Thursday, November 16, 2017

America's pickiest dachshunds review Cesar's gourmet dog foods

We have owned been owned by seven miniature dachshunds. Each of them, including our current wieners, 14-year-old Billy Ray and four-year-old Roo-Roo, have eaten Cesar’s gourmet dog food twice a day. I could have probably bought a Mercedes – heck, a Lamborghini  – for all the money I’ve shelled out for Cesar’s over the years.

Cesar's is formulated specifically for little dogs that tend to be picky eaters and, more importantly, for their indulgent owners who believe their pets need a wide range of flavor choices in order to have enough energy to make it through to another day of lounging around on their best upholstered furniture, looking cute. To that end, the brand is constantly introducing exotic new varieties into its product line-up. Some survive. Some disappear from the shelves after only a few months.  

Over the last week I served nine varieties that were new to Billy Ray’s and Roo-Roo’s finicky palettes. This morning the three of us sat down to discuss what they liked and didn’t like about each of the varieties they tried.

TJD: So guys, what did you think of the Cesar’s Scramble with Turkey, Spinach and Cheese in Gravy you had for breakfast yesterday?

Billy Ray: The ingredients list says it contains dried cheese but doesn’t specify the variety. I detected manchego but based on Roo-Roo’s breath after inhaling a bowlful, I’d have to guess the primary cheese is limburger.

Roo-Roo: I think the mystery cheese is more likely a Stilton or perhaps a Double Gloucester but whatever it turns out to be, we both agree that this will be our “go to” Cesar for those casual Sunday poolside brunches we enjoy so much during Florida’s winter months.

TJD: I was happy to see you lick your bowls clean when I served Cesar’s Rosemary Chicken Flavor with Spring Vegetables the other night.

Roo-Roo: I don’t much care for chicken -- I generally prefer darker, richer, more robust meats like beef, lamb, even duck -- but a perfect pinch of rosemary brings out the flavor of what is otherwise a bland, insipid form of protein in this variety.

Billy Ray: This one’s a keeper. It is almost – note I say “almost” – as delicious as my beloved Costco rotisserie chicken. Personally I would have preferred fewer green peppers and more yellow ones because they’re rarer and more expensive but for now I’ll be happy to eat this at least once a week.

TJD: You walked away from the Cesar’s Country Stew with Vegetables. How come?

Billy Ray: Neither of us could figure out what country they’re talking about. Uganda? Bolivia? Papua New Guinea? Your guess is as good as ours but it certainly didn’t resemble any stew we’ve ever been served including leftover Dinty Moore.

Roo-Roo: Yes, this one disappointed on multiple levels but if it is the last can in the pantry, I suppose I can somehow hold my nose and get it down without gagging.

TJD: What did you think of Cesar’s Harvest Potluck with Turkey in Gravy?

Roo-Roo: We never know what to bring to a potluck dinner – not that we have ever been invited to one but in case we are we have spent hours discussing what we could contribute – so we were elated to discover this variety. When our friends ask for the recipe, and they will, we’ll simply smile and say it’s a family secret.

Billy Ray: The gravy could be a tad thicker but we’re not going to complain about the one shortcoming in a near perfect dish that’s particularly enjoyable when paired with a slightly chilled Fiji water.

Roo-Roo: I would pair it with Evian myself but this would be delightful even with plain old tap water, which I am told some dogs in less fortunate countries have to drink.

TJD: I’m almost afraid to ask about the Cesar’s Meat Lasagna. You obviously hated it.

Roo-Roo: It was so awful that, for a nano-second, I actually wished for that repulsive Purina Pro Salmon & Rice dry stuff they used to dish up at the kennel where, prior to joining your family, I was employed as a stud although, as you know, I was never called upon to actually perform because my father, who was somehow considered a better specimen of a longhaired piebald dachshund than I am, was always up to the task whenever stud services were required, which is why I’m in therapy today.

Billy Ray: In addition to some creamy imported ricotta and fresh basil, this dish would have benefited from San Marzano tomatoes. Fresh tomatoes would have certainly made it more authentically Italian than the “tomato powder” that comes in thirteenth on the list of ingredients. Cesar’s chefs missed the gondola on this one.

