We often think of news people cold-heartedly “making a record,” as they say, of our misery and tears, “pushing a microphone in my face,” as one harried survivor of Hurricane Harvey put it, rather than lending a helping hand, as any ordinary mortal might do.
Well then, here is a “man bites dog” story that almost certainly will not make the evening news.
My wife’s sister Sandy, in whose marrow runs the blood of a sturdy pioneer woman, lives quite alone in Naples, Florida, which last Sunday bore the brunt of Hurricane Irma. During the storm’s course, many news outlets were parked in Miami or West Palm Beach when the eye of the storm lingered over Naples on a route to Fort Myers; Fox, CNN and ABC were reporting from Naples.
Sandy, not in the best of health, had taken necessary precautions. She had food and water aplenty, an extra supply of oxygen tanks; her house was hurricane proof, and one brave neighbor, Elvin, who had not high-tailed it – an American of Turkish descent living across the street – could be called upon if things got dicey. Even so, her sister Andree, my wife, tossed and turned all night in anticipation of the phone call. Everyone whose loved ones are in danger fears that call, which pierces the heart like a sword.
The phone rang in the morning – a call from her nephew, Ernie, Sandy’s son. A slight pause, then: “My mother is OK, Aunty Onday.” Fear fled, joy blossomed.
Worried about his mother, Ernie had called emergency services in Naples. Could someone check up on her? No luck, for obvious reasons. “We can check in twelve hours.”
Ernie put in a call to John, an associate with a major news outlet then in Naples directing coverage. The two had become friends over twenty years ago through their children, and Ernie, like his Aunt, tenderly nurtures old friendships. Could John do something? Fifteen minutes later, Ernie received a call. John’s car had been disabled by a fallen tree, but he had rented a car and was on his way to Sandy’s house. He would call again when he arrived, but his own phone’s battery was low, and the rental car lacked a recharging point. Perhaps he could use Sandy’s phone, or possibly her neighbor Elvin – like Sandy, a hold-out in a watery Alamo – might have the use of a cell phone that worked.
The drive from John’s hotel room to Sandy’s house, normally a half hour, took more than two hours. Trees were down everywhere. Power lines, like black spaghetti, littered flooded streets. John was forced to detour over lawns. Spotting a firetruck, he stopped to ask directions. Indispensable, heroic first-responders were helping people in desperate need along the route. Midnight was everywhere but for a house with its generator purring. John stopped for directions from the householder, who obliged, pistol in hand.
On arrival, John found a safe spot for the rental, parked the car, and waded across a street now roiling with thigh-deep rushing water, towards Sandy’s house, shrouded in blackness, the light from his cell phone showing the way. Only Sandy’s front door, he noticed, was damp. He rounded the house, banged on the back door window, insistently calling out Sandy’s name. A deathwatch wait, silence, and then a soft voice from inside answered, confirming his reawakened hope. Later he would tell Ernie his most powerful feeling was when he was banging on Sandy’s back window shouting out her name and heard her faint voice responding to his call. “I will never forget that voice,” he said, “or that feeling.”
Inside, he found all was well – no water damage. John’s phone was dying, and there was no phone service at Sandy’s house. He would wade across the street to see whether Elvin could look in on his neighbor once he had left. Elvin did not brandish a gun at the stranger, and for some inscrutable reason, he had cell phone service. For hours after, Elvin would look in on Sandy, though the roof of his own house had suffered severe damage. In times of trouble, we all depend on the kindness of neighbors and friends.
Ernie will not forget John’s immediate response to his call for help: “I’m gonna get to your mother, Ernie. She’s your mother.” Later, John would tell others, “When Ernie asks you to go, you go. Why? Because he means something to me. Anything for family.”
The names above have been changed. A valuable asset to his employers, “John,” modest by nature, did not wish to become a prominent character in a news narrative.