Mary Beth Writes

 I went back in my file of old writing and found these two columns I wrote in August of 2004. This was the FIRST time we had a vacation sidetracked by a hurricane…


Hurricane Charley

Part I

For our family vacation, we'd made reservations at a resort in the Florida Keys.  We thought a week to swim, read, explore a little, eat great seafood, and just generally kick back to enjoy each other -- would be wonderful. 

I still bet it would. 

We sure don't know.

Can you guess how our vacation, last week in Florida, progressed?

As a dear friend of our family once remarked, "I always want to hear about your vacations -- but I never want to go with you."

We'd been at our resort exactly one (absolutely lovely) day, when we saw the evacuation order taped to the wall inside the elevator.  All non-residents must leave the Keys by 5 AM of the next morning, because of a hurricane named Charley.

Boy, there's a way to put a damper on going out to a nice dinner.   

No, the staff at the front desk didn't know what we should do.  No, the blithering media didn't explain how far we should go, how many days a hurricane crisis generally takes, how we should think about rearranging our vacation, while we were on it.         

I will never forget driving out of the Keys before sunrise the next morning.  The sun rose hazily over endless mangrove swamps. The tallest clouds I've ever seen, underlit by dawn's rosy glow, ringed the horizon.  Remember "red sky at morning, sailors take warning"? Tollbooths were wide open to facilitate the river of cars churning northward. 

Our amazing travel agent Kris Jekel had gone back to her office the night before, after I called her at her home to tell her our vacation was crumbling around us.  That morning, by cellphone, she helped us reinvent our vacation.  We would go to Orlando; eight hard-driving hours north from the Keys.  It was "obviously" out of the hurricane's path, was away from flood-prone coasts, had plenty of places to stay. 

The Orlando condo was nice, though we started watching TV as soon as we got inside the door.  The weather prediction consensus, by then, was that Charley was going to hit the Tampa area on Friday evening.  Orlando would get heavy rain later that night, but that was it.

By Friday morning we decided we were nuts to spend our vacation watching the Weather Channel. We watched a movie, then left the condo to go exploring. At that point we hadn't watched TV in a couple hours.

Traffic was a jam-packed snarl.

We turned the radio back on.

In the previous two hours Charley had changed course.  Now the fast-moving hurricane was churning straight for Ft. Myers area, would hit Orlando not long after that.  Disney World and the other theme parks were closing.  Everyone should be inside and hunkered down by 3:00.     

Well, that sure explained the traffic.

Our unit was on the second floor and had windows that allowed us to see for miles. At about 7:00 that evening the resounding roar of the hurricane slammed against the windows and wall.  The condo began to pulse and shake.  Within minutes the electricity went out.  As the hum of TV and air conditioning ceased in that echoey, cathedral-ceiling space, the roar of wind became a live and pummeling power.  The winds, we learned later, were 100 mph, making this a "class three" hurricane.

Ripping, thudding noises pounded the roof as shingles and tarpaper shredded away.  When we flicked flashlights at the ceiling, we could see the darkening outline of the sheets of plasterboard in the ceiling, as rain soaked through.

You know transformers on utility poles?  When electrical lines would blow down, they'd short out, causing the transformers to explode.  Every time this happened the entire skyline would, for a few seconds, glow turquoise or rose.  You could see these short-lived aurora boreali going off every few minutes, out the window, for miles around us.

Twice, and I still don't know why, the world went completely black.  A few seconds later the dim charcoal light would come back. 

This went on two long, long hours.  My 12-year old sat as close to me as she's been in a while.  Our older kids were marvelous; our 17-year old son kept whining, as if he were four, that he wanted to go outside and play.  He kept us laughing as the walls shook and the ceiling leaked and we all privately wondered what it would happen if the windows broke.  Our older daughter casually stocked an interior closet with blankets and water.  My husband listened to our only connection to the outside world, a battery-operated personal CD player-radio.  Sometimes he'd lift the earphones to tell us another radio station had just gone off the air.          

At a little after 9:00 PM, as suddenly as it had arrived, the hurricane winds suddenly ceased, leaving an eerie hush in its place.  The only noise audible in the surprising quietness was the syncopation of drips from the leaking ceiling.                

We cautiously opened the door and peered out into the dark, drenched afterworld.  The tang of pine from broken trees scented the clean, night air. 


Part II - The Aftermath

When a hurricane stops, it's stunning.  The roaring wind stops blowing 100 mph. The roof stops ripping off over your head.  Pounding rain stops driving through fissures in ceilings and walls. 

The world becomes magically still, like the moment right after a baby is born.  Or when the person you have been falling in love with for ages, looks at you and says they feel it too.  Or that moment when the last of the 16 kids who came to your child's birthday party sleep-over, leaves.

You are no fool, you know there's plenty of work coming down the pike straight at you.  But the worst is over. The world is quiet. You survived. 

It was after nine that evening when donut-shaped Hurricane Charley, that giant Krispy-Kreme of Pandemonium, finally whirled out of Orlando.

We cautiously opened our front door to the beautiful scent of pine, arising from broken trees.   We opened the door further.  After days of intensely hot weather, the air had cooled to 75 breezy degrees.  Soft rain fell intermittently.  Electricity had gone out hours ago, so the night was illuminated solely by cloud-covered moon.

