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The Great Hurricane: 1958
By CHERIE BURNS
Copyright © 2005 Cherie Burns
All right reserved.
Milt Miller was awake by five. Like the whalers and fishermen in his family before him, he'd always been an early riser. He'd started fishing, he liked to say around Montauk, as soon as he could walk. Now that fishing was good, he often stayed on board the boat overnight to make the most of each day. His wife of three years was used to that, and he was making over two hundred dollars a month, which made it easier. When he came up on deck of the 110-foot dragger, the dawn sky was hazy but unremarkable. The sea was flat calm. There had been stars in a clear sky the night before when he turned in after he and the rest of the five-man crew had iced and shipped a boatload of cod and porgies west to New York City. Fish was bringing in ten cents a pound. Life, for a twenty-five-year-old man conditioned by the Depression, was pretty good. But as he moved slowly into the day, preparing to take the boat out and pick up a net they'd left the night before on Gardiners Island, an eighty-year-old fisherman on the dock called out, "If you're going to go, you'd better get over there and get back. I've never seen the barometer so low." Milt took note. He knew the old-timer had what fishermen called a "weather eye," a squint that could tell what the weather was going to be better than any other kindof forecast.
Montauk Point, at the end of Long Island, thrusts east toward the dawn while the rest of America is still in darkness. To the northwest lay Long Island Sound, and just over the horizon were the sleeping coasts of Connecticut and Rhode Island. East toward the sun was the Atlantic. Tidal waters swirled around the point, into the sound, and back again, carrying schools of bait and the larger fish that fed on it. There was money to be pulled from the gray waters off Montauk.
Milt pulled away from the dock at the Promised Land fish factory and eased the boat across mirror-flat waters toward the sound. It had been nearly 2:00 A.M. when he finally moored the boat and went to sleep the night before, but he was a vigorous, chunky young man and could get by on a few hours' sleep when the fishing was good. He loved to fish.
When the fishing boats set out to sea at the start of the day, Milt felt exhilarated. He watched the Ocean View, a bunker steamer that belonged to the Smith Meal Company, the biggest fish factory in Montauk, set out with the other boats. Its crew fished for menhaden, the small, bony fish used in making soap and fertilizer.
Also heading out the harbor, going toward the point, was a trawler from Fort Pond Bay dock. He knew it was Capt. Dan Grimshaw's boat and that his friend, Stevie Dellapolla, was on board. Dellapolla, eighteen, was busily squaring away the deck, but he waved when he saw Milt. He felt good when he saw Milt Miller. Everyone knew Milt, who had been fishing since his early teens, longer than any of the other young men. Stevie also much admired his brother-in-law, Andrew Samb, a fisherman who had gone out on a bunker boat, the Robert E., that morning. Stevie was proud to be working as a fisherman.
Dan Grimshaw was known as an able captain. Navigational equipment was minimal and consisted of a compass, a radio, and a direction finder only, so the captain's skill and knowledge of weather and sea conditions and handling the boat were every bit as important as the vessel's seaworthiness. Stevie felt in good hands with him. He had spent a lot of time on the boat that fall, because its trips alternated between commercial dragging and party-fishing, and so far they had been party-fishing three days a week when the passenger train brought out clients.
Often, when the train didn't bring anyone, they went swordfishing. That was a very specialized technique. First, a crewman standing in the bow would harpoon the swordfish, which had a habit of basking on the surface. Then two men would pick up a small barrel on the bow and throw it overboard. Inside the barrel was six hundred feet of line tied to the harpoon. When the fish took off, the barrel bobbed along behind and marked where the fish was going. It was a smaller version of a similar method used for whaling in these waters a hundred years before. Stevie was learning a lot, and also earning $2.50 a trip. On this morning, as Milt's boat moved away toward the northwest and Gardiners Island, Stevie noticed that Dan Grimshaw was staring intently at the horizon.
Grimshaw had noticed the sudden drop in the barometer that signals the approach of high winds and bad weather. Like a giant vacuum cleaner, the low pressure in the eye of the storm was already drawing the air south. He listened to the radio, but there was no advisory. Halfway out to the fishing grounds, when the barometer neared 29 inches, he turned back. He wanted to reach a good mooring before whatever was coming hit. After they'd turned, Stevie watched the forty-foot lobster boats go by, continuing out to the ocean. The crews were busy with the excitement in anticipation of a storm, and working to secure their gear and lines. Still, a few of the men paused to wave at Stevie. Stevie caught the eye of some of the crewmen. Later, he thought he had seen a manic gleam in their eyes. He had a sense of foreboding, and thought they did, too. Something just told him, he said later, that they were waving good-bye.
