The Rockport Miracles-Part 4: Episode 26: “The Ballad Of Derecho Dan” Continues:
The mood was festive along the lakeshore cliffs that define the northeastern border of River City.
The mood was festive along the lakeshore cliffs that define the northeastern border of River City.
Little Dan had to go to the can but couldn’t because it was loaded to the gills with dynamite. Instead, he relieved himself into an empty (and appropriately labeled) Chock Full O’ Nuts Coffee can he found floating in the river.
The eerie, chaotic thunderclaps of Storm 5.6 sounded out for a full hour before the sentinel winds of the oncoming derecho were felt. Terrorized citizens fled the town in large numbers while many plucky Rockporters chose to stay and protect their properties. Over the years these brave souls morphed into a hardcore group of stalwarts who called themselves, "The Rocks of Rockport."
Meanwhile, the jerkwad citizens of neighboring River City had begun gathering along their lake shore cliffs with lawn chairs, picnic baskets, and coolers loaded with their favorite beverages. They assembled to again witness a storm slam into Rockport. Many in River City complained when Storms 5.4 and 5.5 occurred at night while they were sleeping. At the sound of the first thunder boom, hundreds choked their favorite vantage points along the shoreline and waited for the show to begin.
Though most would question the logic of Maynard's “Manifesto with Cheese,” Little Dan had accepted his new destiny without hesitation. The booming thunder became the "lizard's roar" signal that Little Dan’s had been waiting for. He fired up the boat, tore Maynard Gridley's manifesto in two and tossed it overboard. He took the helm and steered the boat, ‘The Friggin’ A’ out of its camouflaged position and into the river channel.
The thunder strikes of Storm 5.6 sounded as though they'd emanated from the lower regions of hell. Those citizens that were still living in Rockport said it sounded like a distant bus being chewed apart along with booming sounds like cannonade. Rockporters remember this storm as “The Serpent Storm” or simply, “the Serp." It was the storm that made Little Dan Newman a household name throughout the country. Somebody even wrote a chart-topping song about it called, “The Ballad of Derecho Dan.”
He was just a boy,
Who pumped the gas,
Until the day,
He turned badass.
(Oh! Derecho Dan!...Oh! Derecho Dan!)
Upon hearing the thunder, Police Chief Tom Graber lost the last few crumbs of his patience. For a full week he’d been hunting down Little Dan Newman without success. He'd come to Rockport Hospital that day to see Little Dan's mother, Wilmena and tell her the happy news about Little BD. He'd been thought dead in the Gas & Lube explosion, and was found alive and unharmed. Rowena Gridley, Wilmena's younger sister was in the room when he arrived. The heraldic thunderclaps of Storm 5.6 incited Chief Graber to forget the niceties and whip out his handcuffs.
“The lizard’s roar will come from the north. When you hear it, destroy the manifesto! Say your prayers! Take the sunshine pill, and fire up the engine! It is time to put that treasonous lizard into a watery grave!" (Excerpt dated 8/30/75 from Maynard Gridley’s “Manifesto With Cheese.”)
Police Chief Tom Graber wasted no time rushing to the Rockport Animal Hospital at Fire Chief Nicholson’s request. Graber had been on a fruitless search for Little Dan ever since he’d escaped from the hospital days earlier. The Chief had a hunch, however, that his luck was about to change.
Fire Chief Ned Nicholson had already entered the exam room with the veterinarian by the time Chief Graber had arrived. Graber immediately noticed a car tire outside the door. Entering the room he saw a pile of empty potato chip bags, Hostess Twinkie wrappers, and a plastic sandwich bag labeled “TUNA SALAD SANDWICH – 59¢.”
The veterinarian and Chief Nicholson were standing over a small, somewhat disheveled object, wrapped in a blanket. “Hey Tom--check it out!” said the Fire Chief, motioning him over to the table. Tom Graber gently pulled the blanket away so he could see what all the fuss was about. His eyes nearly bugged out of his head. The police chief raised his arms towards the heavens and screamed, “Hallelujah!!”
“The Giant Lizard’s roar is your signal to take action. When you hear it, take this boat out onto the fetid waters of Lake Erie and stick it straight up the Lizard’s ass!” (Excerpt dated 7/4/75 from Maynard Gridley’s “Manifesto With Cheese.”)
