A Seminal Event

Note: My mother has continued to write stories of her youth. This one was shared previously on my brother’s Facebook page. I wanted to share it, too, since it is such an important part of our family story.  In fact, I had written about it before here. After my Mom’s essay, there is a postscript with some facts and figures about the storm and then a portion of my previous post. My Mom’s description adds details to my understanding of how that momentous, traumatic experience, the New England Hurricane of 1938, felt to her and the lesson she took from it. 

Change by Feige Brody

There is always change, whether it is the change of seasons, change of jobs or change of homes. The first momentous change in my life, which I can recall, was in September 1938 when I was not yet 5 years old. We lived on the second floor of a two- story building in New London, CT. I was playing outside when a black cloud covered the sun and changed my day to night.

When the winds and rain began no one knew that it would be unlike any other storm, but would be the most powerful and destructive hurricane in New England’s recorded history. As my mother called me up the stairs, I recall her attempting to remove things from the clothesline when it snapped, and all the white sheets went flapping into the black sky.
Mother and I hurried inside where my two -year old baby sister, Simma, was crying in her crib. Mother closed all the windows and I played with Simma singing “Rain Rain go away.” Suddenly a burst of wind shattered our windows. Glass and rain poured into our apartment. Mother plopped us onto the center of my parents’ bed. She had to keep us off the floor while she attempted to clean the debris.
To our immense relief our soaking father soon arrived and the first thing he said was “Christopher Columbus saved my life.”
Dad then proceeded to tell us that he had been delivering breads and cakes when the storm intensified. His car was stuck in a flooded street and the car started to fill with water so he scrambled out. Holding onto the walls of the buildings he started making his way home. A gust of wind however sent him air borne and blew him into the statute of Christopher Columbus which was right in the middle of the road. Dad held on for dear life; eventually, he and Christopher Columbus parted, and Dad resumed his precarious journey back to us.
Our apartment was illuminated only by the outside flames of a burning New London. We could hear fire engines and sirens. The water in our apartment began to rise; Mother knew we were going to have to abandon our home and she started packing diapers and a few other items.
Fortunately, a coast guard boat soon arrived, in what used to be our back yard, and we climbed through the broken window in the kitchen and into the boat. I remember putting my hand in the swirling water and splashing. It was fun and exciting for an almost five- year old girl. But the fun subsided soon. When we were deposited on relatively dry land there was utter darkness. Electric wires were whipping in the wind and we were drenched and walking on wet ground. I had to jump to avoid the live wires which were sparkling and sizzling all around us. I was frightened for the first time. No one was able to hold my hand because Mom was carrying Simma and Dad was carrying our few belongings.
I learned that life could turn around in a second. We lost everything in that hurricane. Our life was changed in every way.
My father, a voracious reader, quoted Voltaire, and told me “All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” 80 plus years later, I do not believe “all is for the best,” but, I do believe that this is the best and only world we have, so we should make the best of it. And this has been my philosophy of life through changes in jobs, changes in homes, and changes in the seasons of our lives.

Post Script: Some facts pertaining to the hurricane on the 21st of September 1938:
1. There was no warning system- in 1938 forecasting in US lagged behind Europe
2. No insurance
3. This was prior to the naming of hurricanes
4. 682 people died
5. In 1938 dollars: 306 million in losses (which is 4.7 billion dollars in 2017)
6. It was a Category 5 Hurricane with wind 160 mph
7. 2 billion trees destroyed
8. 20,000 electrical poles toppled
9. 26,000 automobiles destroyed
10. Damaged or destroyed 570 homes including mine

Here is a link to footage from the National Weather Service that shows the fury and aftermath of that epic storm: link

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This is an excerpt from the blog post I wrote, which is a profile of mom’s Dad, who I called Zada. He was the essence of resilience.

An essential part of family lore involved the hurricane of 1938. Nana and Zada, as well as my mother and her sister (almost five and two years old respectively), were living in New London, Connecticut. Zada was working at his father’s bakery when a fierce hurricane of historic proportion came ashore without warning. Nana and the two girls had to be rescued by a Coast Guard boat that plucked them from their second floor apartment, saving them from the floodwaters that had already engulfed the first floor.

Zada, 34 years old at the time, left work and tried to make his way home during the storm. The wind was whipping at over 100 miles per hour and the rain was relentless. The Thames River had overflowed with a record tidal surge (a record that stands to this day) and was streaming through the streets. Zada clung to a statue of Christopher Columbus to avoid being swept away. Zada maintained that the statue saved his life.

Eventually he was reunited with his family, but they had lost everything to the storm. The bakery was destroyed, as was their home.

newlondonct_nydailynews
A view of the destruction in New London (NY Daily News)

There were a number of family legacies of that historic storm. Zada started celebrating his birthday along with Christopher Columbus on October 12th . As a child I thought it was his actual birthday. Since Zada came to this country from Russia as a baby, his birth records were in dispute. While Christopher Columbus may be in disgrace today, we are still grateful for the monument to him in New London. In fact over the years I have gone to visit it several times.

