October 2015. It was more than thirty years ago that the big flood happened, something now known as the Great Atlantic Tsunami event. We all know now that it wasn’t a flood of Biblical proportion but something termed paradoxically “relatively catastrophic” by the authorities. It was heralded at the time by a common but ominously sounding serious warning that was sent out across the airwaves. Remember the emergency broadcast system? I think it’s still around, but this too has been replaced by the social media juggernauts, the general internet and/or the creepy mass text messages we somehow seem to get in crises now. Since so few of us actually consume over-the-air media nowadays perhaps the emergency broadcast system has become an anachronism? Regardless, this time it wasn’t a test of the emergency broadcast system but a truly major emergency. This was the real deal. The alarm sound was followed by a message about an impending tsunami and its possible deleterious effects on civilization. Except they didn’t call it a tsunami back then, it was called a tidal wave. And tidal waves are serious business for the authorities.
Despite the length of time that had passed, he still had the ability to remember this moment in vivid clarity. He could remember the colors, the texture of the couch he was sitting on, and even the smells. It was a cold grey day in late autumn, after school and during the week. Not super cold, but cold enough in contrast to the weather a few weeks ago that it felt like the depth of winter. It was November, the routine time of year when one did nearly the same thing every day. The sun was slowly slipping into its early slumber over the horizon. The time was the early 1980s, he was still a young boy but in the later years of elementary school. Something like the very comfortable years of the fourth or fifth grade. Back then, children came home after school and had their own time to watch tv, play what passed for video games or to participate in the now forbidden unstructured concept of “play.” Play was time children used to have to be on their own without the neurotic attending structural presence of adults.
He was watching PBS on channel 36 when the alarm sounded and the instructions came on. PBS was one of the few stations they could get. It was on the UHF dial and you had to use the funny hoop antenna to get the signal. He did this all by himself and prided himself that he could get the station. He was the antenna man at every family gathering. He didn’t dare tell anyone else, but he still watched Sesame Street after school. It came on at 4 o’clock and was followed by Mr. Rogers and 3-2-1 Contact. All of which he watched religiously and on a daily basis. Nobody at school was supposed to know that he watched Sesame Street since it would have been quite the scandal that a boy his age still watched Sesame Street. Nothing could be worse than being somehow ostracized or mocked publicly by a group of his esteemed peers. A group who all still dressed in their Catholic school uniforms of matching yellow shirts and blue pants.
The Emergency Broadcast System was always exciting though. It wasn’t until many years later he understood how the emergency broadcast system was really in place to warn the population of a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. It was so amazing how paranoid the government was back then. The government was still really, really paranoid of communists and the Soviets back then in the 1980s. Except nearly everyone forgot about the cold war and the paranoia it engendered today. And they used that fear to gain a great deal of power over the population, all in the name of safety. Since the communists have been pushed aside lately no singularly unique new enemies have visibly taken their place.
Except now we have real enemies but are afraid to mention them out loud in public. Instead we invented grievous threats to our safety. Just about everything is a threat now. In a sense it was both easier and safer to have an enemy around like the Soviet Union back then. Now we pretty much prey on ourselves as we imagine all sorts of threats. Thanks Hollywood for this. They can just inject their political agenda in there. And since we invent threats we systematically ignore the real threats.
After the harsh alarm signal ended the message was both spoken and typed across the screen. There was no sign language interpreter back then, nor closed captioning. Just the multi-colored bars across the screen with the black bar at the bottom. It was just like one turned on the TV really early when the stations were not broadcasting. Right before they said the national anthem and the recording of America the Beautiful. After the patriotic music cartoons came on. He could snuggle under the covers and watch cartoons all day back then.
Urgent. Immediate Action Required. Tidal wave warning issued for the east coast of the United States. High water is expected to submerge nearly every coastal community on both the Rhode Island and Massachusetts coasts. Even greater damage is expected further north on the coasts of Maine and in the Canadian Maritimes. Expected surge is between twelve and twenty feet but considerable uncertainty remains regarding water levels. Water will inundate a vast area many miles inland. This is potentially a catastrophic event. Take all necessary precautions to protect life now. Waves are expected to begin to arrive by 5PM and will continue for several hours. IF YOU ARE IN A LOW LYING AREA GET TO HIGHER GROUND NOW!
The next update is forthcoming.
