Both my father and my mother come from Fall River, MA, what was once a thriving mill town in southern New England. They are both gone now but those who lived through the 1938 hurricane all had stories. (I have stories about the Blizzard of ’78) When they told the stories, they were not told as cautionary tales or as bragging survivor anecdotes.
Carefully kept in the hutch of my childhood home were two souvenir booklets of the devastation that storm. Laid to waste were farmers crops from what we now call the ‘storm surge’. . .my mother called it a tidal wave. House picked up whole and dropped in roads, still whole. In those two books was a mother and son sitting among the wreckage of their home. She wore a kerchief tied under her chin, her fingers lighting on her lips, her eyes dry and vacant as if she could not fathom how to move from that one spot. It was 1938, and this woman had already survived as best she could, the Great Depression.
Sometimes I’d look at those photos with a sibling or the best was if my father was around. He’d point out landmarks that we’d know. As a family we’d go to Portsmouth, RI for a few weeks, staying at my grandmother’s summer-house. My father would show us where the amusement park destroyed and what’s there now. Buildings, like the summer-house, that did not get blown away or destroyed by the tidal surge. I don’t remember his story, it would have been his junior year in high school so when the storm hit, he’d have been in school. (Much like how it was for me in 1978).
My mother’s family story was told to me. This is the story I like to tell. . . The morning of the hurricane my grandmother and four of her friends made a plan to drive to Newport for lunch then drive out along the Cliff Walk ‘see the big waves’. This was before radar tracked weather. . . they were ladies out on a lark. (Just so you know, yes, I would have done the same thing).
So the ladies get out to the beginning of the Cliff Walk and were stopped by state troopers, “Hello ladies, where do you think you’re going?” he asked. And my grandmother, who did the driving (my penchant for road trips comes honestly), answered, “We’re going to see the waves and have lunch!” Please note that day started out gorgeous, late September cool and clear and no major hurricanes of any kind had hit New England since 1869. Hurricane were tropical and in the Gulf coast.
“Ladies, the roads are closed and you must go home. There’s a hurricane coming this way fast.” The hurricane traveled between 50 and 60 MPH with sustained winds 125. By the time the friends turned around, drove to Middletown, (Newport, Middletown and Portsmouth compose Aquidneck Island, primarily summer homes and farms in 1938) the edge of the storm rolled over them with sheets of rain and wind. Another stop by police, “Ladies you must seek shelter — now.” So they pulled into the closest roadside motor court with little cottages to wait out the storm.
My grandmother had been one of the first telephone operators before she married. The manager let her use the phone to call her husband. This is what she told me, she got through to Fall River’s main switch board and her friend was on the other end. “Bessie! It’s Kitty Crosson, tell Jim that we’re safe and will ride out the storm in Middletown. Tell him to tell the others.” The line went dead. . .it was the last call into Fall River that day.
My mother’s story is she was let out of school early and went to the movies. This was the plan with her father as her mother had gone off for the day. She was 12 at the time. Her father had a rule about where she was to sit in the movies. . . go down the right aisle, half way down on the right. That day, as the news of the storm spread, her father walked into the dark movie, took her by the hand and said, “We’ve got to get out of here now.” (They beat the rush!)
I wish I knew where those booklets are now. I loved them. I wish I had asked my grandmother’s friends more questions but when she told me the full story, they had died, but I had met them and remember them powdery, smelling of Evening in Paris. They told me my grandmother had a great sense of humor. Something I didn’t know until I was in my late twenties and she was 90.
So I post this here so it is written down. The Titanic could not sink Molly Brown so hurricanes can’t blow so hard to topple the women in our family.