Special thanks to fellow graduate Michael Taylor for submitting a memoir from his published book ‘Growing Up Floridian.’ For more information on Michael and his book click on the link provided below.
“A Date with Gladys (October 18, 1968)”
Wind controlled the steering wheel almost as much as I did and forced my gray turtle, actually a 1960 Rambler American, from one side of 66th Street to the other. Having worked up enough courage to ask Maureen out, I wasn’t about to let Hurricane Gladys cancel our date. As the only car on the road, I had the advantage of fighting the gusts across three lanes without the danger of hitting another vehicle. I managed to avoid curbs and telephones poles often by slight margins using the power of forearms developed from three years of high school football.
In the late 1960’s, television weathermen forecasted the path of a hurricane with a lot of guesswork and plotted the course on wall boards that held outlined sketches of the United States. Using black markers, they would draw big arrows indicating the direction of the impending weather system and would use cartoonish symbols indicating wind velocity and cloud cover. With that limited information, I only had a general idea that a big storm was headed our way off the Gulf of Mexico, but knew nothing of actual wind speeds or possible storm surge. I had always taken a much more literal interpretation of Bob Dylan’s 1965 “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and thought that I didn’t “need a weather man/To know which way the wind blows,” at least for this date.
Maureen’s parents were skeptical about allowing their daughter to go off in the storm, but their concrete block home with heavy drapes that fell ceiling to floor and were pulled across every window made the storm’s effects seemed rather tame within the house’s confines. Since Friday night’s football game with Manatee High had been postponed as Gladys raced up Florida’s west coast, I had suggested seeing a movie. Telephone calls had also revealed the only theater open, Central Plaza, offered The Heart is a Lonely Hunter starring Alan Arkin and Sandra Locke.
Tail winds buffeted and, then, aided the drive to and up Central Avenue. Maureen’s faint patchouli perfume infused the car as her wide eyes reacted to bending palm trees, scattered debris whipping along the streets, and occasional emergency vehicles with a mixture of fear and fascination. My heart pumped a little faster as she slid across the bench front seat to sit closer and gripped my arm when blasts of wind and rain shuddered the car. What teenage boy would not want to indulge in such a glorious adventure?
As the last notes of Marvin Gaye’s”Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing” faded from WLCY-AM on the radio, we parked in an empty lot and were greeted by an unenthusiastic ticket seller who clearly wanted to be elsewhere.
“The movie will start in a minute. You’re the only people here. Are you sure you want to see this movie?”
I nodded; Maureen shrugged; the ticket taker sighed.
An empty theater, center seats, fifteen rows back, and the moan and whistle of the wind at the exit doors created a romantic setting that encouraged an arm around shoulders and a yielding to a pull to snuggle closer. The emotional impact of the movie which offered a story line about a desperately lonely deaf mute in search of companionship whetted the emotional tension between two seventeen year-olds.
When the wind jerked the exit door out of my hand and flung the heavy metal barrier against the wall, my stalwart turtle just waited patiently as a palm fond bounced off the rear bumper and flattened against the deserted ticket seller’s booth. Maureen’s skirt whipped against her legs as we fought to navigate the hundred feet to the Rambler. Inside, the rhythmic swaying of the car, interrupted by sudden shudders born of violent gusts, kept us welded together.
“Well, let’s go see what’s left of Pass-a-Grille.”
My suggestion generated an unconfident nod, a soft.“O.K.,” and a slide to move a little closer. WLCY-AM appropriately offered “Windy” by The Association, and I thought we did have “wings to fly.”
The wind, no more violent or threatening than when we entered the theater at 6:42, was now no less violent or threatening at 9:10, but the familiar ebb and flow of the wind’s power bred a foolish confidence in my driving responses. Water became a complicating element as ripples in the streets varied in depth, only inches in some places, more than a foot in others. My turtle chugged along; the flathead six engine taking whatever Mother Nature threw at her. With the sparkplugs on the top of the simple six cylinder motor, the car could wade through three feet of water without stalling as long as she kept moving.
Gulf Boulevard on St. Pete Beach was as deserted as St. Petersburg’s Central Avenue, and eerie shadows danced amid pelting raindrops. Just past the vacant pink castle, the Don CeSar Hotel, which had witnessed several hurricanes in its 40 years, a St. Pete Beach police officer stood on the hood of his partially submerged cruiser waving frantically. He obviously did not want us to drive further down the beach, but a couple of feet of water lapping at his bumper didn’t give the chugging Rambler pause. We passed by sending a gentle wake towards the officer’s shoes.