Little Dan was taken aback as he sat on the deck of Maynard’s boat named “The Friggin’ A.” He couldn’t comprehend the malice that lurked in the heart of Maynard Gridley. After all, Maynard was just a fella from Parma, Ohio. His biggest accomplishment in life was to drink 50 bottles of Stroh’s in less than one hour.
Yes, it was true that Maynard had been banned from the Yucatan Peninsula for life. South Dakota was sure happy to see his backside. Then there was that harrowing incident outside Taos, New Mexico. Apache elders had discovered Maynard trespassing atop a sacred mesa and smoking peyote. He was lucky to crawl away from that scuffle but, not before the face of Geronimo had been branded onto one of his butt cheeks.
It’s all true! Maynard was hellion. Maynard was a rambunctious hooligan, a rebel, a prankster, and a glorious heathen. But, Maynard Gridley was NOT a mad bomber. That's not how he was raised, although Rowena must have known her son was up to something. There were enough explosives on that boat to take out a hundred giant lizards.
“…only a precious few ever remember and once they’re gone, no one ever remembers. WE MUST SEIZE THE DAZE!!” (Excerpt dated 6/15/75 from Maynard Gridley’s “Manifesto with Cheese.”)
Little Dan felt dead inside. He’d slept the previous night on the deck of Maynard’s boat and awoke to the pitter splatter sounds of concrete flaking off the High Level Bridge. Clutching a pint carton of Lawson's Chocolate Milk against his heart, Little Dan wondered how his life had gone so wrong-- so fast. “It’s all Maynard’s fault!” he cried.
It was then the fifth day following Storm 5.5. After Rowena and the Three Joes had orchestrated a series of daring get-a-ways, Little Dan was now cowering in the Cleveland Flats on a boat named "The Friggin' A." Maynard had converted the vessel into a gigantic floating bomb for reasons still unclear. It was no secret that Maynard had returned from Vietnam angry and confused. The question remained, however, what did Maynard want to blow up and why? Looking for answers, Little Dan combed through the cryptic ramblings of Maynard’s “Manifesto with Cheese.” The document was difficult to read since it was covered with wine stains and cigarette burns. Throughout the manifesto, Maynard warned repeatedly that Americans must be prepared to act swiftly, “When the Giant Lizard appears before us.”
To keep his spirits up, Little Dan munched on the tuna salad sandwiches that Rowena had packed for him but, not even the zingy flavor of Wilmena Newman's famous tuna salad could beguile him. Little Dan broke down and cried, “I lost my dad, my mom, my dog, and the Gas & Lube.”
“…long before now, that river had been an open sewer. When it caught fire in 1969 the entire USA went ape. Do they think that was the first time it caught fire? Shit, it was the 13th TIME! There is something to be said about a city that drinks from the same waters it craps in, I just haven’t got a name for it. No doubt some smart business guy will say it’s a good thing. If businessmen ever rule the earth, they’ll reduce us to serfdom within a generation and life will stink like never before.” (Excerpt dated 7/21/75 from Maynard Gridley’s “Manifesto with Cheese.”)
Little Dan found these and other assertions in the last testament of Maynard Gridley. The document was a rambling, sometimes incoherent declaration of principles and other things Maynard just didn't like about the world. He titled it, “Manifesto with Cheese.”
Two days earlier, Little Dan told Rowena that Maynard appeared to him in a dream and told him to use his boat for an unknown “mission.” Rowena’s faith in Maynard’s ability to come back and haunt someone was unshakeable. She directed the Three Joes to whisk Little Dan from his hiding place in Little Italy to the Cleveland Flats where Maynard’s boat was tied up. After locating it, Little Dan shook each of the Three Joes hands, said his goodbyes, and jumped onboard the vessel.
The boat was a 1959 Christ Craft 33’ Sports Cruiser aptly christened , “The Friggin’ A.” The boat had been cleverly hidden astride an abandoned 19th century side-wheeler that some dreamer tried to turn into a floating night club. After the project went bust the old ship sat abandoned and rotting on the river for a nearly decade. Wedged in the shadow of the older boat and camouflaged by the usual river debris, “The Friggin’ A” could hide in plain sight.
