No one was afraid of hurricanes back in the early years. Pop Gabler called them monsoons. He would see frigate birds spiraling up the sky off the Haulover Bridge and tell us that a monsoon was coming. My dad bought a glass ball that had a little spout. It was filled halfway with water and when the air pressure outside the ball dropped the water inside would move up the spout perhaps telling us a hurricane was coming.
Because our house had a gas stove and a gas refrigerator we were protected against power line failures. When a hurricane came around my folks would have a party, every adult drinking rum and coca-cola. Cuba Libre (free Cuba) it was called. My brothers and I had a big bedroom. Larry Fuller or Tony Stormont would come over and we would drink hot chocolate and plan forays out into the storm.
One afternoon in 1945, a hurricane blew up out of the Caribbean and we were excited. Storms would take the lobster traps lying in 40 feet of water and wash them ashore. Sometimes they would have spiny lobsters in them. Larry, my brother Jonathan, and I set out for the beach. We figured the wind was blowing 75 to 80 miles an hour. It picked up the dry sand at the edges of the road and burned our legs. We could hardly walk against it. The sky was gray and clouds scudded by. The ocean was roiling and sweeping along the beach at a furious rate. However, down close to the wave break the wind wasn’t strong enough to pick up the wet sand and we got relief walking near the breaking waves.
We were looking for lobster traps but on the rain swept horizon we saw a sailing ship. It was clearly in trouble. Larry, my brother and I had recently read the Nordhoff and Hall trilogy about the Bounty. The romance of the sea was on us and we ran north along the beach in the heavy wet sand shouting “salvage rights.”
The three-masted bark steered by one lone jib, headed into shore. At 96th Street, it ran aground on the sand bar about 80 yards from shore. We watched as the dark-skinned crew lowered a small lifeboat, packed in some gear and rowed toward us. They pulled the skiff high up on the beach and the captain turned toward us and asked for nearest police station. Two blocks west was the Surfside station and its lone sergeant.
Leaving the chief engineer, a short wiry man with curly hair and bristly mustache, and a big seaman behind to watch the skiff, the captain and four others set out for the station. We stayed behind to guard and observe. Just as soon as the main group left, the engineer reached into the bow of the skiff and pulled out a bottle of dark rum. He and the big seaman swapped the bottle back and forth talking and shouting in Spanish above the wind. The more they drank the louder the little engineer got. We heard “El Perro! El Perro!”
The little man stood the three of us in a row. He took off his shirt and gave it to my brother to hold. He took off his shoes and gave them to me to hold. He took off his hat of rank, pulled three dollars out of his pocket put it in the hat and gave them to Larry to hold. Gesticulating wildly, he walked down to the water’s edge. The big seaman was crying and shaking his head. “He wants to save his dog,” he said to us. The wind was whipping the water in a swirling frenzy and the undertow quickly ran the breast-stroking engineer out to ship as if he was attached to a magnet. Grabbing a rope near the bow of the ship, he hung on. We could hear him over the wind, hollering for El Perro.
The ship would roll and pull the sailor almost out of the water and then roll back and plunge him into the sea. This drama continued for about ten minutes and then he let go, and was swirled under.
After a minute, Larry said, “Well, boys, you just saw a man drown.”
I wanted to dive in and save the little engineer. I told Larry later that if I had had my flippers I would have gone after him. But inside I was always glad I didn’t.
The captain came back shortly after and we gave up the shirt, the shoes, and the hat containing the three dollars. With wind pushing behind us we hustled back home. After it was dark Tony came over and we told him about the ship.
“Let’s go,” he said. “I got my Coleman lantern.”
Tony, Larry and I walked back to the beach. Nobody was in sight. The ship, glistening in the light of the lamp, had been blown close to shore. When a big wave receded, you could run down to the wreck and climb aboard. The first thing to greet us was a young wet German Shepherd dog. We picked him up and between waves tossed him onto the beach.
Inside the main cabin were signal flags and a 12-foot casting net and cartons of cigarettes without the tax stamps on them, and a radio and a whole ham. This was our salvage. We packed as much as we could carry and hauled it back to Tony’s and my house. My folks liked to smoke and cigarettes were scarce during the war. So I gave them a carton. Twelve other cartons of cigarettes dried away in our little attic above my closet because I wasn’t sure about our salvage rights.
The next morning the sky was clear and the sun shone and we all went down to the ship. It was swarming with people looting. The chubby police sergeant, who also ran the Surfside Boys Club, spotted us and enlisted our help.
“I want you boys to stand guard here and not let anybody on this ship,” he said, and we did that.