Weather or not?

Wednesday 21 September 2016 — Port-O-Call: Westport Harbor — Anniversary 1938 Hurricane 

Once, while visiting Ireland, I asked an old farmer if he had heard the weather forecast. The man looked at me puzzled. “Tomorrow’s weather?” he responded. “Who knows? Around here, we just wait and see.” He may have had a point. 

Weather forecasts are an obsession for many Americans, and no more so than with Cape Codders. The tourism industry depends on good weather. Curmudgeons speculate that Cape Cod businesses secretly pay TV weather forecasters to predict sunny weekends on the Cape. This is just another conspiracy theory — probably promulgated by Jesse Ventura, the retired wrestler and former Governor of Minnesota. 

We have a lot of highfalutin technology to help predict the weather. We have television channels providing 24-hour weather reports. We have weather alerts sent to our smartphones. We have weather satellites whirling through outer space. We even have the National Weather Service headquartered right here in the Diocese of Fall River (Taunton). Still, predicting the weather is an inexact science with less than 50 percent accuracy. You could do better flipping a coin.

I notice next-day weather forecasting tends to be more accurate than long-range forecasting. Ten-day forecasts are more akin to soothsaying than science.

The Atlantic hurricane season lasts from June 1 through November 30. We still have months to go. Weather forecasters are happily tracking tropical depressions, disturbances, and storms even as we speak. 

It’s not just meteorologists who get all excited about hurricanes. Hurricanes are dramatic events in the humdrum of our ordinary lives. We remember them and tell the stories to our children and grandchildren. Hurricanes are even memorialized in music and poetry.

There’s the sea chantey “Wreck of the Sloop John B.” The vessel went down in 1647. The wreck was located off Nassau in 1926. Carl Sandburg penned a poem about the sinking. Songs were recorded by the Kingston Trio and by the Beach Boys.

“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” a folk ballad by Gordon Lightfoot, is more recent (1975). The merchant ship sank in a November gale (technically not a hurricane) on Lake Superior (formerly Gitche Gumee). 

Here in New England there’s the Great Gale of 1815. It blew down the belfry (and bell) of a church I pastored two centuries later. 

But the Hurricane of 1938 was the one about which I heard most, although it happened eight years before I was born. There was an old commemorative booklet lying about the house. As a child, I thumbed through it often. It was filled with photographs of the hurricane’s destruction. I heard tales of how suddenly the storm blew through and how nobody knew what it was or where it came from. I was fascinated. 

My grandfather told me his cottage at Sconticut Neck, Fairhaven, was picked up by the surging sea and carried away. That was the end of family summers in Fairhaven.

My father told me the sad story of his Aunt Hattie. She summered at Horseneck Beach, Westport. Her son phoned, urging her to return to the main house. It was, after all, already late September and she was, after all, 83 years old. But Aunt Hattie loved life at the beach house. She decided to ride out the storm. Her body was found in Westport Harbor three days later. 

My mother told me how confused everyone was in downtown New Bedford when the hurricane began to blow and the streets started to flood. She was released early from her post at McCrory’s cosmetics counter and made her way home in the howling wind and rain.

Frank Wallace (now Father Francis X. Wallace) was a 16-year-old out tossing a football around with his buddies. The boys gave up because whenever they threw the ball in one direction the wind would blow it back at them. 

Little Lillian Medeiros, eight years old, walked down to Cove Road, New Bedford, to watch the storm roll in. She soon found herself clinging desperately to a telephone pole until her mother came to the rescue. 

My first memory is Hurricane Carol in 1954. I was eight years old, my sister was six, my little brother was three, my baby brother was eight weeks old. Our family lived on the second floor of a “cold water flat” — a three-decker in New Bedford. My father, a maintenance man, was off sandbagging the factory.

I watched from the window as the chestnut tree across the street creaked in the wind. I called my mother to come see. She grabbed the baby and herded us kids to the opposite end of the apartment. Soon the ancient tree came crashing down. We were safe, although the house across the street was destroyed. 

All of us experience major hurricanes in our lifetimes, but not all are weather-related. 

The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration reports that 2016 is a normal hurricane season thus far but could turn out to be unusually active. It depends which way the wind blows. (Translation: “Who knows?”) 

OK then. We’ll just wait and see. Seems the Irish farmer was right.

Anchor columnist Father Goldrick is pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish in Falmouth.

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