Maynard Gridley’s funeral was a pip. Many of his neighbors in Parma, Ohio - the same people who had shunned Maynard out of fear and mistrust, were startled to witness the legions of Maynard’s friends that overwhelmed St. Christina - The Astonishing Catholic Church. Hundreds had come to pay their respects, including Maynard’s ragtag Vietnam veteran buddies, Color Guard members representing three regional V.F.W. Posts, and police officers who’d once had the pleasure of arresting Maynard. The roar and pop of Harley-Davidson engines outside the church announced the arrivals of motorcycle clubs from all over the midwest. They all came because they all loved Maynard.
Little Dan laid uneasy on a table in a damp, cramped basement in Cleveland’s Little Italy. Still babbling incoherently, Little Dan was accused of over 30 counts of negligence and arson in the wake of storm 5.5. On the lam, he'd been a fugitive as much to reality as he was to justice. Unable to grasp exactly how the promise of his young life had been destroyed in less than five minutes, his tortured mind retreated into a fitful dream:
“I lost my dad, my mom, my dog, and the Gas & Lube...I lost my dad, my mom, my dog, and the Gas & Lube...I lost my dad, my mom, my dog, and the Gas & Lube...”
Truer words had never rolled off Little Dan’s lips except for the fact that he hadn’t lost his mom. Though not well, Wilmena Newman had been slowly recovering in the hospital from injuries sustained when a house fell on her during the previous Storm 5.4. What Little Dan had truly lost was her stabilizing presence in his everyday life, her famous tuna salad, and her disciplined approach to making sure the auto shut-off valve switch was activated in case the gas pumps ruptured. The auto shut-off kept the underground tanks from exploding in the event a car or an out of control acetylene tank crashed into them and caught fire. When Rockport Storm 5.5 came calling during the wee hours of that ill-fated morning, the latter scenario became a deadly reality.
Rockport’s beloved Gas & Lube, founded in 1916 by Old Dan Newman, who’d passed it down to his son, Big Dan Newman, who’d passed it down to his son, Little Dan Newman, had burned to the ground in less time than it took to eat one of Wilmena’s tuna salad sandwiches. Even worse, the ensuing fire and explosion had quickly spread to the surrounding neighborhoods and set dozens of houses ablaze.
Little Dan had always been a deep sleeper. Even the ominous crackling of thunder combined with Rockport’s wailing storm sirens weren’t enough to wake him. Poor Little BD had heard everything and because he was still suffering from the horrors of storm 5.4, the little canine dove even deeper into the motorcycle helmet that served as his bed for the night. Little Dan would’ve slept through the entire storm had a loosened brick from the wall built to protect the Gas & Lube not sailed through the station’s windows.
Maynard Gridley was as gray as a ghost while recounting his harrowing tale from his days in Vietnam.
“Me and the wounded sapper were flushed down that ‘Poontang Valley’ with only two inflated hemorrhoid cushions between us and the Almighty. We floated a half mile until becoming snagged by the roots of a banyan tree.”
“Monsoon Charlie was directly over us and it became dark as night. I did what I could for my wounded comrade. All I had to cover up the hole in his chest was an empty pack of Lucky Strikes.”
“‘L-S-M-F-T, bro’, he said, before passing out.”
“The Lieutenant ordered the men to hunker down and hold onto their hemorrhoid cushions like they were their mothers and girlfriends. The blast hole was packed with every last bit of explosives on the firebase. We expected a pretty big bang but not at all what happened after the Lieutenant triggered the detonator.”
Maynard Gridley guzzled down another 8 oz. bottle of Coca-Cola and followed it up with a belch that could wake the dead. As Little Dan and the three Joes sat in rapt attention inside the Gas & Lube, Maynard told a story he’d brought home from Vietnam, along with his scars, his mental wounds, and a souvenir silk jacket embroidered with the words, “I’ve Served My Time In Hell-Vietnam.”
Maynard Gridley wasn’t kidding. His tale about “Monsoon Charlie” was a real corker! So much so that Little Dan decided to close down the Gas & Lube so he could hear the whole thing without interruption. He told the three Joes that they could go home but, they chose to stick around. They wanted to hear the rest of the story, too.
