My grandmother, born in 1901, was afraid of water. She’d look at the ocean, a river, a lake, or even a small brook, and just think that she could never be far enough away to be safe. When she moved to Richardson, TX in the 70s, she went out of her way to purchase a home “on a hill.” I was in middle school when my family traveled from CT to TX to see the new home. Having grown up in a home at >600ft elevation at the top of a hill in Connecticut, I expected grandma’s “hill” to look similar. Instead, to a native New Englander, Richardson looked as flat as a pancake along with the rest of the Dallas metropolitan area. Yet, to prove her point, my grandmother had the family drive to see the nearby creek bed. The creek was only a few blocks away, and in fact, we really had gone down a ~2″ hill to get to it. It was hard to deny my grandmother the satisfaction that she gained from this simple truth and while I was happy to comply with the story of a Richardson “hill,” I didn’t understand her paranoia about the subject. Perhaps I should have.
Years later, my mother told me that my grandmother had experienced a flood as a child. Having grown up in Mississippi and Louisiana, it seems likely that she may have endured many storms from the Gulf of Mexico that caused flooding. How had my grandmother suffered? Perhaps, if she had written a memoir, the event that triggered her fear of water may have been amongst the first pages. Certainly, the event, or events, stayed with her throughout her lifetime.
I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve never lost a home to flood or fire, but I’ve had a few other experiences from which to develop some phobias of my own. The first one occurred when I was in the 9th grade when I was in Europe touring with the high school band. Back in the day, the Newtown, CT high school band traveled to Europe every four years on a concert tour. On the trip in which I participated, the band toured Germany and Austria. The large 100-piece group, required multiple buses in which to travel, and we stayed in multiple hotels as no hotel was big enough to room all of us. We were usually split up by grade-levels. Therefore, my bus and hotel-mates were the freshman and sophomores from the band. If I remember correctly, we were on the move the whole time and stayed at a different place each day. Night after night, we had weinerschnitzel for dinner. Our European seemed very focused to serve authentic regional cuisine to their American guests. Until, one night we had chicken.
I vividly remember the small hotel that served the chicken. There were only ~15 of us staying at this hotel, a smaller group than normal. We sat together in a small function room with wood furniture and devoured the meal, appreciating our hosts all the more as we had finally escaped the stranglehold of a weinerschnitzel diet. However, our perceived luck lasted only so long, as many of us started to get sick the next day. As we crossed the German/Austrian border, it was clear that the chicken eaters were sick. As I had licked my plate clean, I was one of several who were sick for the next month with salmonella food poisoning. Needless to say, the rest of the trip was a blur, but I remember the menu for the next ten years clearly. I DID NOT EAT CHICKEN. I had developed my first phobia.
My second phobia surprised me in college during my sophomore year in San Antonio, TX in 1987. My suite mate and I had decided to go to the beach for the day. We gathered enough spare change to pay for round-trip gas, 2 rubber rafts, 2 liters of soda, and potato chips. It was a 3hr drive to the coast and we headed out early to reach Port Aransas, Texas on the Gulf Coast before noon. I had never been to the ocean outside of New England. Immediately, Port Aransas offered a few surprises. First, cars drove on the beach. Second, Man-of-War jellyfish covered the beach. We spread-out our beach towels and headed for the warm water, floating on our rubber rafts and laughing as we sang the Jaws movie theme. After a fun time in the water, we retired to the beach, munched on our meager stash of soda and chips, and slept in the sun. A few hours later, we awakened to the sounds of beach chaos.
As we rose from our beach towels, a man ran up to us shouting that we should stay out of the water. A crowd of ~50 people had formed on the beach a short distance away from us. It looked like a helicopter might land. While we had been sleeping, a shark had attacked a teenage girl. The girl’s father had witnessed the attack and beat the shark until it released his daughter, although she had lost her arm to the shark. The girl was bleeding a few hundred feet away from us until a rescue helicopter could land to provide medical assistance. My suite mate and I exchanged nervous glances as we had been floating in the water singing the Jaws theme just a few hours earlier. Without much further consideration, we packed up and drove back to school. Our trip had been relaxing, but a teenage girl that we had never met, had lost her arm – forever.
The magnitude of the loss never left me, and I developed a fear of the ocean. I transformed from the kid that would endlessly surf the waves in Maine to a teenager and adult that never ventured beyond ankle depths. Was there a shark in the water? I could scan the water, but could never be sure. It just seemed safer to stay on the beach. At this time, I can comfortably eat (well-cooked) chicken, but I still can’t swim in the ocean.
As I think of the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy, I suspect that the event will shape the storm victims for the rest of their lives. It’s easy to imagine the horror of flood waters rising, property destruction, or loss of life, but hopefully there are also some good memories too, those of people helping others, or a stranded pet saved. I don’t know what my grandmother witnessed as a child in a flood, but CNN has made the impact of Hurricane Sandy visible to the world. Now, we need a future generation of memoir writers to put their words to the pictures.