In every life there are moments that define us. Moments that stand out as amazing, embarrassing, ridiculous, tender, or painfully raw. And there are moments, both good and bad, that cause you to halt, step away from your actual body, and identify exactly who you are.
I have one of those moments that I cannot reflect on without shaking my head.
It was September 24, 1998. Hurricane Georges had been dancing like a drunk lady all over the Caribbean, causing people in the Leeward Islands to shudder and wreaking havoc on places like Antigua and Puerto Rico. In Tampa Bay, the frenzy to prepare had begun. Meteorologists were wearing their collars open and chuckling nervously as they spewed melodramatic instructions into our family rooms. At that point, I was working from home, wishing for the children I didn’t yet have, and had all the freedom of time and money I needed. I turned on a midday newscast. Oh, it’s going to be a big one. You need to get ready for this one. This could knock out your power for days and drop enough water to relocate your house to Cuba. Get.Ready.
Of course I bit like a starving dog and called Todd.
“Hey, they are giving out and filling sandbags at the fire station. I think we need to do this. Our back patio sits really low.” I paused. “We could flood.”
“You think we need sand bags?” He asked in disbelief. Yep, I do. They are recommending it. What could he say? His wife wanted sand bags. It was for the children. Of the future.
So we got sand bags.
And we had them filled.
About 126 of those boogers.
That doesn’t sound like that many, I realize, but you try to stack 126 sandbags along the back of your house and then later dispose of them and you’ll be done with the whole thing LONG before you count to 100, I assure you.
Once that was done, there was still all the other stuff the sweating weather guy said I would need. Batteries, water jugs, flashlights, a good razor (that one was my own personal addition. In case of the apocalypse, have smooth legs…), some beans (good for your heart), etc. It’s the et cetera that got me in trouble.
The urgency was tremendously, urgently urgent. Must hurry. Storm coming. Hurry very fast. Do not delay. Buy the supplies you need. Board up your windows. Go sit in a window-less corner. It was mind boggling, I tell you. You couldn’t get away from it. So of course, again, I bit like a rabid, angry raccoon and did just what the weather dude said. But as has been my custom in life, I decide to go about it slightly differently than the average person. I needed some fresh air. And I needed exercise. So I slung a back pack over my shoulders and got out on my bike.
My destination was K-Mart.
The ride was breezy and beautiful. For a few minutes, I forgot that the world as I knew it would soon be slapped away by a wall of wind and water. It was a pleasantly balmy 84 degrees. It was a ride I would always remember. Eventually.
The ride by bike took only about 7 minutes more than it would have taken to drive. On the front end, anyway. I locked my bike to a sign post between PharMor and K-Mart and went inside. My empty burgundy backpack was still slung across my back, causing my t-shirt to stick with sweat. Some might say that wearing my back pack into K-Mart would remind me that I would be filling my back pack with merchandise on the return trip. But instead, I grabbed a cart, and began to shop like a woman with $1000 to spend and a greyhound bus to take it home in. I bought batteries, a jug of water, a gallon of Gatorade, a propane lantern, 2 rolls of paper towels, some toilet paper, 3 cans of beans, and a bag of Smarties (let’s not confuse priorities just because a storm is coming). Having completed my transactions, I walked outside with my cart full of bags and began to look for my car.
Where’d I park?
There’s my car.
And it’s a bike.
Locked to a sign post.
This is the moment I remember realizing who I am. That was not a cathartic moment for me. I looked down at the contents of my K-Mart cart. Then I looked over at my bike. And then I mentally looked into the back pack I was still wearing, empty, on my back. And then, I turned around with my cart and walked back into Customer Service, which was directly inside the doors. The lady had seen me leave with my stuff. And now she was watching me return. She was wearing the exact right expression on her face. I deserved it.
“Um, yes. I’d like to return about…most…of this stuff,” I said.
“You just bought it,” she said, popping her gum at me. “What happened?”
“I rode my bike here,” I said, wincing. “I forgot I did that.”
“OK,” she said, eyebrows raised with disdain. “What do you want to return?” Here was another defining moment. A moment of choices. What would get returned ? What would I ride home with? So I put the paper towels up on the counter, all of the toilet paper, one can of beans, and a water jug. Still remaining in my grip were lots and lots of batteries, a full-sized propane lantern, a gallon container of Gatorade, two cans of beans, and the Smarties.
Well, that was fun. Now to pack this stuff for a ride home. The batteries and the beans and the Smarties went into my Jansport. The propane lantern got slung over my right handle bar. And the Gatorade was slung over my left handle bar. My hope was that these would balance each other out, but the Gatorade was much, much heavier so I wobbled and warbled and shimmied all the way home down 56th Street as a side show to people leaving their offices.
With this music playing in your head, perhaps you can picture it.
Every time I hit a dip in the sidewalk, my heart would lodge in my throat as I waited for the whole thing to go up in flames. Every time I had to slow down or turn, I would sweat like Jezebel on judgment day. It was scary. When I finally rolled wearily and terribly unbalanced into my driveway and the ordeal was over, I hobbled wobbly-legged into my bathroom to weigh my back pack. It was 23 pounds. Twenty-three pounds of beans and batteries.
That night the rain began to fall.
It fell for approximately 45 seconds.
Hurricane Georges did not drop enough water on the greater Tampa Bay area to fill my bathtub and that’s no lie.
And so, with a shrine of propane and batteries around me, I walked outside…
…to face the sandbags.