“Monsoon* Charlie was its name,
(An editor’s note:For the first time since the storm era had begun, River City finally suffered collateral damage from what was known as “Storm 5.4.” An errant tornado had spun off the sentinal winds and landed on the River City Yacht Club. Several rich people’s precious boats were reduced to matchsticks and floating wine bottles. The jerkwad mayor of River City is demanding that Rockport pay for the damages. Such is the sad madness of these times we live in.)
Maynard Gridley’s face turned pale after Little Dan had innocently inquired about “Monsoon Charlie.” After all, it was Maynard who’d brought it up while bragging that the storms bedeviling Rockport weren’t a match for the monsoons that he’d experienced in Vietnam. “Your face just turned gray,” observed Little Dan, “Who the heck was Monsoon Charlie?” Maynard plopped his half-smoked Lucky Strike into a half-drunk bottle of Coke and replied, “Monsoon Charlie was neither man nor beast!"
Suddenly, Maynard turned white, grabbed his chest, and ran into the men’s room. Through the door Little Dan could hear him throwing up. Maynard reappeared a few minutes later complaining the lunchtime eggplant parmesan brought in by the Three Joes had made him nauseous. “That ‘Guido food’ made me sick,” he griped. Little Dan didn’t believe it and the Three Joes didn’t either. It was obvious that ‘Monsoon Charlie’ still rattled the leather-tough Maynard to his core.
Maynard Gridley came to help.
After Wilmena’s younger sister heard what happened, she rolled her son off the couch and said, “Go help Little Dan and the Gas & Lube!” Like many in Big Dan’s and Wilmena’s extended families, Maynard was an expert mechanic. He was an expert in mayhem also. Had Wilmena known what her sister was up to, she never would've agreed to allow Maynard near Little Dan or the Gas and Lube.
Unfortunately, Wilmena wasn’t in a position to do or know anything. She was still in Rockport Hospital, covered in tubes, bandages and doped up on morphine. It would be days before she learned that her troubled nephew had come to town. By then, it was too late. Little Dan had eagerly welcomed him into his life. Maynard's non-conforming attitudes and lifestyle were drenched in outlaw charisma. Little Dan was in awe of the gringo cousin that he’d heard bad things about all of his life.
Maynard Gridley was born in 1949 and grew up during the seemingly inconsequential Eisenhower era. He attended his schools faithfully and always went to church on Sundays. He played sandlot baseball in the summer and intramural football in autumn. As was the way in those times, soon after his 18th birthday, he'd been drafted into the military industrial complex.
They assigned Maynard to the 101st Airborne and he did his basic training at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. After basic was over, he came home for a visit. It would be the last time anyone met up with the old Maynard. Soon thereafter, he shipped off to Vietnam and arrived just in time to experience the eye-popping charms of the Tet Offensive. Maynard had fought bravely during his tour of Vietnam and took a bullet in his leg and some shrapnel in his ass.
All people could say after storm 5.4 finished up with Rockport was how fortunate we all were to have a hospital five minutes away from everyone.
Storm 5.4 was a real pisser. In truth, they’re all pissers but, some have been worse than others. This particular storm had characteristics the meteorologists call “complex”. A typical Rockport storm features straight line derecho winds that rocket through storm alley and sound like someone is blowing hard on a one-reed harmonica. “Complex storms” happen when extreme low and high air pressures meet for coffee over Lake Erie. Working together with the water, the jumbalaya of weather elements spawn tornados that spin off in all directions like snakes from the head of Medusa.
Little Dan sure had his work cut out for him if he was to save the Gas & Lube. Everyone said he was in over his head and doomed to fail. Little Dan’s secret weapon against such pessimism was his own youthful optimism. He didn’t yet know where failure lived and he sure as hell wasn’t roaming the town in search of it.
Big Dan had sweated out his last day on earth. He tried to decide whether to keep the Gas & Lube open or close it down before the relentless derecho storms tore the old building apart. He feared that a sudden storm could ignite the station’s vulnerable underground gasoline supplies. Hanging in the balance were the livelihoods of his family and the future of Little Dan.