That low barometer, none of the fishermen knew at the time, signaled the approach of a frighteningly powerful hurricane that was approaching them at the unheard-of speed of 67 miles per hour. Its center was surrounded by tightly wrapped winds reaching 156 miles per hour. It was pushing a storm surge ahead of it that would raise coastal water levels as much as forty feet. About two hundred miles across, it would sweep north across Long Island, then Long Island Sound, and then smash into the coasts of Connecticut and Rhode Island, devastating blue-blood resorts and blue-collar mill communities with equal vengeance.
This hurricane was to leave a lasting scar in the collective memory of the regions it struck. Its violence was far beyond the experience of the seaside dwellers it assaulted, and they were not prepared as we are all today by television clips showing such storms elsewhere. They could not imagine what it would be like, even had they been warned. Newspapers and radio stations outside the immediate area, filled with international news, didn't report the storm very well. Media and communications within the storm area were hugely disrupted, so it was difficult for both individuals and the nation to grasp the totality of what had happened. A hurricane is less like one huge disaster than it is the sum of a thousand smaller tragedies. Once those tragedies were recorded, Long Islanders and New Englanders have always spoken of the event, long before hurricanes were named by the government, as the Great Hurricane of 1938.
GH38 hit the nation, and particularly the Northeast, at a vulnerable time. The region, tied as it was to industry and the economies of big cities, was beginning to regroup after the Depression. The fishermen of Long Island like Milt Miller felt life was good for them, but they also knew that people were going without food in New York City. Rich and poor, from the starchy Connecticut upper classes to the immigrant inhabitants of the yeastier neighborhoods of Providence, had downsized their lives and expectations after the market crash of '29.
Everyone skimped. A middle-class twelve-year-old boy could consider ten cents a respectable weekly allowance. In some states a woman couldn't teach once she married so as not to take a paying job away from a man who had a family to support. College and boarding school enrollments were down because of the hard times, and men and women both young and old worked in the textile mills and factories in Providence and Boston despite the lack of opportunity for advancement. Spinning, weaving, and the dyeing of cloth had been big business for the nation's garment industry, centered in Providence and Boston since the early 1800s. Yet now the streets were full of the poor, especially the thousands of immigrant Irish, Italian, and Portuguese millworkers who had been laid off first as the Northeastern textile industry lost supremacy to the South and then by the retrenchment of the Depression. Maiden aunts became spinsters who moved in to help others with their children and housework in return for room and board.
The Depression perhaps took its highest toll on the prospects and optimism of the young. New high school graduates were typically law-abiding and respected authority. Many of them had hardly known anything except economic hard times. The 25 percent unemployment rate was frightening enough, and people knew that any trouble with the police would make getting a job even more difficult. Still, six months after graduation, only one in four high school graduates was employed. Many pared down their ambitions to live on their own and often stayed home because it was affordable, and their contribution to the family's invariably strained household budget was sorely needed. Paying room and board to one's parents, even handing over one's paycheck to receive an allowance back, was a common practice.
Those lucky enough to have jobs in the cities worked in offices and shops downtown, rode the nickel trolley to work, and lived to go to the movies on weekends. In a world without shopping centers and cineplexes, cities were thriving centers of life and pinnacles of sophisticated urbanity. It was the age of the American department store like Cherry & Webb in Providence and B. Altman's in New York. Though often cavernous and poorly lit, they made shoppers feel that they were in the land of plenty, removed from the world of want out on the street, even if they could only afford to window-shop beneath often gaily striped, stately awnings. For everything from furniture to silk stockings, department stores were the places to shop, and they made shopping enjoyable with their luxurious ladies' lounges and furniture displays, sometimes even cafeterias or tearooms on the mezzanine. They were full of bustle and anonymous female salesclerks with flawless makeup and window displays showing just what to wear and how to decorate one's home. Everyone escaped the drudgery of daily life by going downtown.
It was considered almost un-American to not go to the movies once a week, and in a life pared down to economic necessities and daily duties, luxurious downtown theaters were as close to heaven as most people could get. It was the golden age of movies, and Hollywood projected a population's thwarted ambitions and frustrations during the Depression and filled their fantasies. A public burdened by the economic and psychological impact of eight hard years found relief-and escape-at the movies. Favorite films were lighthearted capers like Bringing Up Father and featured stars like Errol Flynn in Captain Blood. Bing Crosby, with his wholesome good looks and carefree singing voice, was a favorite, as were Laurel and Hardy. Joan Bennett, who customarily played a madcap heiress and wore fabulous gauzy, shimmering clothes with square shoulders and defined waists above fitted hips, was a favorite of women. Her riches and spirited frivolity as she jilted and reclaimed endless rich, handsome suitors on-screen fueled their fantasies of romantic escape from the hard-bitten realities of their off-screen lives.