TJD: You both begged for more when I served up the Cesar’s Hearty Chicken, Noodles and Vegetable Dinner.

Billy Ray: I was less than enthusiastic when you placed a bowl of what I always considered to be peasant food in front of me but I found this dish to be surprisingly tasty. The noodles could have been a bit more al dente but other than that, it was delicious. Who would have guessed I’d prefer something this banal to lasagna?

Roo-Roo: I absolutely loved it. It made for a comforting, satisfying meal after a hard day chasing lizards around the lanai and barking at golfers.

TJD: What about the Cesar’s Beef Stroganoff?

Roo-Roo: We’ve always loved the story you tell about your forty-fifth birthday dinner in an elegant restaurant in St. Petersburg, Russia, in the middle of a blizzard, where you ordered the only two things you could say in Russian – stroganoff and Stolichnaya. Ever since we heard it, we’ve been anxious to try this dish, but now that we have tasted Cesar’s take on stroganoff, I’d have to rate it merely okay -- a C plus, perhaps a B minus.

Billy Ray: A dollop of sour cream and a dusting of paprika would have made it a solid B in my book but for now I agree with Roo.

TJD:  You wouldn’t take as much as a bite from the Cesar’s Beef with Broccoli and Brown Rice. How come?

Roo-Roo: It’s Cesar’s interpretation of a classic Chinese dish but we found the concept incredibly offensive.

Billy Ray: The Chinese eat dogs. Enough said.

TJD: Last but not least you tried Cesar’s Grilled New York Strip Steak Flavor with Potatoes and Summer Vegetables. What did you think?  

Roo-Roo: Neither of us could turn up our noses fast enough when you served us this dish in which beef comes after chicken, chicken liver and something called “animal plasma” -- we don’t even want to know what this is -- on the ingredient list.

Billy Ray: The summer vegetables were uninteresting  – potatoes, corn, green beans, carrots and peas. Endive, artichokes and/or summer squash would have contributed some much-needed texture.

TJD: Thanks, guys. I'm going to the store in a few. Anything you want me to pick up?

Billy Ray: For the holidays I want to try Cesar's new Turkey, Green Beans & Potatoes Dinner. 

Roo-Roo: As long as you're in the aisle, you might as well grab me a coupla cans of Cheesy Chicken Pasta Dinner in Sauce. Want me to write that down so you don't forget it? 

TJD: Got it.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Remembering Alice

From left: Bud, Tommy, Ruby and Judy Dryden
circa 1954, the year before Alice's death.

Yesterday I wrote a post about Alice Scott, the only black person who lived in the white part of Auxvasse, Missouri, my hometown, when I was a boy. Alice was our next-door neighbor. Nearly 1,000 people have already read my post and more than a dozen have left comments on Facebook. (If you missed it, click

Alice died when I was three so I barely remember her, but I’ve always felt like I knew her because of the countless stories my mother and older siblings, Jerry and Judy, told me about her. To write yesterday’s post, I relied on notes I jotted down years ago as my mother, who had a memory like a steel trap and could remember every detail Alice ever told her, related the story of Alice’s life as Alice had told it to her. I always intended to write about Alice and I’m glad I finally did because her story is one that needs to be told, especially in times like these.

Judy, nine years older than I, remembers Alice well and loved her dearly. She was 13 when Alice died. After reading yesterday’s post, Judy sent me an email. I wrote back that I’d like to publish it as a follow-up because it’s a loving tribute that Alice deserves from one of the few people who remember her.

Judy says Alice was "the sweetest, kindest, most considerate person" she ever knew. I can say the same about my sister whose sense of justice and dedication to racial equality has never wavered. A card-carrying member of the NAACP, Judy has, for almost as long as I remember, attended marches, sit-ins and meetings to show her support for Civil Rights. I’ve always joked that she is embarrassed she was born white because, whenever there’s a racial incident, and such incidents are occurring with increasingly alarming frequency in Missouri where she lives, she comes down on the side of African-Americans.

Having read her email about growing up with Alice a constant presence in her young life, I now better understand her commitment. If you enjoyed reading about Alice, I believe you’ll find Judy's account fascinating. 


Your post about Alice brings up all kinds of memories.  

