Weather, my father, and the Taino god Hurakan

            It’s raining again.  It started somewhere early in the morning and our dog whined to get into my daughter’s room so she (the dog) could sleep next to the bed and feel more safe.  A few bands of rain came through and I could hear the heaviness of rain on the roof, and then it settled into a consistent rain.  Now, the drops are hitting the tarp on the Albacore sailboat, the aluminum roof of the truck topper and leaves of the live oaks.  Where the sky might sport a bright blue at 9:00 a.m., telling me I’m up too late toget in a good bike ride, instead it’s a diffuse grey and everything seems soggy.  I’m reminded of the winter Lewis and Clark spent among the Mandan in Washington state, where there was so much rain that their clothes rotted away and they began to complain of the constant diet of elk and eventually making clothing out of elkhide.

            My father was a big fan of weather, or of watching the weather, and somehow I’ve inherited that interest.  He would read the weather section of the paper first, had one of those weather stations in the house with the three dials that included barometric pressure, temperature and wind speed.  There was a wind speed sensor on the house with those three little cups.  He watched the weather portion of the local newscast on channel 7.  When cable came out, we found The Weather Channel on quite often.  His obsession was less a concern for meteorology than for its affects, I think.  He grew up in Pensacola and lived in the Florida Keys during the first 18 years of my life, so his interest was, in good measure, practical.  If you lived in Florida, and especially in the Keys, you kept a weather eye.  In the winter (better called The Dry Season), nothing much happened, but in a Keys’ summer, a hurricane could come out of nowhere and you could be caught without time to put up shutters, sink the boat in mangroves, board up the business building.  Ships at sea and people from the Bahamas radioed ahead that the Labor Day Hurricane of 193? was bearing down on the Keys, but by the time people had acted, it was too late to get a train from Miami to Lower Matecumbe to rescue the WWI veterans working on the Overseas Highway.  Most of them died and the rail cars from the late train were flung into the sea by the force of the storm.  A few took refuge inside the locomotive and survived.  Ernest Hemingway filled the Pilar with water, food, first aid supplies and motored up to the area with the help of a Bahamian guide.  What he saw there was worse, he said, than what he had seen on the battlefields of WWI in Italy.

[Rain is coming down heavier now, with wind blowing it.  The sailboat tarp rattles like a snare drum.  I think again about the gutters I put on the house shortly after moving in.  I think about the French drain I dug by hand doing its work. I think about the roof I put on the house with my neighbor ten years ago and how it’s holding despite one spot that’s soft from rot or a fallen branch.]

            I don’t know if my father was born in a storm, but I was three months old when my parents moved to Key Largo and I was five months old when Hurricane Betsy roared across Key Largo in 1965 on my father’s birthday, September 8th.  When we’ve talked about that storm, he never mentioned that it was his birthday that night.  The year my father was born, all of the hurricanes avoided Pensacola.

When I was born, my father leaned over my bassinette

and put a charm in my blood from Hurakan

Taino god of the storm so weather would follow me

and rage around me, so I would rest in the eye

and be unharmed.  I have never known if this is a curse

or a blessing. Perhaps such charms are always both.

 

In September 1965, on my father’s 23rd birthday,

we hunkered down in a concrete building

in Key Largo while Hurricane Betsy howled outside.

I was only five months old, but I remembered someone

holding me, the air inside not moving but moist,

and the pale color of the light through edge

of the boarded window and the heavy hum of rain

and wind and the mortal feelings from the beings inside.

 

My father says I cannot remember this, but I do—

images in my head, heaviness of the storm,

the quiet of adults holding their breaths

all of it in a wordless memory.

 

That ancient god visits me in thunderstorms.

He gave me stern warning when I took a twenty-foot sloop

out at the wrong time.  He put her on the rocks.

My daughter and I dodged storms in the fishing boat

one afternoon, until we had to put her bow

into the wind as a gale came through,

moored to someone’s vacant dock.

She heard the voice of Hurakan as we waited out the gale

and her eyes spoke fear and respect of something that big.

 

The cancer was a storm I weathered while it swirled inside

the cyclone of my body and I came out like a battered ship

that I fitted better when the skies had cleared.

My father’s death is a storm I weather still,

his old blessing in my blood.  I keep a weather eye

and know the shape of clouds over sea or land,

this life swirling in grey bands all around me.