IMG_3151
Me paying homage in 2011

Resilience

If Nana was the heart of our family, I think it is fair to say that Zada was the spirit. The man I knew was in his 60s and had experienced his share of hardship but still had a zest for life. The stories he told and the stories told about him revealed a love of Chinese and Italian food shared with friends and family, a love of baseball and the racetrack, and a capacity to quote Shakespeare from memory despite not graduating from high school. My dad referred to him as a raconteur – an apt characterization. The recurring theme of his stories was that life was an adventure and you should make the best of it.

I grew up hearing the story of a particular time Zada took my mother to a baseball game – he followed both the New York Yankees and Giants. Noticing an ominous cloud on the horizon beyond the Polo Grounds, Mom pointed to it and asked her father if they should be concerned. Zada gestured to the blue portion of the sky and said she should simply look there. This was advice my mother took to heart. Zada was always looking at the bright side, even when that was difficult to do.

Another essential part of family lore involved the hurricane of 1938. Nana and Zada, as well as my mother and her sister (almost five and two years old respectively), were living in New London, Connecticut. Zada was working at his father’s bakery when a fierce hurricane of historic proportion came ashore without warning. Nana and the two girls had to be rescued by a Coast Guard boat that plucked them from their second floor apartment, saving them from the floodwaters that had already engulfed the first floor.

Zada, 34 years old at the time, left work and tried to make his way home during the storm. The wind was whipping at over 100 miles per hour and the rain was relentless. The Thames River had overflowed with a record tidal surge (a record that stands to this day) and was streaming through the streets. Zada clung to a statue of Christopher Columbus to avoid being swept away. Zada maintained that the statue saved his life.

Eventually he was reunited with his family, but they had lost everything to the storm. The bakery was destroyed, as was their home.

newlondonct_nydailynews
A view of the destruction in New London (NY Daily News)

There were a number of family legacies of that historic storm. Zada started celebrating his birthday along with Christopher Columbus on October 12th . As a child I thought it was his actual birthday. Since Zada came to this country from Russia as a baby, his birth records were in dispute. While the actual Christopher Columbus may be in disgrace today, we are still grateful for the monument to him in New London. In fact over the years I have gone to visit it several times.

IMG_3151
Me paying homage in 2011

Another legacy of the hurricane was Nana’s distrust of the Red Cross. She believed that they unfairly didn’t allow her back to retrieve the family’s possessions from their second floor apartment. She saw her neighbors being permitted back in to get what wasn’t damaged, but she wasn’t given the same courtesy. She grieved the loss of mementos and photos of her mother who had died some years earlier. Nana, who gave to charity generously and regularly, would not contribute to the Red Cross. Our family continues to look for other ways to contribute when disaster strikes.

Zada was able to bounce back from the losses and disappointments. After some false starts, he and Nana rebuilt their lives in Brooklyn, buying a bakery that they ran for over 20 years.

Zada always seemed to be impervious to the weather in both the literal and metaphorical sense. I remember a near blizzard in Canarsie that added to the myth that surrounded him.

Zada was normally home from work at 3:00 pm. This particular day a winter storm was pummeling Brooklyn. When it got to be 5:00 pm Nana asked my uncles and brothers to go look for him in the park. They took gloves, a scarf and hat, knowing that he would have driven to work unprepared. The boys found him and offered him the gloves, scarf and hat, which he promptly refused. He was, after all, already wearing an extra layer, a yellow sleeveless wool vest. I saw him coming down our street. His gray wool coat was unbuttoned, flapping in the wind, his bald-head uncovered. Snowflakes caked his bushy brows.

As with the hurricane, he was at work as the storm worsened. Zada, now in his early 60s, decided to walk home from the bakery in Greenpoint. It was a long 7-mile trek across the borough, but he made it, bringing with him bags of surplus bread and other bakery items in case we were snowed in.

When he arrived, much to Nana’s relief, he was perplexed by her ministrations. She hovered over him, suggesting a hot shower and hot drink. He didn’t see it as any big deal – he had been through worse.

The Spilken family motto may be, as my grandfather said many times, ‘make the best of things.’ This was not a philosophy that came naturally to me. I have trouble looking at the bright side. As a freshman I was walking on the campus of SUNY-Binghamton in the fall of 1976 with my very good friend, Merle. She pointed to a particularly vibrant red leaf on the ground and exclaimed, “Look how beautiful!” “It’s dead,” was my pithy response. Merle just looked at me. To this day we laugh about our differing perspectives. Fortunately, I have Merle and Zada’s legacy to remind me that there is another way.