That evening after work , Big Dan came home and sat down in his favorite chair. He turned on his Zenith Color TV using its Space Commander Remote and then quietly passed on to his next life without so much as an ‘adios’. The hobgoblins of stress and worry had finally gotten the better of Big Dan and left him standing at the pearly gates, probably with a quizzical look on his face. He'd been a hard working and honest man who internalized all the things that gnawed small chunks out of him until nothing was left but a chunkless man.
Wilmena and Little Dan had discovered Big Dan dead from a heart attack just as Rockport’s emergency sirens signaled that the next storm was on its way. It turned out to be a false alarm. Yes, a storm had hit Rockport that morning. It rolled in and left flooding, downed trees, water spouts and power outages. Fortunately, it had been a “normal” storm. The type of storm that we'd grown up with. The kind that happen on warm summer days when moisture from the Gulf of Mexico rushes north through the Tennessee and Ohio Valleys.
Abiding by their “storm era” policies, the police, fire and ambulances couldn’t or wouldn’t respond to Wilmena’s tearful call until the danger had passed. There was nothing they could do for Big Dan, anyway. So, Wilmena summoned her army of close friends and kind hearted neighbors who braved the storm and filled the house with love and support. Together they moved Big Dan from his chair onto a swaddle of pillows and blankets that had been laid on the floor. As the storm outside the house raged on, everyone prayed aloud and didn’t stop until they came and took Big Dan away to the medical examiner.
A side note: I’d mentioned in one of my earlier dispatches that I hate River City and all of its orthodontured, boat-obsessed, inhabitants. When the storm-era began, you’d see groups of concerned River City folks standing on their lakeshore or sitting on one of their many boats, empathetically watching as one storm after another slammed into Rockport. Eventually, River City's mayor figured that he could make a buck out of Rockport's misfortune. He installed picnic tables, concession stands, and port-a-johns at several safe viewing points. What a jerk! (end note).
They didn’t call him “Big Dan” for nothing. Standing tall at 6’4” and weighing 280 lbs., “Big Dan” was built for power and he needed every calorie of it to do the hard work that rolled up everyday to the Gas & Lube. His wife, Wilmena, was a strong, firm and clear thinking woman. Large boned and big hearted, Wilmena Newman knew how to take care of her boys. Each day she showed up at the Gas and Lube before noon carrying the boys’ lunches and dinners which invariably consisted of her famous tuna salad sandwiches, lunch box sized bags of Dan-Dee potato chips, and ice cold 8 oz. bottles of Coca Cola. The deliciousness of her tuna salad was so well known in Rockport, the Gas and Lube began selling “Mrs. Dan Tuna Salad Sandwiches” alongside the windshield wipers and spark plugs. No one knew why her tuna salad tasted so good or dared ask for her recipe. There were rumors swirling about town that it had something to do with dill, but it was never confirmed.
Their only child, Dan Newman III (aka “Little Dan”) worked at the Gas & Lube after school and on weekends. At 6’5” and 300 lbs. he was “little” in name only. Little Dan pumped gas, towed cars, picked up parts and ran the “Tire Corral” that Old Dan Sr. had started way back in 1920. Little Dan would organize discarded and worn tires that could still hold air and then sell them to people that needed something cheap and made of rubber. Assisting him everyday in this task was his beloved Boston Bull terrier that he called “Boston Dan” or “BD” for short.
It’s a baffling world, but who gives a crap? The only thing I care about is Rockport. Since 1970, when our “storm era” began, learned men and women from the fields of meteorology, oceanography, electrical physiology, sociology and God-ology had arrived in droves to analyze and measure the air, the land, the water, and the moral fiber of Rockport. Conspiracy theorists have had a field day blaming the storms on the military, the Masons, the Russians, the NRA, the CIA, the AAA, and the Beatles. It’s all a bunch of crap.
Part 3: Episode 4: “Strangers In The Night”
Because I’m genetically insecure, I wasn’t confident that Wren Mathews would be happy to see me. I had ascended the bell tower stairs at St. Swithun Church with reasonable certainty of a warm greeting. And yet in the “here today, gone goose” world of teen-aged love, nothing is certain.
As it turned out, Wren WAS happy to see me and why shouldn’t she be? We’d lived a lifetime together in less than a day and now we’d found ourselves unchaperoned and surrounded by dense fog! Good ol’ Father Marlowe was a hopeless romantic. It was he that suggested I meet Wren in the bell tower. Unfortunately, his own momentous meeting downtown had not gone well.