Barring none, Alice was the sweetest, kindest, most considerate person I have ever known.  She also was the best cook.  She entertained lavishly and could make the daintiest appetizers! They were so good that, when I was a child, I would heap my plate high and be full before the entree was presented.  Alice made the food for almost all the bridal and baby showers in Auxvasse and hosted them in her home.

Although she could not read and write, she could cook anything without a recipe. To get one of her recipes, it was necessary to watch her make something and to guess the amounts of the ingredients that she used.  She had no measuring cups or spoons and just seemed to know how much of something to use.

Alice had friends from everywhere and mom used to read her mail to her. When I was five years old, she received a package from California containing a jar of olives.  Stores in Auxvasse did not sell them.  She offered me one and I thought it was delectable.  When Alice went uptown that day, she returned to find her olives gone and I had a tummy ache.  It is the only thing that I ever remember stealing and I won't forget what mom told me about it.

Alice's house and ours were interchangeable as far as I was concerned. I would go over and sleep in her bed.  She always kept me on Saturday night while Mom worked at the store. Frequently we would go uptown and she would send me into the tavern to buy us hamburgers, which we ate outside because Alice was not allowed in the tavern and everybody knew that a "lady" would not go to the tavern anyway.  From there, we went to the movies. (Believe it or not Auxvasse, in the 1940s, had a movie theater.) We always got popcorn and sat in the colored section.  

For a short time Auxvasse even had a drive-in theater. It was across the street from Alice's back yard so that we could sit there and watch.  It showed mostly Laurel & Hardy and Roy Rogers & Dale Evans movies. There were many (WWII) war scenes. Then came the cartoons, which I loved, followed by trailers of movies to come. Then the lion roared and the MGM symbol would appear.  

I was always amazed by what Alice was not allowed to do. She had never driven a car so she had to take the Greyhound to go from Auxvasse to Mexico or Fulton, the two largest towns that were close. Alice was always relegated to the back of the bus and it didn't make sense that she could not sit with me.

Alice worked incredibly hard and most people who knew her respected her for her graciousness, hospitality and intelligence. I had such a profound admiration for her.  She always had the best garden in town, both flowers and vegetables, and she canned and shared bouquets with the church and all of the people she knew who were ill or in mourning.

On the other side of our house lived another neighbor, an old maid named Miss Lou Henderson, who took in a boarder, a Mr. Wayne. Mom said that Alice and Miss Lou were total opposites.  Alice always thought about how she could make any situation better.  Miss Lou always thought about how she could exploit a situation for herself.  

Miss Lou would come by at least once a day to borrow a cup of something or other.  She asked for all our old clothes and leftovers.  Mom subscribed to some magazines and two daily papers.  Miss Lou would come over each morning requesting them.  Dad worked incredibly hard and woke up each morning before 6 am.  The only day he tried to take off was Sunday when he didn't have to be at the store by 7 a.m. Mom always wanted him to not set an alarm and to try to sleep until 8 on Sunday mornings.  It never failed that Miss Lou came over at 6:15 to get the paper and to get change for a dollar so she would have a coin to drop in the Sunday school collection basket.  

Miss Lou was a very religious Presbyterian and was appalled that my parents had not yet picked a church for our family so she took it upon herself to take me to her Sunday school and church and taught me the catechism. She discussed the fire and brimstone that she believed was at the core of Christianity.

Alice, on the other hand, attended the same church regularly and nearly always "boarded" the preacher free of charge.  She was the first to take a meal to the bereaved or to nurse someone who was ill.  She spoke positively of everyone and never complained.  Miss Lou did not treat Alice with respect.

The earliest tragedy that I can remember was when Alice got breast cancer and could not be treated locally. The nearest oncologist was in Jefferson City and his name was Dr. Sugarbaker.  He was a bigger-than-life doctor who became world renowned for his research and surgical skills. (For more about his family, read Fugitive Spring by poet and author Deborah Digges, his daughter.)

Doctor Sugarbaker was glad to have Alice as a patient.  He removed her breast and she lived 11 years after that. It was unheard of at that time for cancer patients to live that long.