Instead of being scared after seeing this he was somewhat excited. The same feeling he got right before a hurricane or a big snowstorm was forecast to come through. The news always forecast hurricanes, but they never did seem to make it up to the Providence area. He couldn’t wait to tell mom that a potentially catastrophic event was nearly certain to destroy millions, perhaps billions of dollars worth of property. Not to mention the potential loss of life but since he was still in elementary school this really wasn’t a concern. For some reason it was always empowering to be the messenger of exciting news no matter how grave the report would be. This gave him a purpose. A real important adult kind of purpose. Just like working the antenna on the TV so they could watch the Boston Bruins play hockey on channel 38. He loved watching the Bruins back then even though there was no way in the world he was going to be able to play competitive hockey.
It was a massive earthquake off the coast of Iceland had triggered the urgent “tsunami” (tidal wave) warning. We still were a bit skeptical of all things Japanese back then, only forty years after the war. Excepting of course consumer goods produced there which were somehow inexpensively sold over here. The entire Atlantic basin was apparently in grave danger. Supposedly, one of the the world’s strongest recorded quakes lifted a huge block of the earth’s crust under the ocean. But the earthquake was a fact and the potent cataclysmic tsunami that came ashore on the remote part of Iceland nearest to the epicenter was evidence of the power of this event. The end result of the quake was a massive displacement of water that was threatening to inundate the shores of both sides of the Atlantic. The waves that came ashore on the remote North Atlantic islands first: Greenland, the Faroes, Orkney and the Shetlands. Despite its power, the wave caused little damage on these gracefully elevated and sparsely inhabited northern coasts. The thunderous crash of the wave against the glaciers of Greenland was heard dozens of miles inland. This resulted in thousands of new icebergs being created and land once covered by ice to be revealed once again. A few hours later the wave hit Scotland, Ireland and Norway, not causing a great deal of catastrophic destruction. But the wave was weaker than anticipated and the ancient communities clinging to the sparse rocky coasts absorbed the impact with their characteristic indifferent acceptance. True, some towns on these island communities were entirely devastated, but many survived intact.
Several hours later a visible sign of the impending disaster began to arrive in North America. Here in Rhode Island, Narragansett Bay began to slowly recede somewhat and in doing so exposed some of its long hidden depths to the stark gray autumnal sky. Narragansett Bay to the casual observer seems so everlasting and eternal. There is a deep romantic association with the bay itself and the primordial past of the region. But its true age is closer to that of the relatively recent dawning of human civilization. Carved out of weak sedimentary rock mere generations ago by a glacier the bay itself is a relative neophyte when it comes landscape features. New England is a land of contrasts when it comes to geology as archaic hills and mountains whose age is measured in geologic time sit in close juxtaposition to a recently developed hydrology. Ten or twenty thousand years old at most dating from the retreat of the last glacier. Despite its youth the bay has served as the centerpiece of America’s smallest state and most likely assisted the original inhabitants of the state with their most nefarious commercial activities. Unlike the stout ancient geology across the pond the young structures here were at grave risk despite their distance from the epicenter.
Mom didn’t really take him so seriously. She replied with the standard line feigning interest “OK honey, that’s nice.” She knew his mind raced with ideas, some ideas so fantastic they could only come from the mind of a child. Ideas that were age appropriate of course. Mom didn’t think such trivialities were cute anymore or worth giving any credence to whatsoever. She had far more important things to do: laundry, dishes, vacuuming, making lunches, and what possibly to wear to work next Tuesday. She was consumed with the endless drudgery of attempting to make a “life” for their family. This was a life that was in constant invented friction with other families. A permanent competition that served to make life very difficult for them all. This friction kindled itself a psychological fire that resulted in her own mind burning itself. And when one’s body touches fire it gets burned and these are third-degree burns that led to permanent scars. Everyday she was creeping further and further into the flames of anxiety and depression, a hell of her own making. A hell of her own but a needless purgatory for the rest of them.
Her mind worked in the manner of her son once too, before the fires of creativity were extinguished by the forces of maturity and modernity. This was before being at home became such drudgery and such a thankless chore. Life had become and endless miserable treadmill of her own making, a loop that she simply could not reset. Their house was nowhere near perfect but quite the opposite. It was a place that looked great to others but was beginning to be a place void and vacant of humanity.
He began trying not to talk to her. Most days any communication her and him was accompanied with some form of demand or request. Usually stuff she didn’t want to do. Communication is actually a misnomer because it implies a two-sided exchange and due to his age there was no real exchange. Today was no exception. Being around mom had become just so incredibly unpleasant. It was as if his voice actived a switch that prompted her into demand mode. “Do this,” “do that,” “can you do this thing” ad infinitum. He tried to avoid her as much as he could but he was only 9, and he still needed her although he learned how to do things on his own. It was easier that way he had learned already.
“That’s nice” was immediately followed by “did you take the trash out?”
“Mom, no” “Look at the TV.”
