Off North Road
'Red in the Morning'
It was September; I started in seventh grade and turned eleven. The month was rainy yet crickets abounded on the school grounds despite the wetness. During the third week we had steady heavy rain for two or three days. The short-cut to Cushman School through a vacant lot was soggy with mud in places. The grass had been blown flat and looked as if it was beyond productive haying. However, the days seemed unremarkable except for the lost freedom once school began. I had no way of knowing that a young weather forecaster, Charlie Pierce at the then U.S. Weather Bureau, had been charting the course of a tropical depression for several days as it made its way from Africa toward the Bahamas. The storm gathered strength by September 19 to a category 5 hurricane and by the time it reached the United States and tracked north past Norfolk Virginia, it remained at category 3. Pierce predicted it would stay on its northerly course toward New England, but he was overruled by the bureau chief who believed the storm would turn northeast and track harmlessly out to sea.
On the 21st I navigated the muddy path across lots and my eye caught the sun over the slight rise to the east. It was a huge ball of steamy molten orange-red, not the clear-cut yellow disc of other clear mornings. A haze and odd grayness covered the sky and took on some of the glow of red. I paused a moment and then resumed my slog to school, putting the sun out of mind. About 3 pm a cracking noise outside the school's front windows claimed everyone's attention. A large tree toppled as we watched and the air vents on the roof clanged as we'd never heard them before. Some storm, we all thought as the bell rang for dismissal. The winds caught our clothes and blew our hair on the walk home. We were used to a lot of wind living close to east coast beaches, but this was clearly different.
At 3:30 pm on the 21st, according to the weather service, the category 3 hurricane blew ashore on southern Long Island, piling tons of water against the beaches, breaking up sea-front homes and carrying everything in its path back to sea. My friend Pete Winterbottom and I started his paper route as usual delivering the New Bedford Standard-Times along a section of the village of Padanaram in South Dartmouth which bordered parts of the harbor and beach front. Wind had picked up since school let out and water accumulated in the streets. Elm Street, the main drag, was passable but strewn with litter, tree branches and blown-down signs. Ahead of us we could see downed electric lines which were arcing in bright flashes of live electricity when they hit each other or the pavement. It was a little scary. We skirted them and continued the route down toward cottages near the water. By then, we were walking in water over our shoes; bureau drawers floated about on the wind in one cottage yard. We tossed the rest of our papers onto the still dry porch and figured our job was futile. As it turned out there had been no warnings at all in the papers we carried. Few weather stations existed in the 30s and they were blown away by the advancing storm. No word of warning was relayed as the unnamed hurricane funneled northward between high pressure systems on either side preventing it from veering off to the east and to sea. Everyone seemed to have missed its extreme danger to land, except the overruled Charlie Pierce.
As we started home for cover from the storm, Pete's mother and sister came racing down Elm Street to retrieve us. Years later they would tell how they found us two boys walking about in the storm not realizing at all what risks we were taking. While we had been gone my mother with my younger brother and sister drove to Anthony Beach, located just to the west of Clark's Cove and New Bedford harbor with little protection from Buzzard's Bay. Mother remembered crossing the parking area to the beach and seeing tremendous surf hitting shore. She walked through a long passageway of the bath house and stood on a stool at its end and looked out the window toward the water. She told us, "I don't know really what I saw but it was terrible, all foam and water. I scrambled back to the car which now was ankle deep in water and got out of there with the kids as fast as I could." Mother was lucky. Later, people reported that, as the tidal surge approached land, they saw a huge fog bank rolling in toward shore but when it got closer they realized it wasn't fog. The storm surge would be at its most savage as it stormed up the narrow bay. By the time we reached home, electricity was out and the streets were deserted up the hill at home on Prospect Street. There was nothing to do but go to bed early and see what was left of the town by morning.
As the storm barreled into Long Island and surged up the coast to southern New England and beyond to the north and Canada it gathered speed up to 75 mph. This added to the already record wind velocity on the leading (east) edge of the storm, clocked at Blue Hills Observatory at a sustained 121 mph with gusts to 186. In the morning we went to school as usual. I doubted my memory of this because it seems so unlikely from the prespective of 68 years later but I remember we all reported for our seventh grade health club in which we were enrolled and required to be in bed every school night by 9 pm. Certainly, I had been, but no one else believed me.
The following morning school was out as everyone surveyed the wreckage and began the Herculean task of clean-up after flooding of low areas including the village and clearing the trees which toppled everywhere. All utilities were out and a huge casino-restaurant on the harbor had been floated by the tidal surge ("wave," it was called then) and plopped nearly intact down at right angles to the road completely across the approach to the bridge over the Apponagansett River. The grocer and pharmacist were packing damaged goods in the trash. Most of the labels on canned goods had been washed away. Nothing was salvageable but the village buildings were standing. Anthony Beach looked serene in the bright clear sunlight. The beach had been swept clean of several cottages; the bathhouse had disappeared. Not a single board or shingle remained anywhere in sight. We suspect the tidal "wave" hit the beach moments after Mother and kids left the parking lot. Six hundred deaths in New England remain a grim reminder of September 21, 1938, and lend a more serious tone to the old sailors' ditty: "Red at night, sailors delight, red in the morning, sailors take warning."
References: U.S. Weather Service; "The Long Island Express" Scott A. Mandias <mandias@SUNYsuffolk.edu>; geocities.com; Michael T. Grammaticus; "The Providence Journal" - unedited booklet, "The Complete Record of New England's Stricken Area, Sept. 21, 1938."