Later in her life the cancer recurred and I would ride along when mom drove Alice to Jefferson City. Alice was not allowed in the restaurants and I would be sent in to get sandwiches for us to eat in the car or at a picnic table alongside the highway.  Dr. Sugarbaker continued to treat her.  He and his wife had nine children and occasionally on Sunday he would drive with his wife and children all the way from Jefferson City to visit Alice.  She would always have cake and lemonade for them and usually sent them back with one of her delicious pies or cakes.

Many people in Auxvasse didn't get to know Alice and some said disparaging things about her because of her color. It made me angry and I didn't and still don't understand it.  I remember thinking that, from what Miss Lou told me that Jesus said in the Bible, if Alice didn't go to heaven, there was no chance for the rest of us.

I could continue forever about the joy and the poignancy of Alice's life, her last days in the nursing home and death, but it saddens me.  

I'll always remember sitting with her on her "stoop" in the backyard while she was picking out hickory nuts or walnuts or snapping green beans and listening to her tell stories.

It is as close to heaven as I've ever been.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

An Auxvasse story: Alice Scott

I grew up in Auxvasse, Mo., population 507 as of the 1950 census, and was born in November of the following year. Next month I’ll turn 66.

Over the years I’ve written dozens of stories about Auxvasse and I could easily write dozens more. In fact, I could and should and someday just may write a book about growing up in a place whose residents even today don't know whether they're Midwestern or Southern. While central Missouri is geographically the former, it is sociologically very much the latter.

Auxvasse is in Callaway County, one of four counties comprising an area known as Little Dixie. The area was settled in the 1820s by tobacco farmers from Virginia and North Carolina. Thanks to the Missouri Compromise of 1819, perhaps the most ill-advised bill ever passed by Congress, Missouri was a slave state so many of the farmers brought slaves with them.

Growing up in rural Missouri, seeing on the map that my home state was smack-dab in the center of the country, I thought of myself as a Midwesterner. Once I left for northern cities, I was surprised to learn that people I met assumed I was a Southerner, not only because of where I was from but because of my accent, which I immediately made a conscious effort to lose but lapse back into when I've had a couple of drinks. I still don't know what the hell I am. At this point it doesn't matter but it would be nice to know for sure. But I digress.

When I was a boy, Auxvasse was split almost in two by the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio railroad tracks. White folks lived east of the tracks. African-American residents lived west of the tracks. 

I'm telling you all this because it's germane to the story you are about to read.

Alice Scott was our next-door neighbor. She died in 1955 when I was three, so I don’t remember a whole lot about her. I recall sitting with her as she was working in her garden and handing her clothespins as she was hanging laundry on her clothesline. My most vivid memory of Alice is going to visit her in the hospital shortly before she died, a white-haired old lady in a wheelchair.

Most of what I know about Alice I learned from my mother. Mom had a photographic memory and, up to the day she died at 102, could describe in astonishing detail events and people from fifty, sixty, even ninety years ago, and the tales she had heard them tell. While I take pride in my ability to remember things friends say they have forgotten, I certainly didn't inherit the kind of memory mom had. That’s why I want to write down the story of Alice now, before time takes it away from me, because it’s a tale that needs to be told.

Like most whites in Auxvasse, my family lived on the east side of the tracks. So did Alice, the only black person in the white part of town.

Alice thought she was born in the 1870s – she was never sure how old she was so it might have been the late 1860s – near McCredie, a small farming community south of Auxvasse. Her mother had almost certainly been a slave. She never knew her father..

One day when Alice was about four her mother was walking down a country road with her six or seven children when a Doctor Tate rode up and swooped Alice up onto his horse.

“Can I have this one?” he asked Alice’s mother.

Alice’s mother said yes. Unmarried and dirt poor as she was, that would be one less mouth for her to feed. So off the doctor rode with Alice, leaving her family – she never saw them again – in the dust.

That night, the doctor’s wife – the “old missus” Alice called her – placed Alice, who was crying for her mama, on a pallet next to her bed and held her hand.

For the next 60 or so years, Alice waited on the Tates hand and foot. She cleaned their house, hoed their garden, washed their clothes, cooked their meals and, on Sunday, attended their church where she always sat in the back row by herself – she wouldn’t dare sit with white folks who wouldn’t have allowed her to anyway. Alice never socialized with other black people. Working and living in the Tate household, she never had the chance to meet any.

