Blow Me Down

Maybe the hurricane was just what we needed

The city sidewalk in front of my house rose up five feet from the ground like a cobra ready to strike. Then it shimmied like a voodoo dancer. It occurred to me that we might be in trouble.

I stood there watching that massive concrete sidewalk doing its jig and all I could think was that I'd picked the wrong hurricane not to put up shutters.

I told my ten-year-old son and three-year-old daughter to get away from the windows for the tenth time already, and it was only 8 a.m. Then I asked them to come to the protected doorway to see our amazing flying sidewalk.

It had come up because a massive black olive tree beside it was becoming uprooted. With the wind blowing at least 100 mph, the tree finally gave up and came down. I yelled something, maybe "Timber!" — maybe something unintelligible. I just know I yelled. We don't like to admit it, but there's a clean dose of exhilaration mixed with dread when things fall apart around us.

If the tree had fallen toward the house or had been something other than a messy, undesirable weed, I might have yelled in a wholly different way. And that was just the beginning.

The wind blew hard enough to send butterflies shooting through my stomach for the next four or five hours. If relatively mild Katrina knocked out power here for a few days, this time we'd be juiceless for at least a week. I kept waiting for something to crash through my windows.

Occasionally I'd think, the mayor was right. That wily and wacky Fort Lauderdale aficionado, Jim Naugle, called me pretty late the night before the storm hit. He was returning a call I'd made to him a couple days before about some story I couldn't even remember. Didn't this man have something more important to do than call me before the hurricane hit? You know, like prepare the city? Naugle was already prepared, though. He told me he thought this hurricane was going to be a major disaster, worse than anything in many years.

"I hope you're wrong, mayor," I said, thinking of my naked, naked windows.

But I knew he'd be right. Think what you will about Naugle, but don't doubt that he's a smart cookie. And he was also born here, so he's loaded with native knowledge.

Anyway, that damn wind finally stopped blowing, and I took a walk around with my two children and our dog (my wife, as it happened, was out of town until late that night). I surveyed my damage. A brand new PVC fence in my backyard had been knocked silly until it looked like a whorehouse piano. A fairly cheap Target-bought carport was crushed under fallen limbs. About seven good-sized trees were basically totaled. The rest were just stripped of 80 percent of their leaves and branches.

We walked around the neighborhood and saw trees everywhere — on roadways, on cars, on houses, in swimming pools, on lawn statues, on other trees. Plantation proudly calls itself "The Tree City." It'll need a new nickname after the clean-up. "It took 40 years to make this neighborhood beautiful and six hours to destroy," a neighbor remarked.

We walked on to find Killer outside his house. That would be Mike Kowalski. He goes by Killer Kowalski, which happens to be the nom de guerre of his great-uncle, the famous wrestler. Long before Stone Cold Steve Austin, there was Killer Kowalski, a giant showman who peaked in the 1950s. His most famous move was "The Claw," where he would get down on his knees and grab the stomach of his opponent and squeeze until the guy fell to the mat in horrible agony.

Mike is his uncle's nephew — and he's made for natural disasters. Pushing 50, he's a great big man who never bought a T-shirt with sleeves. He usually wears a visor over his blond flat-top, a throwback to his days in the Marines. Mike broke his nose during a barroom brawl while in the Corps, which has given him a bit of a bulldog look. He drives a green monster truck with a cab that sits about six feet off the ground and Dale Earnhardt stickers on the back.

His skin is always red from working in the sun. He owns a concrete company. His business logo, which he designed himself, is an illustration of a huge-breasted woman sitting topless on a skull and holding a sledgehammer. Oh, and she's got wings.

His business is successful as hell. These days, he lays all the concrete at Hawk's Landing, the exclusive Millionaire's Row being built behind giant walls in Plantation.

He's got two sons near my boy's age. We share a love of sports and barbecue and have become friends. Some days he'll pull up to my house in that monstrous truck, unleash an ungodly horn, and yell, "Let's go to the game — I'm getting a limo."

Then he'll let out some kind of guttural yawp, straight from the bowels of Red State, U.S. of A.