During a confrontation with the Bishop (his real life younger brother), Marlowe learned that he’d lost his beloved job of 30 years as Pastor of St. Swithun. Adding insult to injury, he was informed that Father Elmo Fry, the most notorious pedophile in the growing society of disgraced Catholic clergymen, would be provided indefinite sanctuary at St. Swithun by order of the Holy See.
The Rockport Miracles - Part 3: Episode 3 “On A Clear Day You Can Punch A Cleric”
Lester Brown was still hugging his Hasselblad when I flew out of his camera store like a squirrel torn between two sows. I couldn’t decide whether to run southeast to see Father Marlowe (and hopefully, Wren Mathews) or southwest to make sure my Mom got through the storm in one piece. In the end, Mom won the toss, again.
The earth is in charge. It’s under attack by elite sectors of humankind infected with arrogance and greed. They plunder the planet’s most precious resources with depraved indifference. They crap into the waters we drink. They poison the air that we breathe. Sooner or later a breaking point will be reached and the earth will revolt. When the earth revolts, the earth will win. Why will the earth win? The earth…is in charge.
We who reside on the Great Lakes are a tough bunch. Tougher than we get credit for. Every last one of us have been taught respect for the natural world by the powerful lake storms we’ve lived through. Perhaps that’s why we were too slow to realize something UNnatural was happening to Rockport in January 1970.
I awoke on the morning after Rockport’s night of terror to the haunting drone of a coastal foghorn. It’s a comforting, albeit melancholy sound that always reminds me of the cadence sung by the witch’s soldiers in the “Wizard of Oz.” “Bweeeee-bomp.” “Bweeeee-Bomp.”
As I wiped the sleep from my eyes, I remembered that it was still January. Why, I wondered, would a foghorn preside over a frozen Lake Erie? Who or what was it attempting to warn? I unpeeled myself like an artichoke from multiple layers of warm and cozy bed covers and staggered to my window. The fog was so thick that I couldn’t see the next-door neighbor’s house only 20 feet away. As I got dressed in front of a mirror, I was startled by all the bruises that covered me from head to toe. That’s when memories of the previous night with Wren Mathews came rushing back in vivid Technicolor. I had to see Wren as soon as possible.
Part 2: Episode 5 “Family Matters”
A 1969 map of Rockport revealed a city shaped like a shaggy rectangle. Only two miles deep and five miles wide, its dimensions made it an ideal sized town to maintain, serve and protect.
In 1970, the map was revised to show a big gash up its midsection after Rockport’s annual Christmas tree bonfire festival devolved into disaster when a freak windstorm out of the north scattered flaming trees into the guts of the town and set hundreds of houses and buildings ablaze. Many died or were injured in the storm. Then, as if by design, the windstorm was immediately followed by a wave of heavy wet snowfall that subsequently extinguished all of the ravaging fires. Some called that a Rockport miracle.
Wren Mathews and I had escaped the chaos at Lakefront Park and ran eight blocks to her parents’ house. We were relieved to find her home literally untouched by the storm, another miracle when you consider that all the other houses on her street were damaged or destroyed. Relief immediately turned to shock (at least for me) when we entered her house and found Wren’s mother unconscious on the living room floor. I feared that she was dead until we discovered a half finished bottle of vodka next to her.
The Rockport Miracles
The Rockport Miracles
Part 2: Episode 2: “Bonfire of the Verminities”
I was still smarting from Wren Mathews’ slushy rebuke when I entered the noisy darkness of Lakefront Park for the annual bonfire. (circa 1970).
Every January, the town of Rockport staged a festive evening that featured hot chocolate, winter games of chance, free donuts and unbridled teen-age drinking. The big moment of the night was the setting ablaze of a 5-story pyramid made of discarded Christmas trees. At this juncture, it’s important to note that in those days the park shared its location with an old cemetery and the city dump! It was the dump’s chronic infestation of rats that provided the actual impetus for the burning tree festival.
In a time honored tradition, handed down and facilitated by multi-generations of proud Rockport garbage men, the tree pyramid was seasoned, bedecked and stuffed with rat finger food for the purpose of coaxing the formation of an entire rodent suburb within its tinseled branches. As Yuletide carols were sung by a choir, the trees with the rats inside them were roasted in a pyrrhic spectacle that would’ve wowed the Druids.