No coins were needed for the parking meters on Pass-a-Grille Beach. The wind raging through the Australian pines screamed in protest as the wave action tore sand from their roots. Both sides of the bench seat folded back with the flip of levers to rest against the back seats. Salt spray dashed against side windows, the back window, and the windshield in odd rhythms while we ducked and snuggled closer. A half an hour later, the 30-foot tall Australian pine six feet in front of us fell into the waves in slow motion as spray now slapped the windshield in time with the waves’ pounding cadence. Inside the swaying turtle, two teenage hearts pounded an increasing rhythm. The black and now foggy windshield offered little beyond a sounding board for rain and sea spray.
A change in the tempo of the wind and rain occurred suddenly. Perhaps we hadn’t been as keenly aware of the storm during the previous half hour, but a curious quiet descended that we recognized as the outer edge of the eye of the hurricane.
Little wind pulled at the door as I pulled the lever up. Maureen’s eyes flashed under the dim dome light as we realized the beach, now three feet lower than the street, lay strewn with the Australian pines planted to shade the parking area and replace similar trees that died in the freeze of 1962. Gnarled wrecks with giant black spidery roots pointing skyward gave testimony to the power of surging waves. Now, gentle waves caressed the devastated beach and pulled at the trailing pine needles from the uppermost branches, which floated in the foam at the water’s edge. Streetlights no longer obscured by those pines reflected off wispy clouds racing overhead in an uneasy calm. A lone gull’s cry broke the lull and seemed to freshen a softer swirling wind. Again Maureen’s skirt flapped as stronger gusts signaled the eye’s edge was giving way to the returning surge of the backside of the storm. Close to the car, I grabbed both a parking meter and Maureen to anchor us and keep her from being blown into the street. We staggered our way back to the Rambler and agreed retreat might be the best course.
Down the street, the abandoned police cruiser had witnessed another retreat. Standing water had subsided as Gladys’ eye passed by in the Gulf but was building again from the sheets of rain that snapped down Gulf Boulevard in long cascades. Maureen leaned forward with a tissue to enlarge the fog-shrouded circle above the steering wheel. My right arm pulled her closer as my left fought the wind for control of the car in a now familiar battle.
Frantic parental arms broke apart a rain splattered kiss and snatched a wayward daughter home moments after we arrived at Maureen’s house. The six hours her parents spent wondering about the fate of their daughter on a date during a hurricane were a few too many. That anxiety produced a stereophonic command: “You will never go out with that boy again!” Those words and any further romance were lost in Gladys’ gales as I sought the shelter of the Rambler.
Newspaper report: Hurricane Gladys (October 13 to October 21, 1968)
The 1968 hurricane season had been relatively quiet until Gladys formed in the Caribbean on October 15. Tropical Storm Gladys was forecast on a slow northward course and, with further intensification expected, the threat to Florida’s Keys and lower west coast increased. Gladys became a hurricane shortly before crossing the south coast of western Cuba and continued to strengthen while crossing this narrow but mountainous part of the island. Gladys emerged into the Florida Straits and continued slowly northward. Gladys took a temporary jog to the north-northwest and passed abeam of the lower west coast. The center passed inland between Bayport and Crystal River, very near Homosassa, about midnight on the 19th. Gladys began to accelerate, crossing the peninsula just north of Ocala, and back out to sea near St. Augustine around daybreak. As Gladys crossed the state of Florida, about 85% of the citrus crop was affected to varying degrees. Gladys moved from the upper coast of Florida to the northeast and skirted the coasts of Georgia and the Carolinas. The center passed very near Cape Hatteras early on October 20 while continuing to accelerate northeastward. With 85 mph winds and tides 5 feet above normal, Gladys was responsible for two deaths and $6.7-million in damage.
From Growing Up Floridian by Michael Taylor
About Michael Arthur Taylor
I am a recently retired English teacher, who taught for 39 years on the college, high school, and middle school levels. I earned National Board Certification in 2002 in Early Adolescence/English Language Arts, am a Fellow with the Tampa Bay Area Writing Project, and have been a summer Fellow with the Poynter Institute Writers Camp.