One by one the Tates died off until only Miss Sally, who never married, was left. Sally sold the farm, bought a house on the east side of Auxvasse, and moved there with Alice.

When Miss Sally died, she willed the house to the Auxvasse Presbyterian Church, which she had joined and Alice attended, sitting alone in the back row as she always had, but directed that Alice should be allowed to live in it until her death. To support herself, Alice, who had never learned to read or write, took in laundry, dressed chickens, baked cakes and, on Sundays, made dinner for the Presbyterian preacher, a young man just out of seminary named Joe Mullen.

In 1955, when Alice died of cancer, Joe Mullen, by now a prominent figure in the church, returned to Auxvasse to preach her funeral.

Church elders had planned to bury Alice in the town’s black cemetery but, not wanting to anger Joe, who knew as well as they did that Alice had never been exposed to her own people and wouldn’t have felt comfortable spending eternity in that unfamiliar turf, buried her in the white cemetery instead. It seemed like the Christian thing to do. At the time, Alice was the only black person in the cemetery. I don't know if that is still the case today. Her gravestone, shown above, lists only the date of her death.

For years afterward, my mother made Alice’s orange cake recipe every Christmas. It was dense like a fruitcake, with a gooey orange glaze that, to my unsophisticated palette, tasted bitter. Mom never served it without retelling the story of Alice. As a boy, I thought it was just about the saddest story I had ever heard.

Sixty-some years later, it still is.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Pumping for Information







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> COKE        >PEPSI



> SOX          >YANKS



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Saturday, September 30, 2017

The Odyssey: A hurricane story

There isn’t a Floridian who doesn’t have a Hurricane Irma story. Here, for what it’s worth, and it’s not worth much, is mine.

Three weeks ago today, at 1:45 in the morning, my wife, our two dachshunds and I pulled out of our driveway and headed north. I can’t say what was going through the dogs’ minds – not much probably ­– but my wife and I were convinced we would never see our home again.  

We had planned to ride out Hurricane Irma in the house, which sits at an elevation of 12 feet above sea level, a mile or so from Estero Bay. All week we had been busy moving the outside furniture inside; cranking roll down storm shutters over some windows; installing massive aluminum panels, some 12 feet high, over the windows that didn’t have roll downs; running from store to store trying to find the batteries we knew we’d need when the electricity went off; buying bottled water, canned goods, fresh fruit, cookies and crackers for the the days we would be without refrigeration; waiting in lines at gas stations to top off both cars’ tanks; going to the bank for cash because credit and debit cards wouldn’t be usable once the electricity was down, and running to Home Depot for hardware and tools to install the storm shutters.

We stopped our preparations every few hours to check the website most Floridians have bookmarked, the National Hurricane Center, to see the latest forecast that is updated four times a day when a storm is brewing in the Atlantic. Early in the week the NHC showed Irma was likely to hit Florida’s southwest Gulf coast, where we live, head on. Then it showed the eyewall shifting slightly to the east, coming up the center of the Florida peninsula. Then it moved to the east coast. Then they projected it would move up the coast off shore, hovering somewhere between the mainland and the Bahamas. On Thursday, as things became clearer, the forecast shifted back to the Southwest Gulf coast, and there it stayed.

The 11 o’clock local weather forecast Friday night scared us shitless: Irma, it was almost certain, was going to hit us sometime Sunday afternoon head-on as a category 5 with 150 plus mph winds. The storm surge – water rushing from the gulf to the bay and across the low-lying lands bordering the bay on top of the predicted eight to 12 inches of rain Irma was sure to bring, was going to be even more destructive than the winds. The governor was on TV, telling us that if we planned to evacuate, this was our last chance.

We looked at each other and said, “We’re outta here.” We threw clothes into suitcases, and tossed blankets, towels, cases of water and boxes of food (human and dog) into the back of the SUV. The last thing I did before we left was to install aluminum panels over the side door to the garage. I only had four screws left to hold three panels but it didn’t matter. The house was a goner anyway.

We love our house. It’s full of stuff we’ve collected over the last 40 years, some of it irreplaceable. Funny but when you learn you’re in the path of what forecasters are saying will be the most catastrophic hurricane to hit Florida in a decade, you don’t care about all that stuff as you pull out of the driveway. You just want to get away with what’s important, the people and creatures you love.