Despite the hardships, progress and innovation continued, albeit slowly. In 1938, Du Pont first marketed a miracle fabric called nylon. Big prints and patterns were in vogue, and nylon encouraged designers to favor midcalf-length skirts that flowed as freely as silk but were more affordable. The first nylon toothbrush was marketed in New Jersey. The New York Yankees won their third consecutive world championship, and a chain letter craze challenged the postal service with a huge burden of extra mail. Women worked, but mostly in domestic and clerical positions, and an unmarried thirty-year-old was automatically declared a spinster. Almost never was a married woman referred to by her first name, even in the newspaper. And racial divides were equally clear. Blacks, called colored, had their own obituary section in the newspaper.
Bugs Bunny made his screen debut, but comic books and cartoon strips were the new rage that entered almost every house. Action comics were created, starring Captain Marvel and Superman and Sheena, Queen of the Jungle. Blondie, with her tart tongue and Dagwood's foibles, was the first comic strip that mocked and had a little fun with middle-class mores. The public was ready to look at itself and have a laugh. Life wasn't only about struggle, people hoped.
Radio was the medium that tapped the public consciousness and mattered to advertisers. It was all there was and, except for papers and weeklies, the public followed it for news and entertainment broadcasts. Some 75 percent of all homes had a radio set. Sunday nights most people stayed close to home to listen to The Jack Benny Program. The radio audience was so large that when H. G. Wells's War of the Worlds was performed on The Mercury Theatre on the Air that same year, listeners mistook it for news that Martians had indeed landed, and a national panic followed until announcers could convince listeners that what they'd been listing to was only fiction. Ivory soap, Oxydol laundry detergent, and Crisco shortening were the leading advertisers and sponsors, and they knew that radio reached the audience they were looking for.
Still, a stunting in the American consciousness had already occurred. America, so indomitably spirited and optimistic on one hand, had learned undeniably about fear at home during the Depression. President Roosevelt's slogan that there was nothing to fear but fear itself allayed some of the anxieties, but such times would never be forgotten by those who lived through them. Now the news from abroad didn't look much better to those who read the papers, listened to the radio, or saw the most dramatic and compelling account of world affairs-in a world without television-in the Movietone newsreels.
The breadlines and soup kitchens were constant reminders that poverty was still licking at the nation's heels. Even debutantes were denied new gowns and often recycled the previous season's fashions. Dreams and college educations were deferred. Some of the unemployed joined federal works projects such as the WPA to make ends meet, and a developing welfare system and network of social workers championed by first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who was photographed routinely in her cloth coat and clunky shoes, reaching out to the poor, put a lifeline out to the poorest. Eleanor was a favorite with the public, a rich first lady who eschewed the privileges of wealth.
The late 1930s were an otherwise quiet time in the United States, presided over by President Franklin Roosevelt, who tried to boost morale as much as the actual economy. As the nation emerged from its crouch, it romanticized the bedrock pioneer values of home, hearth, and living off the bounty of the land that some considered to be America's most authentic face, anyhow. In reality, rural life had already been overshadowed by the American industrial revolution and Wall Street wealth in the Northeast, but as belts were tightened everywhere, the virtues of simple living became fashionable. Even the rich denied themselves flashy finery and advertising that they were rich. It would have been unbecoming.
The razzle-dazzle of the Jazz Age and the Roaring Twenties had left their mark on the 1930s, but their glamour and profligacy seemed distant after nine years of Depression. There had been wild parties and new fashions, but underneath the bobbed haircuts, shimmies, and cigarette smoke, life stayed pretty much the same for most people. Newspapers on Long Island had gone so far as to interview some of the girls, the "flappers," who danced until dawn. The papers revealed that the girls hurried home in time to enter bread-baking contests the next morning.
For most people, that's how real life was, somewhere between the glitzy proclamation of changed manners and morals and life as usual. Life had a way of coming back to center, and the stock market crash of 1929 made certain that everyone sobered up after the high times. Prohibition and the rum-running boon of the early 1930s were over, though they had shaped Long Island's and much of the Northeast's coastal economies for a while, not always illegally. One boatyard in Freeport, Long Island, made thirty boats for rum-runners and fifteen for the Coast Guard to chase them in. But by 1933, when Prohibition ended, the flash of money, the thrill of living dangerously, and the high times were gone. Only the faintest echo of Billie Holiday, Sophie Tucker, and other jazz greats who had packed the roadhouses along the south shore frequented by glamorous gangsters like Legs Diamond remained in some folks' memories. The opulence had been supplanted by more somber realities for nearly everyone. In the Northeast, the most severe contractions of the Depression continued.
Excerpted from The Great Hurricane: 1958 by CHERIE BURNS Copyright © 2005 by Cherie Burns. Excerpted by permission.
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