Read excerpts from the Tom Viscount’s s...August 21, 2011


This true-life memoir chronicles my unlikely personal and professional odyssey that began literally from the rubble of Hurricane Andrew in Homestead, Florida and led to a twelve-year career with American Red Cross. A career that sent me to some of the biggest disasters in American history, including Ground Zero, New York City after the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Follow my search for family, peace and purpose ..

 I was introduced to my career with the Red Cross purely by accident. In August 1992, I flew from Los Angeles to visit my brother and his family in Homestead, Florida, unaware that Hurricane Andrew would soon touch land in the small coastal city. This chapter begins in the afternoon before the nite of the hurricane. The previous nite we had been forced to evacuate from Key West because Hurricane Andrew was believed to be making land in that town. But the following afternoon we learned that storm had shifted course and was now heading directly for Homestead. Since by this time there now were no hotels within hundreds of miles with rooms available, we made the decision to board up the family house and stay where we were. This chapter begins in late afternoon of the nite the hurricane strikes…and rips apart and demolishes the city….

Enjoy –

It was around 3:30 when we returned to the house with our scavenged food and supplies jammed into the truck. We unloaded and then spent the next four hours cutting up wood and nailing the planks over the windows and any other openings that we thought the wind or rain could sneak through.  Bob’s wife, Tracy and the three kids were inside in the air-conditioning, watching the television and listening to the radio.  When it got dark we all sat out on the front lawn and had some dinner. Sandwiches, corn-on-the-cob and potato salad.  Only a couple of houses on the streets looked occupied. There were still no clouds in the sky. The wind was soft and cool and the only sounds (you could hear were the crickets. It was hard to believe anything was headed our way tonight. The most recent news reports had the storm hitting land at Homestead sometime after midnight. And all the experts agreed that this was going to be a big one - maybe the strongest storm to hit Florida. Ever. I had flown down here from California a few days earlier not expecting anything like this. And as much as that news report scared me, I wanted it. I wanted it to hit here and I wanted to be here when it happened.  To fight it. To hold on. To feel alive. To finally really feel alive. After dinner Bob and I got in his truck and drove around Homestead and the surrounding areas. It was around 10:30.

The air had gotten even cooler. The skies were filled with stars and on the roads we saw no one, except for two police cars. They were driving slowly towards us and had their emergency lights flashing.  As they neared us, Bob made a quick turn into an alley behind a house and turned our lights off. As they passed us a searchlight shot out from out of one of the police cars and focused on our car. We ducked down and the light missed our heads, hitting the mirror and bouncing off the windshield.

Then we heard a loud voice coming from a speaker telling us to get off the streets and go to a safe place and stay. “We repeat” the voice continued, “Get off the streets now or you will be arrested.”  Then the two police cars accelerated and sped away down the dark road.

“We’re safe now,” Bob whispered, clearly enjoying what had just happened. “They’re not arresting anyone now. Where were they gonna put ‘em anyway? Who are they kidding? And that’s probably the last of them. They probably figure only a fool would be out now.”

“Yeah, or two fools,” I answered.

He grinned at me. “Yeah, that’s right, two fools. Let’s get down to the ocean and take a look for any signs.”

“Sounds good to me. Let’s get going.” I was glad we weren’t going back just yet. I wanted to see the ocean myself. And I wanted to soak this night for all it was worth. We pulled back onto the road but this time we drove with our lights off. We saw no cars anywhere. No people, nothing. In the distance we spotted a police helicopter hovering.

It then accelerated and was gone, too. In about five minutes we turned onto a dirt road that was rimmed by tall stalks of weeds.  It shot us right down to the edge of the ocean. We stopped the car and got out, our shoes crunching on top of the hard sand. The water was black and calm, tiny waves lapping up onto the shore. I walked out to where the sand was wet and felt a slight breeze on my face. I looked up and realized there were no stars in the sky anymore.

“Hey, what happened to the stars?” I looked over at Bob, who had pulled a large flashlight out of the truck and was shining it into the weeds.  He ignored my question.

He was focused on his flashlight.

“There better not be anyone camping down here tonite.” He directed his words at the weeds, as if someone was in there and could hear him. He then turned his flashlight up into the sky, the beam shooting straight up, finally being swallowed by a layer of clouds. “Yep, sometimes heading our way.” Just then the wind kicked up a bit and Bob turned his flashlight out onto the ocean. “If this thing is big like they say, we are in for one hell of a night. But they’re never right.”

“What’s the biggest one you’ve been in?”

Bob turned his flashlight off. “There hasn’t been anything too bad. Not that I can remember. They ended up being big thunderstorms. That was it. And nothing close to what this one’s supposed to be.” Bob looked out into the ocean as the wind picked up even more. “It’s hard to believe something’s out there, isn’t it?”

“Who knows if there is? Maybe it changed direction and is heading north of us, hitting Fort Lauderdale. Remember they chased us out of Key West last nite saying it was going to hit there and it didn’t. Now they say Homestead…”

Bob interrupted me. “Yeah. That’s right. We drive all nite with all those other damn cars at about five miles an hour and by the time we get to Homestead it’s fucking dawn and they tell us it’s coming here – and there’s no where to go. No hotels for miles.”

