The season my mother has ever after referred to as our "heavenly summer" had passed idyllically but uneventfully. Then, the morning of September 21, 1938 dawned overcast, warm and enervating. It had been raining for several days. The ocean lay gray, in an oily heaving; the leaden sky hung close, thick and moist. Most of the residents of Fire Island had left, and soon we too must leave.
"Gray Gull," Uncle Will's Cottage, which we were occupying, lay on the ocean. It was diagonally southwest of the village of Saltaire which lay on the bay. At noon we walked down to the post office, where we met a man who lived on the bay-front.
"Radio says a storm's coming up" he told us. "Better batten down tight."
Sure enough, after lunch, the wind rose and the sky started pelting rain. About 3:00, we were having a cup of tea in the living room. Abruptly, the radio went dead and the lights went out. We looked up in surprise; we had never had an electricity failure on the island. I stood up and sauntered to the front door, thinking to to go out and look at the ocean. As I opened the door, a wall of thundering white water cascaded over the high dune in front of the cottage and rolled down under the porch.
As my mother sprang up at my exclamation, we saw a second, higher wave follow the first one up over the dune, roar past the cottage and down the island towards the bay, a mile away.
"We'd better get over to the bay-front, Barbara," Mother exclaimed. If the tide's coming in like that, we may be marooned here!"
"O.K. Let's go down to the town hall," I agreed. We went about putting some of our clothes, books and my typewriter up in the attic. Mother stuffed what little jewelry she had, with some money, into her pocketbook. I put on Uncle Will's hip boots. "Let's go!" I called.
"Oh wait!" Mother ran into her bedroom and came back with her favorite scissors. "I'd hate to lose these if the cottage floods."
As we started out to the porch, the boardwalk directly in front of the house collapsed under a tidal wave pouring over it. We rushed to the back door. Just as we ran out, a second wave, fully 25 feet high slammed down over the cottage, sweeping us along with it. The boardwalk leading to the bay caved in as we staggered onto it.
The cottage behind "Gray Gull" slid off its foundation, disintegrating into kindling before our eyes.
"We'' never make it to the town hall!" Mother screamed. "We'll have to gent inside -- anywhere."
"Everything's breaking up!" I shouted. "We're better off outside!" But as the wind whipped away my words, water was sucking higher around our legs as though the very land under us was sinking into the sea.
We struggled toward the nearest cottage that was still standing. Just as we reached it, a man, woman and small boy appeared out of the wind and water. All of us fell against the locked door, and the fury followed us in. Windows blew in, doors crashed out, but the sound of breaking debris was lost in the all-enveloping roar of the enraged sea.
As water poured across the floor, we ran for a flimsy ladder under a trapdoor in the ceiling. One by one, we stumbled up into blackness. My mother tripped, and her pocketbook fell down into the water. There was no window, no room to sit upright in the loft. We crouched on the rough beams, our heads bent right under the roof.
For a moment we felt safe. But the feeling was short-lived. Peering down into the room below, I could see that the water was still rising. Yet it was nearly three hours until high tide. For the first time, I realized that we were trapped.
Our male companion had introduced himself as Dick Robinson. Like us, he and his wife Nora and child Billy had been caught completely unawares by the sudden violence and had rushed from their cottage only as it started breaking up around them.
Dick cried out now" "We'll have to get out on the roof!" Frantically, he struggled with bare hands to break through he darkness overhead. It was useless. Exhausted, he fell down beside his wife. Only later did we realize how fortunate it was that he had not succeeded; we would have been swept away instantly in the furor outside.
Crouching into he darkness, staring at the water sucking toward the ceiling below me, I saw we had not a chance of escape. We were going to drown like rats. Mother's pocketbook bobbed in the water under me; she would not need it again.
Dazed, I thought: It can't be real! Half an hour before, we had been sitting safely, quietly reading in our living room. How had it been conceivable that such violence had burst upon us without warning? What sort of storm was this?
Little Billy whimpered: "Mommy -- where's my kitten?"
"Sh-h -- she'll be all right, darling!"
My mother, most rational of women, was whispering to me. "Bar -- see that bureau down there?"
"Do you think, if we climb down, we could each take a drawer an float in it?"
I considered it intently. A vision of the five of us sailing across Fire Island, each in a snug little painted drawer, enraptured me. An abrupt jolting, groaning as from the very entrails of the cottage, shattered the picture. Reeling, I shook my head.
Holding tight, we sat in the darkness. I wondered why the Lord had let me finish school. So much preparation -- for what? They said drowning was a pleasant death; I wondered how long it would take.
It grew darker. It must be nearing high tide. Suddenly, I was roused out of my numbness.
"The water's stopped rising!" I exclaimed. "Look down!"
We hung over the trapdoor, unbelievingly. Yet it was true; the flood even seemed to have receded infinitesimally, though it was hard to make out in the gloom.
Dick volunteered, "I'll see what's happening."
For a moment, as he stepped off the ladder below, he was silent. Then -- "Come down!" he yelled.
We stumbled down, and rushed to gaping holes where the windows had been.
"What -- where are we?" someone cried.
Then the incredible truth burst upon us: We were no longer on the ocean side of the island, where we had been when we had desperately sought refuge in the now-battered cottage. Directly in front of us, now, lay Great South Bay. The roar of wind and water, the crashing of other cottages against us, had made us insensible to the fact that the house in which we were sheltered had been ripped from its concrete foundation, and we had sailed in it, like an ark, nearly a mile -- all the way across the island. A fallen telegraph pole on the edge of the bay had impaled it like and ice-cream bar on a stick. But for the pole, we would have been hurled straight into the Great South Bay.