My wife’s mother lives in a recently built Assisted Living Center a few miles south of us. It’s a fortress, built to withstand even a cat 5 storm. We had been assured a plan was in place to take care of its residents, including generators, food and staff. She, at least, was in good hands. We weren’t so sure about us.

Within 10 minutes, we were on Interstate 75, headed toward Tallahassee in Florida’s panhandle, 420 miles to the northwest, where my nephew had graciously invited us to stay. Earlier that evening I had emailed him that we were still planning to ride it out. That was before we watched the 11 p.m. forecast. I decided I’d text him when we were about an hour from his house which I figured would be sometime around noon if we were lucky enough not to encounter stop and go traffic and/or run out of gas because the stations, the news said, were out of it.

To our surprise, traffic was moving just fine and didn’t even become heavy for 100 miles or so until we reached Sarasota. We had heard horror stories from friends who had already fled north. It took one couple 24 hours to drive the 800 miles to Jackson, Mississippi, the nearest hotel room they could find. Other friends spent two days getting to Nashville. Still others tried to get out of Dodge and returned hours later with tales about bumper to bumper traffic and no gas.

Within three hours we had traveled 150 miles and were just outside Tampa where we stopped for gas – no waiting – and, having been awake since 6 a.m. the previous morning, drove through the drive-through window of a McDonald’s for coffee. The vehicle in line ahead of us was a 1980s mini-van. Its rear window was missing. The only thing in the cargo area was a miniature aluminum Christmas tree. The van had a hand-lettered cardboard license plate and the driver’s door was stuck open at a 45-degree angle, like the flaps on a plane that’s coming in for a landing. The inside panel of the door was missing. There was some altercation – we couldn’t hear it – between its occupants and the server before they drove away. “Crackheads,” the server told us, shaking her head. “They probably headed south,” I joked. She laughed. “Good luck,” she said, handing us our coffee. Everyone in Florida was punch drunk at that point.

We stopped several hours later in Lake City, Florida for more coffee. Dunkin’ Donuts was packed. Strangers were asking each other, “Where are you from and where are you going?” A guy in line ahead of me from Miami said he had no idea where he was headed. “I just want to get the hell out of this goddam state.”

Traffic was heavy but moving. Just north of Lake City we saw parked by the side of the road dozens of trucks bearing the logos of out-of-state utility companies from as far away as New Jersey that were awaiting word to proceed to southern Florida once the hurricane had passed.

By 9 a.m., to our amazement, we were in Tallahassee.

My nephew and his wife installed us in her parents’ beautiful home overlooking a golf course, telling us we’d be more comfortable there. Her parents were at their summer home in the Rockies. I went to the supermarket and bought some food and three bottles of wine. It was packed with panicked shoppers, who had picked some shelves clean because Irma was now predicted to hit Tallahassee, which sits 20 miles inland, on Monday. The scene was a repeat of the frenzy we had witnessed in our local Publix a few days before. We finally fell asleep around 1 p.m.

My niece-in-law’s parents had turned off Comcast for the summer (a decision my regular readers know I agree with) so there was no Internet or TV. Desperate for news, we found a Hooters for dinner that had outside TVs and allowed dogs on the patio. The weather forecast hadn’t changed from the night before. Southwest Florida was officially ground zero. The group at the table next to ours was from our town. They, too, had fled the night before.

Sunday morning I checked the messages on our home phone. There were two robocalls – mandatory evacuation orders from the local government, telling us that if we didn’t leave that very minute and go to one of the many shelters set up in local schools and arenas, that we were on our own if we needed help.

We watched live-streaming Ft. Myers TV all day Sunday on my cell phone as the hurricane approached and hit. It struck the Keys in the morning and mid-afternoon made landfall at Marco Island, about 30 miles south of our home, as a category 3. The weatherman said it was going to continue thundering up U.S. 41. We live a mile west of U.S. 41. Swell. He rattled off the names of the neighborhoods, including ours, that looked to be directly in Irma’s path and could expect massive flooding. Irma hit our town around 5 p.m.

