I cant really explain why I like chasing hurricanes, as it is a thoroughly miserable endeavour. But whenever one of these churning monsters takes aim at the Carolina coast, I jones to be there when it slams ashore. Perhaps I wouldn’t feel this way if I fixed copiers for a living, but after fifteen years of habitual storm coverage, I’ve developed quite the nasty hurricane habit. Like a junkie who knows he ain‘t living right, I could barely look at myself in the rearview mirror of my news unit Tuesday as I made one more mad dash into dirty weather. Bright sun in the Triad disappeared by Raleigh. By the time I reached the edge of Wilmington, a long line of evacuating traffic choked the oncoming lanes while angry raindrops turned my windshield into an abstract painting. It was then I realized just what I’d volunteered for again and I spent the last few miles to Carolina Beach squirming in my seat with adrenaline and regret.
I blew into town around the same time Ophelia’s outermost rain-bands did. Snaking through the flashing yellow traffic signals, I scanned the storefronts for makeshift plywood and spray painted defiance. I found only the former, a sunglass shop with all her windows sheathed in expertly erected wooden planks. Swooping into a parking spot off the main drag, I threw the Explorer in PAR K, leaned on the door handle and tumbled into the drink.
Outside, shimmering curtains of rain showers undulated across the deserted intersection. I kept my head down, but still took on quite a bit of water in the two seconds it too me to pop the tailgate. Crawling into the overstuffed cargo stash, I grumbled under my breath and fumbled with Velcro straps. Only when my Sony was encased in tailored blue canvas did I venture back out, knowing all the electronic bravado I brought would all be for naught if water got inside my camera. As I poked my head out of the back of the truck, two shirtless surfers pedaled by in slow-motion, their tattooed necks twisting shaven heads toward the emerging newsman.
“Hey guys,” I shouted over the roar of the storm, “Ya got a minute?”
Bill and Ted were friendly enough types but had trouble putting more than three words together at a time. As they roped to express how stroked they were to ride out the storm, I searched for a way to blow them off quickly. Chewing my lip, I stared at the quickly dimming daylight behind Bill’s (or Ted’s) head. On my hip, an ancient cell phone rang.
“You got time to call this yacht guy?”, Wes asked from the cockpit of his own news cruiser. “We‘re about a half hour out.”
“Sure” I said, not knowing who the‘ yacht guy’ was. Six minutes later I stepped aboard the vessel in question; it sunk a bit under my weight, making it more of a boat than a yacht. Inching along the narrow walkway outside the cabin, I held my camera in a death grip and thought about a storm named Gordon. I was halfway around the starboard side when a older man in a lighthouse t-shirt and white beard slid open a door panel and beckoned me inside. Once belowdecks, I pinned a microphone on my host, a retired state trooper who’d spent the last ten years cruising the Caribbean. In a corner of his potted plant-filled cabin, his gray haired girlfriend giggled at his every on-screen retort. Less than ten minutes after boarding the boat, I gathered my tools and disembarked. I couldn’t help but giggle nervously as I gripped the railing of the bobbing boat. Nary a slip around the small harbor was empty, paint-peeled fishing vessels and gleaming pleasure crafts pitched and yawed along side each other, the sounds of rope rubbing on wood echoing underneath the slapping patter of the hard-falling rain.
‘The places I find myself’ I thought as I stepped off the boat and onto a floating pier of lashed-together boards. In the distance, I saw Unit Four parked by the condo entrance, its hazard lights still flashing in the downpour. Holding my head down to avoid a face full of rain water, I ran around across the Yacht Club’s yard with my camera lens pointed behind me. I was almost to the other side when I heard them.
“Woo-Hoo! TV Dude! Wanna Beer? C’mon on man, make us famous”
I looked up and squinted through the deluge. Three stories up a small group of young locals loitered and grinned outside the condo’s covered porch. Cigarette smoke hung over their heads, mingling with the smell of a nearby grill’s sizzling contents. Low voices and raucous laughter rang out from behind the screen, punctuating the sound of the wind howling through the breezeway. Climbing the condo‘s steps, I smiled and waved, grateful to have found a bonafide hurricane party to put on the ten o clock news. When I stepped onto their landing, the inebriated foursome clapped and cheered, welcoming me to their gathering like a guest of honor. As they all began talking at once, I pinned a lapel microphone on the soberest one’s shirt and peppered him with questions. Through fumes borne of an Old Milwaukee can, he spoke of how the boats berthed below would float up over their slips should the water level rise enough. I made a mental note to check back later on the area as drops of rainwater slid off my eyebrows and straight into my upturned viewfinder, distorting the drunk man‘s image. I was wiping off the water with a rain-soaked sleeve when my cell phone rang for the fifteenth time that day.
“Stewie, we’re at the Marriott. Chad needs your disc so he can log it. Didya get anything?” I could hear tinny audio playing at fast speed in the background, along with a considerable amount of trash talk.
“Yeah...good stuff too”, I said, fumbling through my run-bag for the feel of my small digital camera. Across the screened-in porch, the guy I‘d been interviewing convulsed with tipsy giggles as his friends fought to high-five him. I ran my fingers under the soaking wet station ball-cap and pressed the old phone to my ear. “Lemme say goodbye to my new best friends and I’ll be right there -”
(To Be Continued...)