“NO! I’m not going to look at the tv. The trash needs to go out, tomorrow is trash day”
She began to get frustrated as she always did when she thought he was acting passive-aggressively. This took her power away when he did this. Her husband, his father did this sometimes and she resented it. She held onto the feelings and watched him closely, when he finally made an inevitable “mistake” she would tear into him. But dad felt even more powerless than he did. He could never win, never express himself without dealing with a whole boatload of manipulation. In truth though, he could never meet her needs. She couldn’t meet her needs,
And like usual, the unassailable question word “why” was attached to the next part of the conversation “why didn’t you take the trash out?” Even at his age he knew that a hostile attitude would be coming. “The trash needs to go out because it needs to get picked up tomorrow and if we don’t put it out the trash will start to pile up and the neighbors will think we are white trash. We’re going to get rats and mice and they’re going to come in the house. Rats are disgusting and can spread plague. <pause> You need to take the trash out right now.”
“I don’t care what the neighbors think mom” he said.
With her anxious rage quickly having built up she stopped putting the once used towels in the washing machine and came out of the laundry room pointing her finger at him, admonishing him for talking back. He was used to getting admonished for things like this. He was admonished so many times that he just said “sorry” as a response. Sometimes he said nothing because it was easier.
She was in all things are hostile mode now, her righteous indignation switch turned on and now he was some form of enemy. “Just wait until your father comes home.”
Dad would come home later and yell at me but then later sort of apologize. When he was older he said he did so just to please my mother. I really didn’t care about all that anyway, just was tired of walking on eggshells at home. By the time I was in elementary school I figured this game out.
There was always something like this going on at home. He didn’t know what went on during the day when he was at school because it always seemed that all the household chores were being done from the time he came in from school until dad arrived in the early evening. Sometimes it was taking out the trash and other times it was bring down the laundry. Other times he got in major trouble for not wearing the right outfit. Early on in life he learned the potential of mortal danger associated with making messes at home. Making a mess was bad news. And simply forget being joyful it when there was going to be company or a holiday at the house. Stress level in the house was at level ten on a ten point scale. Before a holiday, he really had to walk on eggshells.
Even with his short span of years he really felt like saying “because I didn’t fucking do it yet because the goddamn trash man comes fourteen hours from now.” And the plague argument in some total bullshit manipulation crap. But he didn’t say this. Dad used to say stuff like this when he came home and she bombarded him with the complaints from another one of her bad days. She had a lot of those. After a while Dad started to have a lot of them too.
Dad stopped listening to it long ago. “In one ear and out the other” is what he said. She knew he stopped listening to her but never changed her tactics. Just went deeper into the resentment and isolation cave. Her customs were fossilized, her beliefs rock solid and were always right. It wasn’t until much later in life that he learned that those who are always right usually are mostly always wrong. She never changed anything she did since she expected everyone else around her to change.
When he came home and on weekends, Dad tried to take him out of the house. Not all the time, but a lot of the time. Sometimes they just drove around if the weather was bad, other times they went to the docks to just sit and watch the boats come in. Or they went to stores to shop around for things none of the them needed. Sometimes they went to the park. Both of them never spoke about why they were really there. Over time though he figured it out. His mom would be frenetically running about the house accomplishing a multitude of tasks which would soon be undone.
At least he thought he remembered this, but wasn’t so sure. Everything was so hazy and distant.
The phone began ringing while she was still on her angry tirade. It was dad. He wanted to speak to mom. Back then one phone in the house rang and getting the phone always was an important task to get done.
This was all several hours before the bay began to recede. The submerged hulls of long sunken boats became visible, their wooden hulls sunken in the mud and sand of the bay. The harbor of Providence and the Seekonk River showed the world their muddy foundations. Old pilings, modern rubbish, and old rubbish. Rubbish that seemed so old that it had become interesting again. The point when rubbish becomes a curiousity has to be one of the defining points of history. When does old trash become important could be the title of a university course. The impact of direct human activity was on the floor of Providence Harbor as the deeply dredged channel held water while the shallow confines of the harbor and river receded.
This short interval was stopped short when the sea came rushing back in. Despite being screened from the most major effects of the wave, it came onshore with a ferocity not seen since the time of Noah and the flood. The barrier islands on the south coast of the state got it the worst, some being overtopped by the encroaching water. The city of Newport itself was under five or so feet of water. Providence itself was flooded even a bit more. The barrier built to withstand the tidal surges of hurricanes kept the water from flooding the low-lying manmade downtown area.
They made it out right before the water came crashing down the street and into their house. Now, there was no reason to vacuum, fold laundry or pick up the spare bedroom. The tidal wave took care of the trash as well, especially the trash he just took out.