Around 7 p.m, after the eyewall, to our horror, had passed directly over our house, it was downgraded to a category two as Irma unexpectedly swerved ever-so-slightly to the northeast, sparing Ft. Myers and Cape Coral from the worst of her wrath. The weatherman said he had good news: The expected storm surge was minimal because Irma had hit at low tide.  

We turned in early, physically and mentally exhausted.

The next day was windy with some light rain and the hurricane, we learned, had blown through Tallahassee overnight as a tropical storm. My nephew and his wife, who were without power in their home, stopped by with their daughters. We were playing a game when my cell phone rang. It was our neighbor, George. He and his wife had attempted to flee up I-75 on Wednesday but had returned after realizing there was no gas to be had. They had ridden out the storm in the stairwell of another friend’s mid-rise condo. He couldn’t talk long because he was trying to preserve cell phone battery, but reported that our house looked to be OK. Some trees were down and several screen panels on our pool cage were torn but that, as far as he could tell, was the extent of the damage. He said the rest of the neighborhood got off with about the same amount of damage as we did, but that streets were impassable due to downed trees and, needless to say, there was no power. We could barely believe our luck. 

We had been planning, for months, to spend that week in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where our son and his wife had rented a house. “Let’s go,” I told my wife. “There’s no reason to go home since there’s no power.”

“We ought to wait and leave tomorrow,” she said. “No,” I told her, “if we leave now and overnight somewhere in Georgia, we can get there tomorrow night and have four full days to spend with the kids.”

Within an hour we were back on the road again, heading north into Georgia. Thomasville, about an hour north of Tallahassee, had no power. Nor did any other town we passed through for the next 200 miles. While Florida got most of the media attention, Irma did some massive damage to southern and central Georgia, too. We saw an armada – literally hundreds – of utility trucks and tree service trucks headed south.

I should have checked the forecast, because we drove right into the remnants of Irma. The further north we drove, the harder the rain and the heavier the winds we encountered. At Macon, I took what the GPS showed to be a backroads shortcut over to Interstate 20 so we would avoid the Atlanta metro area. For two hours we twisted and turned through darkened countryside, dodging fallen trees, downed road signs and rain as heavy as any I have ever driven though. My wife was furious. “I told you we should wait a day.” I readily admitted she was right. It was out-and-out scary, the worst ride of our lives.

When we finally made it to I-20, I stopped at a Holiday Inn whose lobby was packed with people trying to sleep on the floor. No room in the Inn. The clerk said there were likely no rooms anywhere in central Georgia that night. But at the next exit I found a fleabag motel – no electricity – where a clerk was engaged in conversation with a couple through a bulletproof screen. The couple – the wife carrying a baby who looked to be the age of our youngest grandson -- had a pit bull terrier that was running up and down the sidewalk off leash. They stepped aside as I approached the window. “Do you have a room?” I asked the clerk, an Indian woman, shouting to be heard over the wind and driving rain. “Yes. It’s $125.” “I”ll take it,” I said.

At that moment the young man told the clerk, “We only have $40. Can’t you give us a room for that?”

“No,” she snapped.

Knowing I had been blessed beyond belief, I told her I’d pay for their room, that nobody should have to be out in that weather.

“How can I ever repay you?” the young man asked.

“Some day you can do the same for someone else,” I answered. His room was $125, too. I later found out the hotel’s regular room rate is $60.

When I went back to the car and opened the door, the couple’s pit bull leapt into the driver’s seat and jumped up against my wife, who was holding our two dachshunds in her lap. She somehow resisted the urge to scream out in terror. I didn’t want to reach in and pull the dog off, lest I provoke him to attack her.

“Get your fucking dog off my wife!” I shouted at the young man, who reached in and pulled the dog off.

Our room was on the second floor. There was no power. It was hard to carry the bags up the open stairs with no light to guide us, through wind gusts so strong the rain appeared to be falling horizontally. The parking lot was full of cars with Florida plates. Fellow Irma refugees.

“This stinks,” my wife said when we got into our pitch-black room.

We couldn’t take showers – no hot water and no power. It came back on sometime during the night but went off again a few hours later and stayed off.

The next morning we found out why the room stank. My wife had stepped in a pile of dog poop some other guest’s dog had left in front of our door. There was no way she could have seen it.

