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Ian, Lee & Me

Category 4 storm left boats and yachts of all sizes stuck between buildings or tangled in mangrove trees. Others were smashed into cars, or stacked on top of each other like pickup sticks. 

Wall Street Journal: October 16, 2022

According to AccuWeather Founder and CEO Dr. Joel N. Myers the total losses caused by Hurricane Ian will amount to between $180 billion and $210 bullion in the US.

* * *

On my eightieth birthday last March my son called with more than good wishes.

“Wanted to let you know I’m moving to Florida. Thirteen years here in Oakland. Sold my house. Made some money. Quit my job. Time to do something different.”

Totally unexpected. I’d miss him very much.

“Jesus, Lee, that’s a major life style move. Have you thought it through?” My paternal nature returning from long hibernation. He was a fifty-one years old bachelor who had lived successfully and apparently happy for three decades in the Golden State without a live-in partner, nor my sage advice.

Damn, I’d miss him. We were buddies. Memories of good times together swirled through my mind. At age twelve years old when he won the state championship foul shooting contest in his in his age group by sinking 21 of 25 free throws. After finishing his fourth year in college three credits short of degree he balked at his mother’s directive to take an evening summer class at the nearby community college. When I agreed  to take an Economics course with him he relented.

There was a vacation a few years ago when driving on the autostrada through a rain storm from Naples to Rome our rented Alpha Romeo came to a sudden halt. He trotted a couple of miles to a village and returned with a capable mechanic. Years later we had a first time visit to South America, Buenos Aires where we dined dockside on their renowned sirloin steak while finishing a couple of bottles of Malbec and were fleeting voyeurs on its nude beach. And the occasional Saturdays when we hung out at a sports bar near Lake Merritt watching and betting on college football games.

“Well, yes I’ve given it a lot of thought, dad. The time is right. The Bay Area have grown too big, too many people, too much traffic. I’ve found a street level two bedroom condo in a cool town on Florida’s southwest coast, the side of the state less crowded than Miami or Lauderdale and thirty percent less expensive.”

 We had traveled together once a year for more than a decade to see our favorite college football team, the Miami University Hurricanes play and to enjoy the sights, bars and restaurants of that exciting, vibrant city.  “And it’s a two hour drive to the U’s football stadium so we can go to a Hurricanes game or two when you visit.”

This was a lot to comprehend. He and I had been buddies since I moved to California fifteen years ago. 

“What town is it?”

“Fort Myers, a city of about one hundred thousand people. Has everything I need. Good medical facilities, plenty of restaurants, and the terrain is flat, barely above sea level, good for my biking and walking. The condo, two bedrooms and bath with a small swimming pool, is about five miles from downtown and the Gulf.”

“Isn’t that part of Florida where the snowbirds from the Midwest go and the citizens are all graybeards like me?’

“Sure, there’s that but the downtown is hip enough for me and there’s much more. You’ll see when you visit.”

“What about a job?” said I, still the parent.

“I’ll look around. No hurry. Maybe hook up with a band. My guitar’s sounding ready. Much better since you last saw me play in the Mission.”

“Well, it seems like you’ve got it figured. I’ll sure miss you.”

“Plan on coming down in late September, last week or so. Be a little cooler and we can go to Miami to see a Canes game.”

I was puzzled why Lee would choose living in a city where I supposed nearly everyone were graybeards, “fossils” as I had once heard him describe those in my age category. What about his friends, several of whom I had met in California and New York? Would he find people his age? Would there be “Smoking Hot Chicks,” svelte, alluring women under forty? There’s a point, always has been with my three adult children, where I feel it best to suppress my curiosity into matters of their lives. That includes health, money and relationships. My ear is always open but never do I initiate such subject. 

I arrived in early evening in Fort Myers on the 26th of the month. Lee met me at the airport and escorted me through Fort Myers’ downtown blocks, home to a dozen restaurants and bars brimming with jovial patrons. We dined at a seafood restaurant and for an after dinner drink and catch-up chat he led me to an establishment with an interior resembling a prohibition speakeasy, somewhat like the “21” in New York. There were two bartenders with perfectly waxed hair, red dotted vests and bow ties who served Old Fashions in an eponymous glass. Frank Sinatra melodies descended from hidden speakers in the fifteen foot ceiling. Steps away a stop at Miller’s Ale House where we topped off the booze with a local brewers’ High Life IPAs. We ended the evening with peach ice cream cones from Scoops on First.

