August 17, 1969 my father put my brother and me in the car and we set out for home, leaving my mother in Dallas to comfort her dying sister. We couldn’t stay because we were due back in school the next week and a hurricane was predicted to hit the Keesler Air Force Base and my father needed to be there to take care of his squadron if anything really happened. It was our usual southeasterly trek through the back roads of Louisiana and Mississippi, but this time there was no stopping to see relatives or delight in piles of our own special comfort foods. We needed to get to Biloxi ahead of Camille.
The sun set long before we neared Hattiesburg for the last leg of the drive, but now the wind started picking up. The car radio was playing Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising” in between weather reports; partially because it was a big hit and partially because someone had a wicked sense of humor. The next thing I remember was my father talking to a state trooper on the side of the road. The trooper gave him a sheet of paper and we were turned back north to Jackson. No one was being let any farther south because Camille was bearing down on Highway 90 along the Mississippi shoreline.
The paper had been a phone number and directions to the home of one of the Jackson police who was out on emergency detail and would lend us his house for the night. We were told there were no hotel rooms available south of Memphis. It was cozy, but we didn’t sleep much. The wind sounded like it would take the roof off if the heavy rain didn’t collapse it first, and the trees looked like they would pull out of the ground at any minute. After a short nap the winds calmed, the sun rose in a clear sky and we headed south again. It seemed like an easy, leisurely drive while I listened to cassettes in the backseat till I started recognizing towns and looked at the map. I took out my earplugs and asked why we were zigzagging all over the place. “We are dodging Camille. She’s on the ground and headed our way still.” Looking around, I didn’t see anything remarkable, but now I could hear the radio with the continuous tracking reports.
Finally I saw a shoreline, but it took a minute to recognize it. We were coming into Biloxi from the west and were facing the bay bridge at Ocean Springs. When the authorities saw Dad’s ID we crept forward as I leaned out the window petrified, but fascinated by the gaps between the sections of concrete. I was wishing we had a boat because I did not share the engineers’ trust that the bridge would hold. When we passed an old upright piano that had been blown up against the railing, the laughter managed to calm my fears. What followed was an awe filled drive past a town I knew by heart that now had ships too tall to see their decks sitting between houses, tall buildings that turned out to be only a north-south wall hiding debris on the other side, and open barren spaces where homes were that had been my landmarks for getting home from the beach. Eventually I recognized the pool whose house used to mark the road to the base housing area. A few blocks north as we drove across the base and pulled in the driveway, it looked like nothing had happened.
Life for the next two weeks was like nothing before. Dad was managing the disaster recovery around the clock, Mom could not fly home, school couldn't start as planned, so there was just two kids in the house, 16 and 13, who usually stayed as far from each other as possible. We had a working gas ranges so our days were spent together cooking up everything in the refrigerator and freezer before it spoiled and boiling water to drink (and to get rid of the smell of Clorox). There was no electricity, no phones, no air conditioning (important in August), no, and we weren’t allowed to leave the base. Things were dull. At least until stranded alligator, longer than I was tall, wandered up to kitchen door. He didn’t stay, but he had my full attention for the 30 minutes or so he was checking out our carport. And then there was the bottle of dye. The Base Exchange was open so my best friend and I decided to take a long walk and go shopping. The only thing we found of interest, that didn’t required batteries, electricity, or potable water was some Breck hair coloring. When my mother finally could fly in, her daughter’s dark brown hair with red highlights had reversed. I was sporting a coppery head of hair with a few dark streaks.
Though these are not all the memories, I discovered that when you survive a bout of upheaval and misery, the small amusements that can be managed become the memories that stay the most vivid. So once I heard my friends in Iwate Prefecture, Japan had survived their latest natural disasters we exchanged jokes about the sci-fi monsters who kept us laughing in our teens ….. Gojira (Godzilla), Gamera and Mothra. Distractions can be good once in a while; the sillier the better.