Even some 54 years later, my recollections of my first encounter with a hurricane are still pretty vivid in my mind. I was 8 years old when the infamous Donna made her brutal early September landfall on Marathon Key as a Category 4 beast before going on to ravage the entire Florida Peninsula in a scything, southwest-to-northeast track before heading out into the Atlantic once again off of Jacksonville.
Weakened to a Category 2 by then and leaving 13 dead behind, the storm hugged the Eastern Seaboard before proceeding to clean the clocks of the Carolinas, with Topsail Beach taking a direct 100-mph-wind hit before the storm exited the Outer Banks, went into the ocean once again, and drew a bead on the Jersey Shore, where we lived a mere two blocks from the water’s edge in Point Pleasant Beach.
I remember a lot of energy and hubbub in our little one-story home between mom and dad with talk of evacuating to my granddad’s three-story guesthouse, which was a little further inland. But the decision was made to stay put, “hunker down” at 325 Carter Ave., and hope for the best. As fate would have it, the Shore was spared in comparison as Donna approached the Garden State with Cat 1 status. The winds were raging during her morning/afternoon approach, gusting to 80 to 90 mph and ripping shit up outside of our shingled three-bedroom, cottage-sized abode. Sections of our world-famous boardwalk were also ripped up, while the storm sent two feet of ocean water down our street — but not quite enough to flood us out.
Then the “magic” happened — my recollections are strongest as the winds, roaring like a lion for hours on end, all at once… just…stopped. As Donna brushed by our little coastal commercial fishing/tourist town, the western edge of her eye wall passed directly over us, silencing the chaos at least momentarily. Of course, we went outside to survey the damage, but the gravitational pull towards the beach at the end of our street was irresistible. I wanted to — no, needed to —see the ocean and what this storm could have possibly wrought on my personal childhood playground, where I’d spent countless hours mat surfing, fishing, and beachcombing for sea glass treasure.
Badgering mom and dad to no end I’m sure, we threw caution — and personal safety — to the wind and walked through the debris-filled floodwaters towards the boardwalk up on the dunes at the end of our street. I still remember the plumes of spray blowing back from the waves and the rumbling sound of heavy surf before we could even see the water. I remember reaching the rickety old wooden walkway, my mom’s death grip on my hand, and the shock of a seeing a seething, roiled-up sea like I had never seen before along our once-beautiful, built-up beach framed in sand dunes and sea oats scoured away completely and flattened down to sea level. Donna’s dark grey waves were positively huge — they may as well have been 50-footers to this 8-year-old — and with the sounds of freaked-out, screeching seagulls overhead and perfect, Pipeline-like barrels detonating two blocks from my home, a hurricane wave-chaser was born — although I didn’t realize it at the time.
It was 1960, and I was still three years off from riding my very first wave on a surfboard at the end of that normally peaceful street. But my life-defining, longtime fascination with these storm systems had definitely begun at this moment. I can still smell it, feel it, and hear it if I think about it all these years later. And, just like that, the eye wall passed once again, switching the winds to tropical storm force offshores in minutes. It was time to hurry back home with mom and dad to hunker down once again as Hurricane Donna went on to meet its final destiny with Long Island — and I went on to meet mine with surfboards and cameras.