Hurricane Nicole just went on its way from Florida, where I’m at my writing retreat working on a new book. I missed Ian a few weeks back, but this one was a doozy, waking my wife and me at 2:13AM as a 25-foot limb blew off a camphor tree in our backyard. Fortunately it mised the house, but the cleanup has been immense.
As I hacked at the limbs with my chainsaw, I thought about the hurricane I lived through as a young man while in the Air Force, studying electronics at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi. That was quite a while ago. I’m fortunate to still have the mansucript of the story I wrote about it, which is memorialized in my first novel, Wild Blue Yonder. I’m excerpting it here for your pleasure – and excitement! (The article text is set off in quotation marks, since I can’t change fonts in WordPress.)
“9 September 1965. Local radio stations had been announcing all morning that Hurricane Betsy was heading in the general direction of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The thought was somewhat exciting to the 16,500 electronics students and personnel of Keesler Technical School, Keesler Air Force Base, Biloxi, Mississippi. The advent of something unprecedented, unique, an event that would break the monotony of our daily routine, was an event not to go unnoticed.”
It was Saturday morning and I was pounding on the typewriter in the empty squadron admin office. It had been an eventful week. I’d graduated from Basic Electronics Training a week ago yesterday. The Air Force generously gave me the entire weekend off before beginning Radio Intercept and Cryptography training on Monday, 6 September. That gave me plenty of time to sew my new stripes on my uniforms; I was now officially an Airman Second Class, with a raise to boot. My mother would be thrilled. Three days later, as I sat in class, Hurricane Betsy ripped through the Gulf Coast. Maybe it was my academic upbringing, but I took notes on everything that was happening to us.
“At 1420 hours the Instructor Supervisor was back; “School is dismissed. Return to the barracks. You’re restricted to base until further notice. Well – what are you waiting for?” He grinned and left, and so did we.
“I can’t really say why, except it was just about the most exciting thing that had ever happened to me, but I felt compelled to write about it, like for a college course I was no longer taking.
“At 2100 hours we moved our mattresses out into the hall, all twenty of us, and closed up the rooms. No one would leave the hall for the duration of the night. At one end of the bay a card game was in progress; elsewhere troops read, listened to a portable phonograph, or played guitars, but everyone kept one ear open to hear developments on the radio.
“We tried to visualize what was happening outside; we could hear the wind, as it was banging the louvers of the ceiling fan on the roof, viciously. Yet to imagine the trees involuntarily leaving the earth, salty water washing across the beautiful white sand of the beach in walls 10 to 12 feet high, cars floating, people fleeing their homes – all this was somewhat incomprehensible. Here were we, safe and sound in a cement-block fortress, with electricity, food, lights, dry beds, listening to Red Cross directors telling people to bring blankets, flashlights, and food to evacuation centers, and that children must be accompanied by parents. The greatest and most glaring contradiction, it seemed, was that we were safe, content, happy, while citizens of Biloxi, Gulfport, Bay St. Louis, Pass Christian, New Orleans and the rest of the area were in such immediate, mortal danger.
“Not that we had a peaceful night – the wind raced up and down the hallway, tearing our blankets from us, waking us up with its banging the fan vents, in addition to the fact that we were cramped between the narrow walls. Shortly after 0500 hours the student shift leader woke us up and said we could return to our rooms. Blissfully, we re-retired to our bunks. There would be no school today.”
As I wrote, I relived everything that happened two nights before. I struggled for a way to conclude my paper, wishing I could write in mighty and compelling words just how intense and terrifying it was, but I could not find those words. Instead I wrote:
“The relative calmness and faith was the mark of note as far as the base and the 3382nd Student Squadron personnel were concerned. We had been told that the situation was in good hands and not to worry, so we didn’t. Precautions were taken before absolutely necessary. Strictly obeying orders was imperative, and they were carried out to the letter. People of every conceivable background, from every part of the country, all worked in unison and no emergency situation was encountered. The student leaders were on an all-night vigil to safeguard our safety. This, then, was the beauty of the moment.
“The hurricane ran its course, did its damage, and gave us all something to write home about. Yet we were protected from it, by the common sense and experience of our leaders and by our own military discipline. In more ways than one, we have learned much, have much to be thankful for.”
Yuk! What tripe! I dug in my shirt pocket for my Luckies, shook one out and lit up, staring at the words “much to be thankful for.” I blew out a cloud of disgusted smoke. I rolled the sheet out of the typewriter, reading, smoking and pondering what to do with the story. My first thought was to send it home, but then I had an idea: What if I could send it home as a published article, maybe in the newspaper? Stubbing out my cigarette, I went over to the casual room and pulled the Gulfport Citizen off the newspaper rack. I flipped through the pages, then went back to the orderly room, inserted fresh paper and carbons in the typewriter, carefully retyped the whole thing, and mailed it to the editor.
P.S. They published it, but I got in trouble for not passing up through Air Force channels!