“You think it’s coming?”

“There’s something out there.” Bob answered firmly. “For sure. This time’s something’s definitely coming.”

We stood in silence and I thought I could actually sense a change in the air. Like the pressure was different. The clouds seemed thicker now. And the wind was more constant.  And there was a change in Bob, too. Our adventure now was beginning to feel a little more real.

“I hope my house holds up. Stupid, hurricane house.” Bob remarked. “The only reason I bought it was because it was cheaper than the others because it was so damn ugly. Just a big white, cement box. Tracy hated it, but I guess she’s gotten used to it. It better live up to its name. It’s supposed to withstand anything. If it doesn’t, she’ll really kill me. … ” Bob stopped talking. He pointed his flashlight straight up in the air and turned it on. The light shot out of it like a missile into the clouds. He then swung the flashlight around and shined it right in my face and laughed. “Hell, there was nowhere to go anyway, with all the hotels inland  and north booked up, right?”

I sat down n the sand and grabbed a handful and let it slide through my fingers.  “Well, these things are always so hyped.  It’ll probably just gonna be another thunderstorm. Hell I just hope it’s something we can at least talk about.”

Bob sat down next to me and grabbed a clump of crusty sand and then hoisted it into the water. It made a soft spraying sound when it hit. “But really I didn’t want to leave our house. There’s no way. That seemed wimpy. Really wimpy. I’ve got a damn hurricane house, right? Built specifically for these kind of deals. I’m not going anywhere.”

“Well it’s too late now to go anywhere. I’m just really glad I decided to spend my vacation down here. Another good decision on my part. “

“Hey, at least you might be in for a little adventure.”

“Yep. There was nothing going on in L.A. that’s for sure. Thanks for reminding me.”

“See? Look on the bright side. Something might actually happen out here and then you can go back to L.A. and talk about it. And it could actually help you pick up chicks at the bars.”

“Shut up, will you?”

“But it’s true.”

“I know. That’s why you have to shut up.”

Bob laughed and snorted a little and then stood up. “My dumb little brother.”

Bob walked back into the weeds and came out with a couple of small flat rocks. He stepped to the edge of the water, crouched and flung one. It skipped over the surface a few times and then kerplunked into the black water. I went into the weeds myself and came out with some rocks. I threw them over the ocean one at a time.

All we could hear was the wind and the rocks. We did this a few times without speaking. Then Bob said let’s go and we got back into his truck. He then turned the parking lights on and jammed the accelerator, skidding us back up the dirt road, rocks and dirt smacking the bottom of the truck.  I looked back and could see a thin cloud of dust. It danced, lit up by the tail lights. We then screeched onto the highway and Bob kept the car going fast, making the engine growl and cough. Bob then said ‘What the hell”, and turned the lights on. “If cops are still out here they can come and get us. Might as well see where we’re heading.”

It was close to midnight when we got home. Bob went inside. I made myself a vodka rocks, with a splash of orange juice, and went out and sat on the driveway. There were no lights on in any of the houses on the street except ours. I took swallows of the drink and sucked on the ice cubes.  I could still hear crickets and wondered where they’d hide when the storm came and if they’d even survive. And if they could sense it coming. Were they scared? Did they even know what fear was? It was hard to know anything, but it calmed me to feel as if me and the bugs and I were in it together. I wasn’t alone. It seemed I was always alone. Not quite fitting in anywhere. Not really knowing how to, either. I then thought about being 34 and all the things I hadn’t done in my truly unremarkable life. And all the things I had bragged about doing when I was younger. Everything was so clear back then.

And all dreams were in reach, no matter how impossible they later turned out to be. We all bragged together, figuring that might be enough to make them happen. Where were all those people, those rich kids in my high school class who were now also 34? The guys that got the new Camaros on their 16th birthday and would be in Jamaica over Easter break with their families.

It was tough competing with all that money. We’d eat Spam and yams at our house for dinner, not sirloin or chicken breasts like them. When we reached for the gooey Spam and Yam concoction my mother had created, my father would chide us “Whoa, don’t fill up on the good stuff, have some bread. Don’t fill up on the good stuff.” We wore hand-me-downs, sometimes even our friends’ used shirts.. And our big trip was a 3 ½ -hour drive to Bethany Beach for a week in August. The whole family crammed into a small beach house picking flies out of greasy hamburger subs from Beach Treat and slurping frozen Cokes. In the mornings we’d dodge the crop duster pesticide plane that would fly overhead and spray on us, trying to kill the massive swarms of mosquitoes. The plane’s engines’ sounded like lawn mowers or mini-bikes. Sometimes the pilot would stick his sunglassed-head out the window and wave. We’d wave back. He’d be wearing a pilot’s hat. After he was gone there’d be a thick film left by him on the cars. Yeah, it was hard being around all that money. We’d eat Spam and yams at our house for dinner, not sirloin or chicken breasts like them. When we reached for the gooey Spam and Yam concoction my mother had created, my father would wave his hand and chide us “Whoa, don’t fill up on the good stuff, have some bread. Don’t fill up on the good stuff.” We wore hand-me-downs, sometimes even our friends’ used shirts. I made up for it with bluster.

