Books are the gateway to imagination

Books are the gateway to imagination
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Saturday, August 27, 2011


Yesterday the threat of Hurricane Irene dominated a good portion of the news and that continues today. Yesterday was August 26---my birthday.

Roll back the hands of time to August 25, 1949. I was a very unhappy 9-year-old living in Miami, Florida. My parents had moved to Miami from Chicago several months before and I was still struggling to make friends and covercome the image of the smart Yankee who wore shoes to school, wore thick glasses and couldn't play sports.

Although I wasn't Baptist, I'd made some friends by joining the Baptist Bible Class after school. I told my mom I'd joined an after-school social club. My 10th birthday was approaching and Mom said I could have a big party and I was really excited as plans were made, invitations handed out. Almost all of my new friends said they would come and at last I was a happy camper.

The hurricane warnings were broadcast on the radio on the afternoon of August 25th. There were few little black and white TVs back then. Instead of setting out party decorations, I helped to tie garbage cans to palm trees while my dad secured the storm shutters. As a kid I didn't understand the impact of what was about to hit--only that my long-awaited party, my acceptance into the clique of Southern kids who finally admitted the Yankee, might never be.

On the morning o August 26 the hurricane struck. We lived in a fourplex, and our neighbor next door was a wonderful "earth mother" from the hills of Georgia. I still remember her name 62 years later--Agnes Shattler. She had three kids. A daughter Ida Mae, my age, and her little brothers Johnny and Donny. She knew how devastated I was and offered to make a chocolate birthday cake and have me sleep over as a subsitute for my gala party. Agnes could make a cake like no one else. It was a handful of this and a smidgen of that...never a recipe, but every slice was a piece of heaven.

Mom, dad and my younger sister Phyllice went to the Shattler's apartment for the makeshift party, while the strong winds of Hurricane Two whistled and torrential rain battered the building. It didn't even have a proper name like Hurricane Cleo, the one that hit on August 26, 1948. After the cake, they went home and I huddled with Agnes' kids chattering about the sleepover.

About 2:00 in the morning I awoke on fire. I crept into the bedroom Agnes and her husband John shared and said I didn't feel good. She took my temperature and gasped. It was 104. "We got to take you back to your Mama. She's got to find a way to get a doctor." Lights flickered as Agnes led me across the hall between the apartments and banged on their door. I swayed, on the brink of passing out just as my dad opened the door. He took one look at me and paled. I could barely focus, I was in such misery.

We hadn't lived in Miami long enough to establish a relationship with a doctor who would venture out in the lull of a hurricane to make a house call and Agnes and John were just making ends meet and didn't have a regular doctor. However, Dad's uncle was an influential jeweler on Miami Beach  and Uncle Sam had that kind of juice. The phones worked, and my dad called him. Sure enough Uncle Sam performed magic and called back to say his family doctor had agreed to venture across the causeway during the lull as a special favor to him. Again, as a child I didn't know what an amazing thing my great uncle had pulled off.

Mom kept me in a cool tub, while she and Agnes alternated soaking with alcohol rubs in an attempt to lower my temperature. By first light there was a lull in the ferocious storm and lo and behold a very handsome doctor appeared at our door. He'd made it across from Miami Beach and told my mom he wouldn't have done this for many people, but loved my great uncle. He produced a syringe from his black bag, gave me shots of God-knows-what, and then he had to stay with us until the storm blew over and it was safe for him to leave.

I was pretty sick for a few days, but my parents let me go outside to see coconuts strewn all over the broad front lawn along with other damage the storm ravaged on Miami. The following week, we had an "after-birthday" party and Agnes baked one of her special cakes for me.

That's why I'll never forget my 10th birthday. The image I've had all these years is fright, loving parents who calmed me, the kindness of a caring next-door neighbor and a great uncle who convinced a doctor to brave a hurricane to treat his great niece.

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