A few vehicles drove past making that comforting swoosh that cars make when traveling on wet pavement.  There was the murmur of people emerging from their condos.  Interestingly, because most folks were tourists on vacation and hadn't packed flashlights, many people walked around by the light of their kids' purple-glowing souvenir Disney wands and toys.

Thousands of roof shingles littered the ground.  We shook our heads at the bent steel in stop signs, uprooted trees, the enormously damaged roofs everywhere. 

About an hour later my husband and I looked at each other and suddenly realized we were, beyond anything we could have imagined, utterly exhausted.  We went to bed.

Two of our kids slept in the living room because their room had leaked so badly their beds were soaked.  When we got up the next day, my shoelaces were sopping wet from lying on the carpet in my room. 

We called our intrepid travel agent Kris Jekel that next morning. Boy, was she surprised to learn the hurricane we had driven 300 miles to avoid, had gone right over our heads. 

We told her we wanted to come home even if that meant driving.  You understand, of course, that when driving a thousand miles with three kids in two days sounds like a good idea - you have been to the dark side.

Kris called back awhile later with Plan Number Three. There were no available seats on any flights, out of any city in Florida, that day or the next.  She had arranged for us to exchange our sedan for a minivan.   

It is hair-raising to drive 40 miles through an urban area to an outlying airport, with no traffic signals.  Big intersections were manned by members of the Florida National Guard, I wondered how many had served in Iraq.  They were probably the only ones who realized we were all actually having a pretty nice day.  No flak jackets, no insurgents, no roadside bombs.  All you ever really need is perspective.

After the (two hours waiting in airport lines) car exchange, we drove out of the area along a local highway that had been in the direct path of the hurricane. 

What an astounding scene.  There was a glass-wrapped, high-rise hotel where the wind had sheered away the glass on one side, exposing floor after floor of hotel rooms.  We saw a gas station that looked like a peeled back sardine can.  Hundreds of trees were tossed down and against each other like pick-up sticks on steroids. 

To add to the netherworld effect, the sky was once again becoming ominous as a Titanic of black clouds roiled in from the west.  The radio warned where tornadoes were likely to touch down.  Our older daughter studied our map a few moments.

"Oh, they're at least five or six miles from here."

My husband muttered the understatement of the week, "We gotta get out of this place."

We drove north like it was our religion. 

South-bound traffic was a parade of Samaritans and heroes.  Hundreds of utility trucks from other states were pouring south.  I counted, in five minutes, 48 trucks with cherry pickers.   There were endless trucks and flatbeds carrying enormous generators.  There was a caravan of beige and gray cars, all with magnetic signs on their doors saying they were insurance company adjusters.  I laughed.  Is there a secret pact among insurance people to drive mild-looking cars?

We stopped to eat in the first town we came to that had electricity.  At that point we hadn't eaten a restaurant meal in three days; we bit into our hot and juicy hamburgers with pure and grateful hearts.

We didn't stop that night until Georgia and pulled into Racine two days later, at 2AM.

You know what? 

We think next year we might vacation in Wisconsin. 

Though I am a bit chagrined at what an acquaintance, who listened to this whole story, politely asked. 

Would I tell her when we vacation next year -- so she can leave the state?



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A-Z M is for Aunts


Reprint of old column from 5/22/2004 

Happy Mother's Day to all the women who raised us! 

This was my all-time favorite moment from the "Friends" TV show. It's a few hours after the birth of Ross's son (not with Rachel) and all the friends are meeting the baby for the first time. Monica, Ross's sister, holds her newborn nephew tenderly, tears in her eyes with awe for this new life in her family.


This was first published May 10, 2002

A few weeks ago, my husband and I were talking with our kids about the best and worst jobs we have had. I said picking asparagus was pretty boring. My husband didn't like the day he was a taxi driver. We both love writing when it goes well, we get a lot done, people tell us what clever people we are, and we earn lots of money from it. These aspects of writing come together about once a, well … I'm sure it's right around the corner.

My daughter prodded, "Come on, Mom. What's the best job of your life?"

Dark River

The photo is the Platte River in Nebraska. This post was a newspaper column for the Racine Journal Times in 2003.


Dark River

"I think us here to wonder."  (From "The Color Purple" by Alice Walker.)

The day was one of those glorious October days when the sun blazed through gold and crimson trees; the incense of burning leaves perfumed the air. It seemed a shame to go inside simply because night was coming on.

"Let's take the canoe out on the river tonight."

Where Heritage is Found

Last week I spoke with a woman who  is working to support MayaWorks.

I sent her this writing I did back in 2006.


I stayed several days with the Sepet family, a very cash-poor Maya family that lives in the altiplano, the mountains of Guatemala.  These people were so intelligent, gracious, strong, and hospitable.  

This adventure happened during my second day with them.

Quarantine Dairy #669 A Rerun


I have a lot of projects to get through today. I wrote this in 2006 when I worked at Target for six months. I still like it.


This week I saw an inspiring sight.  I saw a little kid completely lost in his imagination. 

Car Accident & Not Buying the Farm Today

My friend Karen texted last night that she is okay but she had been in a car accident in the afternoon. A driver had not stopped at a stop sign, thus plowing into Karen’s rear driver-side door.

Her accident reminded me of one I was in with my son years ago. This is the newspaper column I wrote about the event.

Hold a good thought for Karen today, okay?  She texted this morning, rather poetically, “I feel like I’ve been dragged through a knothole.”


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