By being outrageous, Being memorable. I’d do things that people’d hear about and talk about. I was the leader, coming up with daring stunts for me and my friends to pull off.

Like hot-wiring bulldozers, driving them around and parking them on Greentree Road or shooting bottle rockets at cop cars at night at the giant WMAL radio station tower field then hiding in the surrounding woods as they yelled at us on their megaphones and shined their lights into the trees.

People didn’t forget that kind of stuff. I figured you had to be legendary or crazy to stand out in my privileged high school, with its National Merit scholars, multi-millionaires and senators’ and diplomats’ kids. And that’s what I did. But the problem was that by doing this everyone that knew me expected me to do something even bigger after high school.  And that surely happened yet. That was one thing I couldn’t ignore or escape from.

But where are all my friends tonite? Tonite they were alive in my head. And I hoped they were still thinking about me. Even if I never saw them again, I hoped they remembered me and how I was back then. When life was big. And I was bigger. Not stuck in this sweaty redneck town, hoping for a hurricane to breathe life into my wheezing existence. To give me something to live for. Something to brag about. Like the old days.

I heard the door open behind me and I looked back to see Bob. “I’m going to bed. When you come in, lock up  What are you doing out here anyway, pondering life again?”

I rubbed my forehead. “Naw, I’m just hanging out, wondering where the crickets are going to hide if this thing hits.” He didn’t need to know that I was lying here hoping that the damn hurricane would destroy everything and give me a story to tell.

Bob walked out into the front yard and looked into the sky. He stretched his arms out and yawned. “Well, I’m going to try and get a little sleep. It might be a long nite.”

“All right, Brother Bob. I’ll be in soon.”

Bob then walked past me and went back inside the house. Soon all the lights were out. I looked around and noticed that I was the last one still up in the neighborhood. It was a good feeling. An accomplishment. I lay back on the rough pavement and closed my eyes. I tried not to think of anything and just take in the moment. After about five minutes my mind was still racing so I gave up trying to be in the moment and concentrated on going to sleep right there on the driveway.

I thought it might be cool to be woken up by the hurricane. But sleep wouldn’t come either, so I sat back up and downed the last bit of my drink. I then flung the ice cubes at the mailbox at the end of the driveway.  One of them hit it square, making a sound like a tin drum being struck.  I then stood up and took one final look around for any signs of the coming storm.

It was still strangely quiet, with barely any wind. At the beach, it felt like the storm was imminent.  But just a few miles away I couldn’t feel anything. Maybe it was going to miss us. And that would not be good. Not good at all for my small life. I went inside and shut the door behind me. I made a bed for myself on the sticky living room couch and turned off the light.

Bob had placed a small clock on the coffee table next to the couch. Its streaming red lights read 1:15 a.m. It was the only light piercing through the dark, still room. It made me a little dizzy as I stared at it. And it also made me a little sleepy, too. Finally.  I closed my eyes and let my thoughts slow way down and drift.

I hadn’t realized I had fallen asleep until I was suddenly jarred awake by a low, rumbling roar. I sat up on the sofa, frozen. It was Andrew. He was here. He was outside.

“Holy shit! All right!” I clapped my hands, rubbed my eyes and then squinted, trying to make to make sure it was truly a hurricane I was hearing. And as I listened I couldn’t help smiling and nodding my head.

“Bring it on,” I said to myself. “C’mon. Let’s go.” I stood up and got into a fighting pose, like I was a boxer, egging on my opponent, daring him to throw a punch.

Just then something massive slammed into the front of the house that sent me falling to the floor, looking for cover. I stayed crouched on the floor, afraid to move, and listened.

And what I heard was not like anything I had ever heard before. A deep, angry howl that would then whip into a chaotic, whistling frenzy. It was like 100 jet planes flying right at us. I slowly stood up and turned the light on.

Thank God the lights still worked, I thought to myself. Impossibly, the wind got even louder. It was like it was pissed and wanted to blow our house down.  Or yank it out of the ground and throw it. And since most everything was boarded up I couldn’t see what was going on outside. I could only listen and imagine. I knew one thing – this was no little thunderstorm. This was big. A little too big. Where are those crickets now, I wondered? What are they going to do?

And then I realized that we were crickets, too. We were just like them. Bob and the rest of the family scrambled out into in the living room with me.

“Look!” Bob yelled over the deafening storm outside. “If this was a really bad one we wouldn’t have any electricity or TV so don’t worry, we’re gonna be fine. All right?” Bob then quickly went over to the television set and turned it on to make his point. Just as the picture was beginning to flicker on the screen we heard several booming explosions outside and then everything went black in the house.

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