* * *

In the morning the dominant story on local television news stations was a hurricane named Ian was passing over Cuba and heading towards the west coast of Florida. A frightening on screen video simulation, a moving ball about the size of a silver quarter with a blood orange center inching up the replicated blue Gulf of Mexico aiming for the dot on the map spelled in caps, Fort Myers. The knowing voice of the serious TV weatherman in the spotlight  announced with grimace, “Ian’s already a big one. Wind speed nearing one hundred miles an hour. Upgraded minutes ago by the National Weather Service to  a Category 4 hurricane. Moving northward at seven to nine miles an hour. Projected to pass over Gulf past Naples, then Cape Coral and make landfall near Fort Myers in twenty-four hours.” 

Lee switched channels where another suit, this time an auburn haired woman with lipstick to match and  another serious demeanor stood in front of a serious electronic map encompassing a dozen now familiar small coastal communities with Fort Myers in dead center.

Lee said. “Let’s pack some clothes and hit the road.”

“Where to?”

“I think southeast to Fort Lauderdale. We’ll miss the force of Ian which will be north and west of us when we reach Lauderdale though we’ll likely be driving three hours through lots of rain. Collateral rain, we’ll call it,” he said with a forced smile. “You mentioned you have a Hilton Hotel Honors membership so give them a call and see if they have a room in Lauderdale. They must have a hotel or two there.”

The good times on Fort Myers were over. We stacked movable household items on the counter and shelves above the floor. We placed a batch of towels on the floor inside the front and only door to the condo. We packed bags with a change of clothes, toiletries, personal meds, passports, a six pack of bottled water and our PCs. We tossed them in the back seat of Lee’s Mazda 3 and pulled out of the garage into an iron gray sky streaming sheets of driven rain. 

Out of town we joined a caravan of various vehicles  crawling south to Naples. From there we crawled across the Tamiami Trail through the Everglades to Fort Lauderdale. Nonstop gray rain. One hundred and ten miles in three and a half hours. 

Having been able to secure a room at a Doubleday Hilton in Lauderdale with two beds, we camped for there for eight days. Much of those first three days days we watched  television as Ian crept up the coast heading for landfall in Fort Myers. One station showed a closeup map of Lee’s neighborhood with an arrow pointing to his cluster of ground floor condos. 

“Oh, shit. The roof will get blown off for sure. There’ll be at least a few feet of water in each room.” I’d never seen him cry since he was a little tyke when we visited the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, when he whiffed several times at a baseball pitched at mid speed by a pitching machine. 

“After all the work I’ve done in the last six months to make it my perfect home, I’m now going to lose it all.”

“Hey, Lee, it’s too soon to know. Things can change so quickly. Don’t rush to conclusions. Please.”

Undeterred or purposely dismissive, “Damn it’s only been a few weeks since I fixed up the things in the condo. Bought a garage door opener, new central A/C, living room bar area in addition ton the new  couch and TV. Now all’s lost.”

On WINK-TV we watched a valiant news reporter in Naples wrapped in a water repellent jacket with mic in one hand and the other clutching a metal telephone pole while furious black water was inching up to his knees. His mouth moved in fretful motion but his words were swallowed up by the angry roar of Ian’s gale. As the scene on the screen changed to downtown For Myers another brave journalist was standing erect, as in defiance of Ian’s wrath, as a white automobile floated upside down past him. Up the block a second reporter was pointing to a flying palm tree destined to make contact with the third floor of an apartment building. 

There was no sound from either location except the droning thrum of destruction. I thought instant death and destruction would be quicker and preferable by a nuclear bomb than this continuous beating by rain, wind and the rising black water.

Lee got up and turned off the TV. “Let’s go for a walk. It’s sunny outside.”

It was lunch time. I had an idea to alter if not change his (and my) gloom and depression. The Sicilian Oven pizzeria was a short Uber away. A couple of beers, two sizable pizzas and a little cheerleading from me seemed to improve his outlook of life post Ian. His condo would still be there and since, as I reminded him, he wasn’t employed he’d likely find  new changes to make.

A week after Ian had damaged 80% of the structures on Fort Myers Beach costing $75 billion in the surrounding towns of Fort Myers we decided it was time to move on from Lauderdale. Time to say goodbye to an experience matched only in raw emotion, fear and dread by the day I was at work in midtown Manhattan when the Twin Towers collapsed in fire and smoke.

Lee headed to east across the state to his mother’s home near Vero Beach. I caught a bus to Miami where I secured a seat on United Airlines to SFO.

At eighty-one and a half years would there still be another adventure left to endure, to write about?

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