We staggered outside. The ocean had cut an inlet right through to the bay, between us and the ferry dock. The bay was a s wild as the ocean. We saw no sign of life. Had another soul on the island beside ourselves survived? we asked ourselves fearfully.
Wading through thickets of poison ivy (of which I was to become painfully aware only later), we made our way to a two-story cottage still lopsidedly standing by the bay. Waves were sweeping over its porch, but compared our precarious perch on the telegraph pole, it looked secure and welcoming. It was locked and dark, but adept at housebreaking by now, we smashed in a window and climbed in. An icebox and bathtub lay next to each other in the living room. The kitchen stove was the only object standing upright. Ankle-deep wet sand covered the floors.
Climbing upstairs, we rummaged through the rooms freely. We were shivering, soaked to the skin. Mother helped herself to a satin slip, baggy men's trousers, a peekaboo blouse and a pair of oversized sneakers that curled over her toes like Turkish slippers. I donned a man's sweatshirt and overalls.
The Robinsons found equally fine outfits. When we gathered together downstairs, we were delighted to discover some oranges floating on the kitchen floor, and some soaked but edible cornflakes. What more could we ask -- with shelter, dry clothes and food? Sitting ont he overturned icebox, we ate, sang, laughed and cried, in an orgy of reaction. Never have I attended such a hilarious party!
Nora Robinson presently wrapped little Billy in a blanket and put him to sleep upstairs. The wind had fallen to a low whine, and stars were out. But we knew the tide must start rising again after midnight. We could not lie down to rest.
When the first streak of dawn appeared, we went outside. All around us lay utter desolation. We made our wa to the storm-carved inlet. Wading waist-deep through it, we came to the town hall. About 70 other refugees were huddled there. All but the five of us had reached the bay-front before the storm reached its height.
Coast Guard boats started arriving to transport us to Bay Shore on the Long Island mainland. There was a fine hotel there, where we had lunched on our trips ashore. This time we entered it in overalls, hip boots and with no luggage. But we were greeted with cheers, an the facilities of the place were thrown open to us.
We lost no time heading for a telephone to call Uncle Will. To our disbelief and consternation, safe in the hinterlands of New Jersey, he hadn't been concerned about us.
"Of course, I heard there was storm," he kept repeating soothingly, as Mother shouted hysterically into the phone. "Now calm down, there's nothing to worry about."
When we finally convinced him that there were a few things for him to worry about, as a Fire Island property owner, he finally agreed to come down by train. We spent the next few hours talking to newspaper reporters, and vainly trying to get a few moments' rest.
We slept in our clothes, exhausted, on clean, dry beds in the hotel that night. Next morning, we crossed tot he island on a fishing boat. Not until we stepped off onto the dock did we understand the immensity of the hurricane. In dazzling September sunshine, we walked on top of what was left of the houses. Where rows of cottages had stood along sturdy boardwalks over clean white sand, there now was an incredible conglomeration of splintered wood, smashed masonry, glass and furniture.
Shaken, we held to one thought: If we had run for shelter into any other cottage on the oceanfront, we would not have survived. Not a vestige remained of the Robinsons' place. Even the lighthouse, 167 feet high, standing on the coast since 1858, was cracked. Every cottage on the oceanfront within miles had vanished, except for the one in which we had sailed across the island -- and one other. Which other? Why, our own "Gray Gull" from which we had run for our lives! It, like the cottage in which we had taken refuge, was not where it had been. It had been ripped from its locust piles, turned square around, ad settled 50 feet away on the preempted lot of a far bigger cottage that had blown away like a bunch of jackstraws.
On that devastated oceanfront, we stood speechless. Straight and level as when it was built, "Gray Gull" now rested flat on the sand, facing north instead of south. Its namesake weathervane still topped the undamaged aluminum roof: its asbestos sides were almost unmarred. We walked inside. Uncle Will lighted the kerosene heater: it burned evenly. A mirror hung unbroken on the wall.
In a dreamlike trance, I went to the door to answer a knock. There stood two Coast Guardsmen. Politely, that asked permission to connect a phone to the cottage.
"Why not? I always said a phone would be nice here," Uncle will said agreeably. "You never know when there'll be an emergency."
We went back over to the mainland every night, but we came back to the island several days to pack up. One afternoon, alone inside, Mother and I heard voices.
". . . in the back," a man's voice was muttering beyond the window.
Looters! Grabbing the nearest weapon, Uncle Will handsaw, brandishing it like a sword, I flew out the door. I was pasted from head to foot with white poison-ivy ointment. Animal sounds whistled through my teeth. I can still see those terrified men running down the deserted beach.
Eventually, "Gray Gull" was lifted back onto its pilings atop the dune. The village was rebuilt with reinforced dunes and restrictions were imposed against building news cottages too close to the oceanfront. Two seasons later, things looked much as before.
"You went back -- after that experience? people gasp.
Of course we went back. We were there three years later when another hurricane threatened, and thanks to improved weather forecasting, we spent that night uncomfortably on blankets on the second floor of the town hall. We were there during the blackout years of World War II, when everyone expected a submarine to slip in and put a landing party ashore. (It happened, instead, near Amagansett, some miles down the beach.) Bored young soldiers patrolled the beach during those years and we made them chocolate cakes and told them about our "heavenly summer of 1938."
We loved Fire Island with a love no mere storm could destroy. We love it still. It has a meaning for us now that it did not have when we first saw it on a June morning in 1938. I try to communicate this to my husband and children but somehow, it belongs just to Mother and me.
Mother's pocketbook, which had dropped into the water as she stumbled to the loft that afternoon, was found floating in the Great South Bay long afterwards. Sodden and misshapen, it was returned to her anonymously in the mail. Still inside were her driver's license, bankbook, some beads, some coins, her favorite scissors -- and a piece of jade that a friend had given her years before, for luck.