After the 'cane, he was standing on his driveway next to a running generator that was already juicing his fridge and other appliances. He offered me one of his extra generators and we took it back to my house on his custom-made golf cart, one of Mike's many toys.

For the rest of the day, I worked harder than I have since I was a kid making five bucks an hour on a tobacco farm. And it felt good. I must have pulled a ton of brush onto the swale for the city to come and pick up.

Kurt Vonnegut, on some PBS show the other week, was talking his usual brilliant and sometimes absurd shit about mankind. He decried technology, saying that computers and air conditioners were basically making slaves out of us, keeping us imprisoned indoors. Not exactly original, but absolutely true in a way. Vonnegut said it's not natural to sit around all day in front of a computer.

"We're dancing animals," he said.

Yes, and the dancing animal came out of me in the yard. All that dancing in the yard made me wonder if I shouldn't be working for a living. But after a few hours, I was ready for a break. I washed my hands in the feeble flow of bacteria-ridden water coming through my pipes and headed back over to see Mike, who was chain-sawing his toppled shadowbox fence and hauling sections out to the swale. I helped him for a while before we decided it was about to time to get ready for a feast.

I brought over some steaks and burgers from my freezer. We sat down with a bunch of kids — our own and their friends — and ate outside on a cool night.

"Wow! Look up there!" one of the kids said.

It was amazing. With the power out across South Florida, some of the kids really saw the stars for the first time.

The next day, I moved another ton of brush and then helped Mike move the rest of his ruined fence. We also helped an older guy get a tree off his house. Later Mike helped me take out a huge and dangerous 25-foot-high leaning fir tree on my property. A gouging tree guy told me he'd charge $850 for what monster Mike did in an hour with a chain saw, his truck, some strong rope, and a six-foot-long, 25-pound iron post called a wrecking bar.

At some point, I noticed cars backed up for many blocks on Broward. The cars then led 10 blocks through my neighborhood to Heritage Park. Somebody told me they were giving away ice there. The only way I'd sit in a line like that was if they were giving away blood and I needed a transfusion. So I rode a bicycle.

The cars were stopped dead on the road. I heard a couple of people asking for jumper cables because their batteries had run out. They'd been sitting there for as long as three hours. Machine-gun-toting National Guard troops walked in between the rows of traffic. Finally, I made it to the park and there were about 10 cops there.

No ice, though.

"What are they going to do with those machine guns?" asked a woman standing beside us. "Are they going to shoot us for taking an extra bag of ice?"

She assumed a Rambo pose and said, "Drop that ice or I'll shoot!"

I waited for a half-hour before riding off. I don't know if the ice ever got there. The only people more incompetent than the bureaucrats were those in line. What kind of fool is so desperate for ice one day after a hurricane hits? I didn't need it. The truth is I really didn't need much of anything. The nice weather made being without power mighty tolerable. Yes, that generator came in handy, but those things are loud as hell and they eat up gas, so we only had it on maybe six hours a day to keep the refrigerator cool, watch a DVD at night, and write this thing.

We could have easily done without it. All we really needed to keep cold was milk for the kids and we had enough ice for that. Other than that, cereal, peanut butter, bread, bottled water, charcoal, instant coffee, and meat that we roasted from our freezer did the trick.

We're calling this thing a disaster and, yes, for a couple thousand people — especially those in mobile homes — it was. But the truth is that the vast majority of us only flirted with disaster. We lost money, we lost some aesthetic beauty, and some of us might have even lost a bit of our sanity at times. But if you want to see what disaster really looks like, drive to Mississippi and New Orleans right now or look at some pictures of Homestead circa 1992 or Punta Gorda just last year.

This storm was a nuisance or an enema, depending on how you look at it. I think of it as the latter, and this town needed it. The hurricane got rid of a few screened pool enclosures and cheap aluminum sheds. It exposed old roofs, shoddy workmanship, and our government's idiocy. It might prompt the school board and banks to invest in some hurricane-proof windows for their high-rises. And we really didn't need all those fences, did we?

It left every muscle in my body a little sore. Like Mike, I now have scratches all over my legs and a huge welt on my leg and fell off my ladder to only narrowly miss being gored by a sharp branch.

But who said dancing couldn't be a little bit dangerous?

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