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Hurrican Wrangling - Surfing in the Storm

Looking back now I should have cherished the call to the shore more but at the time I was just too stressed and high strung for that. Honesty though, someone had to be the neurotic one, the Ying to his Yang. Each time the WTVZ weather anchor declare a Nor’easter, or started tracking a hurricane making its way up the Atlantic coast I heard the same thing: “I could ride that – can you take the time off? - let’s go!” Sometimes it was said with trepidation, a nervous plea, as if a child was fearful they wouldn’t get their way. But usually, it was a deep breath, excited, fully inflated blowfish attitude, elongated with spikes of self-confidence protruding in every direction and then paired with a side glance of lunacy adopted by mimicking final scenes from the “Shining” – especially when my husband, Gary, had colluded previously with my son, his step-son, Paul, or there was already a holiday weekend on the horizon.

“But we could go to the Outer Banks,” he’d say, since he knew how badly I hated dealing with the tourists that invaded Virginia Beach each season. Our ignorance of hurricanes and arrogance that came from years of driving in the sleet and blizzards of Utah’s Wasatch mountains allowed us to believe we could outwit the storm and that East-coasters were weak. It was a two-hour drive, minimum, in what could be hurricane force winds from our townhouse along Little Back River Road to the Southern Shores. But besides traveling most of the way on country roads in poor repair the width of one and a half truck width lanes, there was also the encounter with the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel (HRBT) that needed traversing to get there.

I had never thought of myself as the claustrophobic type until heading hood emblem first downward to a depth of 18 meters below sea level next to a twin lane of speeding commuters, all cutting toward the same goal – Willoughby Bay. Although the tunnel was well lit, it still closed inward as we traveled. The underwater tomb was not designed with an emergency shoulder or even a visible escape walkway along the edge of the canary yellow tiled tunnel walls. The narrowness of the underwater artery made the long lines pointing outward tighten to a pinpoint width until it seemed there wasn’t enough room for a whisper between you and the neighboring automobile.

The entire length of the tunnel was but 5.6 kms (3.5 miles) so, it shouldn’t have taken long to reach Norfolk. Yet, for some unknown coincidence our timing nearly always resulted in what seemed like an eternity trapped under the bay breathing thick damp pea-green exhaust until the stalled car a half a mile in front of us could be towed out of the way. To this day I still don’t know exactly how they removed stalled cars.

“Come on, you haven’t had a break in weeks,” he would follow up. The tone of Gary’s voice increasing an octave to an irritating whine that accompanied all requests of such irrational childish nonsense.

“But I have an exam on Tuesday” should have been my response considering I was over my head in the George Washington University mechanical engineering master’s program and trying hard to dig out while still working towards impressing my boss, PhD. Raju, who was the head of NASA Langley materials division. I had a lot on the line and had no idea that the cancer was probably already growing inside Gary. All that aside, he was right, I hadn’t had a break in weeks.

“Fine! fill the bath-tub with water in case the potable water pumps are overcome again while we are gone,” I relinquished. The looming storms created runs on staples at the big box store. The TV anchor always suggested stocking up on bottled water but we, oblivious to the magnitude of a hurricane’s capabilities to destroy, filled the bathtub instead. It was easier.

Gary and Paul slapped the other’s palms, and we began loading the aging Toyota Minivan. The van was stuffed full - full with surfboards, red vine licorice, and Jimmy Buffet CDs – and all we believed to be the staples for a day trip to the beach. We happily sang along as we journeyed towards the smell of stormy eastern Caribbean saltwater and wicked waves.

Once we cleared the tunnel, we would take a ramp off I-64 and explore the backroads. It didn’t matter – even to me, that we weren’t sure where we were going - we simply headed southward. We used our gut, intuition, our internal compass. This was before Google Maps or GPS were commonplace among the recently graduated, money-strapped, public. Paul was fifteen; it was a couple of years before 9/11 and the beginning of the war with al-Qaeda, and he was free, energetic, and innocent as a new puppy. Gary wanted him, the “cracker kid from Utah” now attending Junior high as a minority, to understand that “Salt Lake City is not the world.” An important survival tool, for anyone relocated from that western region of the U.S. really, a foreign speaking stranger with a western drawl, like John Wayne, out of the conservative semi-untamed and wild red rock region of the west and into the controversial politics of those who were once wrong and those once wronged. He wanted opportunities to frankly discus the harsh realities of the region.

“So, this is Norman Rockwell’s Americana rolled out in front of us!” I interrupted the day’s lesson and boomed over the resonant sound of cheap door-panel speakers bellowing “Barefoot Children in the Rain” as the urban forests opened upon swaying grasses, sparsely spaced homes with sugar-white wrap around porches, and firecracker-red barns tattooed with the American flag painted to face passing pickup trucks. Each little haven set into the barely sloping ground of miniature, lazy caterpillar-green hollers – one farm after another.

We drove through the wind beaten undulating flat lands of the Virginia shoreline and crossed over the North Carolina Stateline where the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge became the Currituck National Wildlife Refuge, both lined with brooding marsh reeds, which weathered over narrow patched blacktop roads. I wouldn’t have been able to tell the crossing occurred but for the aged “Welcome” sign peaking over creamy mushroom brown whippoorwill brush.