The Rockport Miracles
Part 2 Episode 1: A Girl Named Wren Mathews
Wren Mathews and I were toddlers in 1954 when the “Rags to Ruins” storm, (so named after Rags Johnson’s curse upon Rockport), had destroyed half the city. Meteorologists called it a “Hundred Years Storm.” Ten years later, after another cyclone rocked the town, the weather guys recalibrated their whirligigs and called it a “Ten Years Storm.” The Flying Owego Brothers (as they were now called) were ordered by city leaders to mount their heating and cooling company mascot on its side like a recumbent Buddha after “Donald Duct’s” gigantic nose was severed by lightning and flew through the roof of the Kingdom Hall.
It seems a thousand years have passed since I last saw her, but Wren Mathews is an undying memory. The first time I spotted her was in high school biology class, two frog dissection tables to my left. She was new to Rockport High having transferred from a Catholic Girls Academy known as St. Christina the Astonishing. There had been whispers about her family being involved in a scandal but that was okay with me. It just made her more intriguing. I may have been a teenager of the male idiot persuasion, but the hamster wheels of my mind were twirling fast enough to recognize Wren's unique qualities. It didn’t hurt my chances that I was a confirmed Catholic, either. Who else could better protect her from the Protestant hoards than me?
The sun is rising over the east end of Rockport and I’m hunkered down inside the old coal room of my grandfather’s wrecked mansion where I sleep the deepest. 30 years ago Rags Johnson cast his vengeful Creole curse upon Rockport and very little in the way of normal has occurred since. Soon, the dark shifting clouds that stalk our town will appear on Lake Erie’s northern horizon and wait patiently to attack us. Whatever it is that has turned the fates against all who live in the path of these ruinous storms one thing seems certain, we are experiencing events beyond the control of mere mortals.
The day after Rags Johnson was beaten up and unceremoniously run out of town, strong thunderstorms rolled in off the lake. I’m told a calm preceded the storm and the air all around was tinged with a strange reddish hue. Then, like Thor’s Hammer, a sudden, vicious tornado smashed into the middle of Rockport.
On the western edge of town, the giant “Welcome To Rockport” sheet metal man atop of the Owego Brothers Heating and Cooling Company became unhinged. Strapped upright to the roof with steel cables, the iconic colossus was being rocked from its moorings by strong swirling winds coming from all directions. Both of the Owego brothers rushed to stabilize the cables holding onto “Donald Duct”, as he was called, when a funnel cloud passed over them and lifted the big man into the sky with the Owego brothers holding on for dear life.
Meanwhile, a ferry boat transporting 50 Divinity students from Buffalo to Toledo capsized off Rockport’s coast and sank. All passengers and crew made it out alive but struggled to remain afloat in the storm-tossed waters. The students screamed, “Heavenly Father-SAVE US!!” Just then, a giant metal man streaked across the sky and plummeted into the storm tossed waters with the screeching Owego brothers still holding on to him. ‘Donald Duct’ proved to be amazingly buoyant and the survivors climbed aboard his massive face until they were rescued by the crew of an ore freighter.
Part 1: Episode 2 of 3: “The Curse of the Jazzman”
Rockport is cursed because a baby cried. I was that baby and only a few months old when Gershwin music tickled me one night until I cried. Back then I cried because that was my only way of communicating. These days I cry because I do.
Mom took me downstairs to meet the entire cast of “Porgy and Bess.” My uncle was the show’s road manager and he conspired with Dad to use our house for a cast party after the last Cleveland performance. It was a risky move. In 1954, the only black people in Rockport were maids, man servants, and the guy that went door-to- door sharpening knives and scissors.
The cast included Leontyne Price and the venerable Rags Johnson. I’m told that Miss Price held me in her arms and sang “Summertime” to comfort me. Her haunting soprano conjured melancholy from every dog on the street and woke up a neighbor who spotted two cast members smoking on our back porch. Within five minutes the entire police force had landed on our front lawn including Chief Hathaway who arrived in his pajamas.
Part 1: Episode 1 of 3: “The Pigeons That Saved Rockport”