HURRICANE! No One Told Us It Was Going To Rain ...

... The wire was sparking and hissing, and flopping around like a hurt snake.

by Don Norris

It wasn't like it is today. There was no television, and even radio was a relatively new thing in 1938. A hurricane, to a lad of seven, was just another adventure, but there wasn't much forewarning. Not like today.

We lived right next to the 15th green of Upper Montclair Golf Club, which is a ritzy place where we kids could play and hike and find golf balls once in a while. Especially if some knickered golfer hooked one into the yard.

Not half a block away were the remains of the old Morris Canal, whose tow path was then a popular trail for rented horses. You could go from Brookdale, where the stables were on Broad Street, all the way to Clifton, almost to Paterson. Like five miles. That was where the tough people lived.

In 1938 my dad had a two-year old DeSoto, which was pretty fancy because we were still coming out of the Great Depression. It was black. Most cars then were black, with big chrome grills and huge headlights. I remember the car had two spare tires mounted in the fenders.

That Wednesday morning (I know it was Wednesday because I recently read the Melrose Free Press account of that storm) was nothing special, except the warm September sun soon disappeared behind an overcast. My brother and I were still in Brookdale Grammar School, which was about nine long blocks from our home, and it was raining when we got out for lunchtime.

Ma usually kept the car during the day, having driven Dad to the Lackawanna Station in Montclair for his daily commute into New York. So Douglas and I knew, if it was raining, that she'd have the car there, in front of the school, because we didn't have raincoats. Nobody told us it was going to rain.

There were probably twenty or thirty cars in front of the school that noon, including several Model A's, perhaps even a 'T'.

I guess my parents heard about the storm that morning while Dad was shaving -- he always had the radio on early in the morning. It didn't mean much to anybody, apparently, because life went on as usual. Douglas took off with the Little twins, taking the shortcut along the tow path. And Donnie Morgan came by, yelling "Heeeyyyy Donnie". For some reason we never used doorbells at that age.

Don and me were best buddies back in '38. and in the same class. Miss Redfern was our teacher that year, I think. Tall, and she had a pouting lower lip, but never seemed to get mad at us. If I knew the word then, I would have called her dowdy.

Anyway, about seven kids would pile into the DeSoto, and Ma would drop each one off at their front door 'cause it was raining pretty hard now. It seems to me we had a hour and a half for lunch, and Ma would reverse the route for the afternoon session, picking up kids along the way. We had a long run from the car to the school entrance, and by this time the wind was getting strong and the rain was coming in sideways.

Nevertheless, most of the kids made it back to school. It was expected. Only Peter and Nasi, a pair of brothers whose folks were from Turkey, stayed at school with their bagged sandwiches, for they lived way out Passaic Avenue, and their parents didn't have a car. Not all families did, come to think about it.

But the afternoon session was hardly productive 'cause we kids were totally distracted by the storm. The windows were rattling, the rain was pounding in sheets, and the trees around the playground were being blown every which way. The principal wouldn't let us go early because not everyone had a telephone. Still when 3:30 came, we were released, whether we had a ride or not.

Ma had to detour out to Garrabrant Ave on the way home because a branch had broken off and knocked down an electric line. It was sparking and hissing, and flopping around like a hurt snake. I think Ma drove the whole way home in first gear because you could hardly see out the windshield. Leaves and junk and bushes and trash barrels were flying all over the place.

I wondered how Peter and Nasi were going to get home. It was really blowing hard.

As Ma pulled into the garage, I watched as the 15th green's flagpole was rocking back and forth, and finally the wind picked it up and flung it into the air. I lost sight of it in the heavy rain and wind, but the next day we found it up by Donnie Morgan's house, stuck in the fairway, upside down.

We turned on the big RCA console radio -- it looked like a miniature Rockefeller Center -- but the stations were so staticky that you could hardly understand the announcer. In place of "Stella Dallas", there was a man who sounded like he was scared to death, describing some really bad damage along the coast.

He announced in serious voice that many boats had been thrown up on the shore, that streets were flooded and trees were being blown down all over the metropolitan area. At 4:30 Dad called from New York to say that the trains weren't running, and that he was going to get a hotel room for the night.

Ma didn't like that idea at all, but Dad said he had called several friends in our neighborhood and asked them to keep a lookout for us. As it turned out, the next day we discovered that we couldn't have gotten to the railroad station anyway, for all the trees and wires that were down.

Early that evening there was a lull in the fierce wind, and Mr. Lenoz, across the street, pounded on the door. And a little while later Mr. Zimmerman, the German guy next door, came over to check on us. It was a nice neighborhood.

The wind died away before we went to bed that night, but Brookdale looked like a battlefield the next morning. The Morris Canal, normally a swampy creek, was ten feet deep in places. Our yard was littered with trash and broken branches. There was no power, no telephone, no heat. We still had gas in the stove and the gas heater that Dad had installed in the fireplace provided some warmth. A few tiles in our roof were broken and we had some leaks.

The town next to us, Glen Ridge, seemed to have suffered more damage than us. There, roofs were blown off and a lot of store windows had been smashed. The steeple on the Dutch Reformed Church had been damaged and there were lots of cars stranded in deep water -- all of which we learned from the weekly Independent Press.

Pop got out of work early the next day, Thursday, but how he got home, I'll never know. He showed up after supper that evening. Things got back to normal pretty quickly, though. There were golfers on the course by Friday, and riders on the tow path by Saturday.

Editor's note: The Norris family, at the time of the '38 hurricane, lived in Bloomfield, New Jersey, and moved to Melrose in 1947. He now admits that his rather precise memories have been augmented by a particularly vivid imagination. DRN

September 1, 2000

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