Driving right into the wrack & spume

Now I enjoy a good summer storm as much as the next guy. I love standing on my back porch, staring westwards into the pre-tempest calm, the air vaguely purple and pregnant with meteorological dread. I enjoy schlepping the lawn furniture away to a safe place and lashing the barbecue grill to a post with baling twine. It’s fun to fill the bathtub with water and rustle up a bucket (the latter to fill the former from so to later flush the toilet with). It’s exciting to locate flashlights, make a frantic trip to the store to score batteries, Spam and cat litter (don’t ask), dig out the generator and gather the needed extension cords, and bolt shut all the windows and doors around our old house and barns. I get a kick out of crouching around down in the dank cellar, bonking my head, to make sure the sump pump is plugged in and the outlet hose is clear of mouse nests. I happily sharpen lawn mower blades, fill the chain saw with gas and oil, pick the last of the tomatoes, scrounge up candles and the odd kerosene lamp, and turn off every light, TV, radio and electronic gadget in the place that will surely go black when the lines go down, (only to burst back into life in the middle of the night and wake us all up).

This is all prudent and wise; the only problem is that in these modern times I do it way before I need to.

Back in the olden days, I’d be sitting there playing Monopoly with the dog and my dad would come busting into the house yelling, “The barometer’s dropped an inch in the last 15 minutes, hit the deck!” and then we’d all scramble under a table just moments before a huge oak limb crashed through the roof and the lights flickered out. Weather forecasting was more spontaneous then and there was little lag time. You knew when lightning was on the way because of the flash and clap and the sudden wetness in your drawers, not because you were following the bolt’s precise schedule on trackmylightningstrikes.com. Back then, we made predictions based on how inflamed grandpa’s knee was; today we have the Weather Channel, NOAA, and a week’s notice.

So, three Sundays ago, right straight at us, churns Hurricane (soon to be Tropical Storm) Irene, an impolite counterclockwise lady with doom in her eye. Glued to the news we all were.

Up and down the eastern seaboard, governors declared states of hysteria and emergency. Mayors and utility officials spoke in gusts about blackouts and floods. Evacuations were ordered, sandbags filled, and grocery stores stampeded. And posted on seemingly every dune and seawall from the Carolinas to Maine, journalists stared eagerly into cameras, one hand holding a microphone and the other hand pressed to one ear (no one knows why they do this, by the way) like so many Johnnys at the ratholes, ready to give us the blow-by-blow.

From all (days-in-advance) accounts, this was going to be high drama, especially if you believed the tide charts, the tracking data from the National Hurricane Center, and the cool computer graphics of Irene charging up Broadway in Manhattan, right between the skyscrapers. But Irene fizzled. She just didn’t live up to her billing. Now, please don’t get me wrong, Irene killed people, destroyed property, and nearly flushed Vermont off the map — and my heart goes out to all who suffered — but, the experts and the media just got the hype wrong. Yes, it’s better to be safe than sorry, but it’s even better to be right.

But oh how those news people tried. I remember watching one intrepid reporter from Battery Park in New York as she stood just feet from the crashing surf. Originally, the forecasters had predicted that the storm surge might, well, surge, right over the wall and flood the financial district, but the media could never get the tide to rise quite far enough. But the reporter had to say something, so she took her hand momentarily from her ear, pointed at the cresting froth, and screamed into her microphone, “Actual sea foam is blowing over the wall and onto the grass!” She really said “foam.” Couldn’t even come up with a more dramatic, precise, noun, like wrack or spume.

Grammatically disgusted, I did what any sensible Mainer would do when the eye wall of hyperbole slams in — I took my three-wood out into the meadow and drove some golf balls right into Irene’s shin. Actual leaves were blowing off the trees and onto the grass.

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