Fifty-five years ago, as a foolish 17-year-old looking for adventure, I had my most memorable date on an evening when the last hurricane that directly visited St. Pete Beach’s Pass-a-Grille Beach roared through the Tampa Bay Area coast. Back then, television weather forecasts featured a weatherman drawing storm predictions on white board with a felt-tipped marker over a silhouette of the state. Warnings were not taken as seriously then as they should have been.
A Date with Gladys (October 18, 1968)
Wind controlled the steering wheel almost as much as I did and forced my gray turtle (actually, a 1960 Rambler American) from one side of 66th Street to the other. Having worked up enough courage to ask Maureen out, I wasn’t about to let Hurricane Gladys cancel our date.
As the only car on the road, I had the advantage of fighting the gusts across three lanes without the danger of hitting another vehicle. I managed to avoid curbs and telephones poles, often by slight margins, using the power of forearms developed from three years of high school football.
Maureen’s parents were skeptical about allowing their daughter to go off in the storm. However, their concrete block home with heavy drapes pulled across every window made the storm’s effects seem rather tame within the house’s confines. I suggested we see a movie instead since Hurricane Gladys postponed the Friday night football game against Manatee High. Telephone calls revealed the only theater open, Central Plaza, offered The Heart is a Lonely Hunter starring Alan Arkin and Sandra Locke.
Let’s Start With the Movie
Tail winds buffeted and then aided the drive up Central Avenue. Maureen’s wide eyes reacted to bending palm trees, scattered debris whipping along the streets, and occasional emergency vehicles, with a mixture of fear and fascination. My heart pumped a little faster as she slid closer and gripped my arm when blasts of wind and rain shuddered the car. What teenage boy would not want to indulge in such a glorious adventure?
We parked in an empty lot and an unenthusiastic ticket seller who clearly wanted to be somewhere else greeted us.
“The movie will start in a minute. You’re the only people here. Are you sure you want to see this movie?”
I nodded. Maureen shrugged. The ticket taker sighed.
An empty theater, center seats, 15 rows back, and the moan and whistle of the wind at the exit doors created a romantic setting that encouraged an arm around shoulders and a yielding to a pull to snuggle closer. The emotional impact of the movie which offered a story line about a desperately lonely deaf, non-verbal person in search of companionship whetted the emotional tension between two 17 year olds.
After the movie, the wind jerked the exit door out of my hand and flung the heavy metal barrier against the wall. My stalwart turtle just waited patiently as a palm frond bounced off the rear bumper and flattened against the deserted ticket seller’s booth. Maureen’s skirt whipped against her legs as we fought to navigate the 100 feet to the Rambler. Inside, the rhythmic swaying of the car, interrupted by sudden shudders born of violent gusts, kept us welded together.
“Well, let’s go see what’s left of Pass-a-Grille,” I said.
My suggestion generated an unconfident nod, a soft “OK,” and a slide to move a little closer.
The wind, no more violent or threatening than when we entered the theater at 6:42 p.m., was now no less violent or threatening at 9:10 p.m. But, the familiar ebb and flow of the wind’s power bred a foolish confidence in my driving responses.
Water became a complicating element as ripples in the streets varied in depth, only inches in some places, more than a foot in others. My turtle chugged along; the flathead six engine taking whatever Mother Nature threw at her. With the spark plugs on the top of the simple six-cylinder motor, the car could wade through three feet of water without stalling as long as she kept moving.
Gulf Boulevard on St. Pete Beach was as deserted as St. Petersburg’s Central Avenue, and eerie shadows danced amid pelting raindrops. Just past the vacant pink castle, the Don CeSar Hotel, which had witnessed several hurricanes in its 40 years.
A St. Pete Beach police officer stood on the hood of his partially submerged cruiser waving frantically. He obviously did not want us to drive further down the beach, but a couple of feet of water lapping at his bumper didn’t give the chugging Rambler pause. We passed by, sending a gentle wake towards the officer’s shoes.
The wind raging through the Australian pines screamed in protest as the wave action tore sand from their roots. A half an hour later, the 30-foot tall tree six feet in front of us fell into the waves in slow motion. Inside the swaying turtle, two teenage hearts pounded an increasing rhythm. The black and now foggy windshield offered little beyond a sounding board for rain and sea spray.
A change in the tempo of the wind and rain occurred suddenly. Perhaps we hadn’t been as keenly aware of the storm during the previous half hour, but a curious quiet descended. We recognized this is the eye of the hurricane.
No wind pulled at the door as I pull the lever up. Maureen’s eyes flashed under the dim dome light as we realized the beach, now three feet lower than the street, lay strewn with Australian pines planted to shade the parking area. Gnarled wrecks with giant black spidery roots pointing skyward gave testimony to the power of surging waves. Now, gentle waves caressed the devastated beach and pulled at the trailing pine needles from the uppermost branches.
Streetlights no longer obscured by those pines reflected off wispy clouds racing overhead in an uneasy calm. A lone gull’s cry broke the lull and seemed to freshen a soft swirling wind. Again, Maureen’s skirt flapped as stronger gusts signaled the eye was giving way to the returning surge of the storm. Close to the car, I grabbed both a parking meter and Maureen to anchor us. We fought our way back to the Rambler and agreed retreat might be the best course.
Down the street, the abandoned police cruiser witnessed another retreat. Standing water subsided as Hurricane Gladys’ eye passed. But it built up again from the sheets of rain that snapped down Gulf Boulevard in long cascades. Maureen leaned forward with a tissue to enlarge the fog-shrouded circle above the steering wheel. My right arm pulled her closer as my left fought the wind for control of the car.
Frantic parental arms broke apart a rain splattered kiss and snatched a wayward daughter home moments after we arrived at Maureen’s house. The six hours her parents spent wondering about the fate of their daughter on a date during a hurricane were a few too many.
That anxiety produced a stereophonic command: “You will never go out with that boy again!”
Those words and any further romance were lost in Gladys’ gales as I sought the shelter of the Rambler.
The 50th anniversary of Hurricane Gladys in Florida takes place on Oct. 18. Excerpted from Michael Taylor’s Growing Up Floridian.