High water, deep memories

September 2, 2008

Flying into Orlando last week, I see a familiar sight: Central Florida’s abundant lakes stretching to the horizon. But something is different. No sandy beaches. The lakes are brimming over from Tropical Storm Fay’s deluges. Later I feel the land between the lakes squish beneath my feet. The newspaper where I worked is filled with photos of the St. Johns River spreading far from its banks.

I’ve returned to celebrate my father’s eightieth birthday. One of my most vivid memories of the man swirls past in Saturday’s tropical winds and rains, the outlying bands of Hurricane Gustav sloshing toward the Gulf Coast.

It was 1960, and I was a boy. Hurricane Donna, a monster storm, cut through the Orlando area. My father woke my brothers and me at 2 a.m. to watch the wind tear grapefruit from a tree. The spectacle left us giddy. So did the prospect of school closing. We didn’t anticipate having to work in the yard for three days to clean up Donna’s mess.

In the days before Donna arrived, tropical storms and the typical onslaught of summer thunderstorms had saturated everything. Donna brought epic rains, and the water had nowhere to go. Highways disappeared. Last week, with the sodden overheated air weighing on me, it felt like forty-eight years ago.

Now I’m home in Portland, savoring every breath from cool dry skies. In twelve days, l return to Orlando for a reunion (Winter Park High, class of 1968). More memories await. Happy ones, yes, but tempered with regrets for what’s been lost. As I struggle to recognize friends long unseen, storms with names may be churning our way.