We drove past The Black Pelican Restaurant along the Kitty Hawk shore, our favorite place to stop, where fresh crab patties and hush puppies were customarily served until 4:00 pm. But on that day the windows facing the crashing angry waves were boarded with plywood stamped in orange HOME DEPOT stencil and the customer parking lot was empty. I surveyed the dunes and looked out towards the waves. The lush foam crashed into the sandbar. Two high school boys bobbed alongside their long boards in wetsuits waiting for the perfect opportunity to mount their waxed fiberglass surfbirds while friends lined the sandy embankment. We weren’t the only crazy ones.

“If we stop here beach patrol will shut us down in no time,” Gary said. Both Paul and I had already foreseen a less populated beach would be our only hope to catch the “big one.” We reloaded into the van and drove down the platinum-gray misted coast before stopping at a forlorn crumbling stone stanchion used to separate the fine sand leading to our desired merging with the Gods of the sea and the Forrest Street beach access parking lot. “There are no other cars in the lot” Paul announced the obvious as I watch horseflies attack a dead Portuguese Man O’war jellyfish that had washed up on the dampened tan vertical decline. One dead jellyfish but there weren’t great egrets, banker ponies, wild boar, or most importantly, other surfers for as far as the eye could see. The beach was deserted. This, I decided at once, will do. All reasonable selection criterion used to secure the perfect sunny spot during a vacation get-away were tossed aside by the primal rebellion driven by “man’s” desire to control the elements.

We walked through a patch of black needlerush adjacent to a lone stooped oystercatcher; his beak buried and tugging. Suddenly, he jerked backwards, and a buried oyster popped from beneath the sand. A last snack before the storm.

“Dico hoc loco.” I clapped the edge of the blanket in the air. The wind grabbed hold of the sides as it flew in the gust until I corralled it against the sandy surface. Paul was already pushing gangly limbs into the elastic Body Glove wetsuit and running towards the break. I hadn’t learned to surf, hadn’t even tried to be honest. I rode a boogie board a few times- more my speed, but never took to surfing. It was embarrassing enough in those days to try to swim against the undercurrent and keep the swimsuit adjusted properly.

“Are you going in?” Gary looked at me over his shoulder trying to hold back the urge to run and catch Paul. He knew the answer before he asked.

“No, I have reading to catch up on,” I replied. “I will be here.” I patted the gingham print blanket that protected my sunscreen drenched thighs from the sand and the “no-see-um” bites. Part of me wanted to follow them until adrenaline filled my veins and my tongue tasted of sea salt; but the rest of me, the safer, boring, rational, and more authentic me, was trying hard not to scream for my son to come back, put his board in the van, and sit with me out of harm’s way. What happened to the days of sandcastles I wondered. It would be a lifetime before I would follow my grandchildren down the splintered planked stairs to the dotted beach covered with inflorescences tipped stems of the black needlerush that lined the warn path into the Atlantic Ocean waves. I know now I should have seized the seafoam and gray storm cloud day, at least until I was pulled into the undercurrent and drowned.

I didn’t get any reading done that afternoon. Paul magically hovered over his board, and I watched like a mother black bear tracking her cub as he learned to catch salmon on the river’s edge. I held my breath like a fish out of water, gasping each time he crashed into the effervescent caps leading the wave’s fury or when either of them became airborne. I spied through cheap binoculars and wiped beads of sweat from my forehead with a corner of the blanket. The waves grew from annoyed to enraged.

The beach was vacant. Not even tracks of the hermit crab were visible along the banks. The birds had found refuge elsewhere. The humidity elevated, even with the wind, and my thighs were sticking to the blanket. I pulled open the rain umbrella to cover my open textbook and moved my encampment to the shade of the retention wall that lined the pathway to the beach. I had settled once again into the soft warmth of the sand when beach patrol came around the bend of the southern dune. This was it; we were done.

“You should go,” was all he yelled as he passed me and headed towards the two storm oblivious surfers. Once again, I questioned our sanity and began to wish we would have skipped the trip altogether and stayed in Hampton Roads with our aging landlord and her annoyingly loud daughter.

“Come out of there” billowed the bullhorn mounted on the top of patrol jeep – “come out of there now!” I began to wonder if I was going to need bail money. By some miracle, the cry overpowered the roar of the ocean, and two surfboards went vertical. They stood at the sandbar shading the glare of the flashing lights then made their way onto the shore.

“It was good while it lasted,” Paul said with a Cheshire cat smile. He grabbed my overpacked bag and we went to the van while Gary beguiled the patrol officer with his charisma. He had a way of pushing the envelope and getting away with murder. I was hungry, but we didn’t stop for food until we were back safe on the other side of the tunnel. Nothing appealing was open anyway.

Gary made a sharp left turn into the black tar parking lot of our townhome community. Huge branches of a century old oak tree that housed an enormous number of squirrels and cardinals had fallen on a neighbors parked cars and blocked our path to the sliding glass back door. The communal patio furniture was tossed into the complex pool and bricks had toppled from our fireplace flue. Before we returned home the remnants of the Outer bank’s Hurricane Dennis, with “gnarly” eight-foot waves, had turned into a tornado in Hampton Roads and we had, by the grace of God, missed it. Our rouge adventure “to catch the big one” may have saved our lives.

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