

Agnes approaches

I didn't sleep during the storm on Thursday night. I imagined loading the car and driving away, but because we were broke I had no car— and anyway, I couldn't have afforded the insurance. We were white people in a white ethnic neighborhood and yet we were always broke by Wednesday. The hurricane's ETA, meantime, was Friday right, just about the time the Eagle was due to land.

So I counted on good will and the luck of the common laborer, which is pretty much worthless in times of crisis. But it nagged. Suppose we had to leave?

How would we even get to a mass shelter? What did one look like? I liked my privacy. Would I be able to read the paper in a mass shelter? Sleep? Brush my teeth? The baby had ear aches. What do parents do with their wailing infants in mass shelters?

Neither car nor credit cards

I had grown up hearing words like Biblical and Apocalyptic to describe the most catastrophic events, which were explicable and tolerable only to those with sufficient faith to explain and tolerate them. But apocalypse is a local event when you're young, or at least in your early 20s, fighting to make your mortgage, dealing with a baby who can't talk but cries all night, and getting around without a car and credit cards.

What happened to me and to us that September was not an apocalypse—a couple of trees were knocked down, a few sewers were flooded, and the Schuylkill rose to meet its banks— but it was enough to end my fantasy of self-reliance. Forty years ago Americans were spared the moronic commentary that surrounded Katrina: the evangelical ghouls who called it punishment for cultural sin and the talk show mules' confident declarations that the looters had stayed behind on purpose.

Outside the still eye of the reporting, though, I felt untethered. The sense of relief was accompanied by a sense of creeping terror that this nearly happened to me. We were not the least or the best but in the middle, the children of middling light who send their kids to war because they can't afford college— or because military service is their college— and who are unable to escape apocalypse and sooner or later come to pay for it.

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