A woman in the parking lot said she had fled Florida with her 90-year-old father who had to breathe through a machine. “There’s no power and I’m almost out of oxygen tanks. I don’t know what I’m going to do.” I wished her well and we continued on our way. There was no electricity so we couldn’t find a place selling coffee until we reached Augusta, near the South Carolina line. We arrived at the Outer Banks around 7 that night.  

When we logged on to the Internet, we found emails from friends and family concerned about our safety and, for the first time in days, had access to web sites that enabled us to see a fuller picture of what Irma left in her wake than we had been able to learn from radio news broadcasts. It wasn’t pretty.

Over the next four days we tried, we really did, to act normally around our children and grandchildren but we were exhausted and on edge and I know they could sense it.

We left Sunday morning and made it 700 miles to Jacksonville, Florida where, in the parking lot of our hotel, dazed-looking people draped with Red Cross blankets were smoking cigarettes. A man told my wife his house had caught fire during Irma and burned to the ground. Just as we were turning in, I got a text from a neighbor that the power at our house had just come back on. Sweet.

The next day, as we continued south through Daytona, Orlando and Ft. Myers,  we saw lots of damage. No missing roofs but lots of uprooted trees, flattened billboards and downed power lines.

Our own development was a mess – trees down everywhere, some pool cages missing, almost every yard covered with broken branches, leaves and other debris that had blown in from who knows where. I took the storm shutters off the garage door and we went inside, half expecting to find rain had leaked through the roof or water had somehow seeped through the storm shutters covering the windows. But everything was good.

In all, we had seven trees down, seven pool screens that needed replacing and our pool cage suffered structural damage. It was apparently lifted up and detached from our house and how it is still standing I’m not quite sure, but there’s no way we’re going to be able to find anyone to fix it until well into the next year. Friends report pool cage repairmen’s voice mailboxes are full so they can’t even leave messages.

It’ll cost us a few thousand out of pocket since our insurance policy doesn't cover anything until we have shelled out $22,000. High deductibles are the only possible way insurers can afford to offer coverage in a state that juts out into storm-prone Atlantic waters.

Since then I’ve taken down shutters, moved furniture back outside, cleaned the swimming pool which was full of debris and mud, and cleaned the fridge (gross – I forget to empty it when we left in the middle of the night and the power was off for a full week). Jose, our perpetually cheerful yard man, is slowly but surely carrying away debris each time he visits but says it will take a while because all of his other regulars have as much if not more of it than we do and his truck only has so much room.

I work at the local Food Bank one day a week and have been volunteering for extra shifts, handing out food and other supplies at local temporary pantries. It breaks my heart. The neighborhoods that were hardest hit – the ones that suffered the most flooding, the ones the power companies restore electricity to last – are the poorest ones, the ones populated primarily by immigrants who do most of the heavy lifting around here, folks who live in trailer parks and shacks way out toward the Everglades. Entire families are without food and running water and many wage earners whose jobs depend on agriculture – orange pickers for instance – and tourism have lost their incomes. Many of them work in our own community and have been hard at work removing downed trees and serving up fancy meals at the country club to people whose homes have only been cosmetically damaged and lightly at that. Residents of our community have teamed up to raise funds to help them out.

Tourists are avoiding southwest Florida, assuming we are devastated. We’re not. Everything tourism-related is pretty much up and running. The malls are teeming with people buying stuff they don’t need at post-hurricane sale prices. Restaurants are packed with homeowners who’ve returned from their northern homes to see that their properties are OK. Here in our development the streets are lined with tree stumps, branches and other debris awaiting pick-up by city workers. A man at the monthly meeting of the board that governs our community complained city workers aren’t moving fast enough for him and proposed that we try and find private companies to clear the debris, as if any of them aren’t working. When you step outside, you hear chain saws and see FEMA trucks whose workers are cutting overhead branches dangling above roadways. I find it odd that FEMA trucks are in our gated community. Seems to me they’re needed more in Houston and Puerto Rico.

We’ve heard some amazing (and funny) stories. We had dinner the other night with a couple our age who had intended to ride out the storm in their home but, once they were ordered to evacuate, wound up spending two nights in a high school shelter. It took them hours to check in because authorities first had to identify that they (and the four thousand or so other shelter guests) weren’t registered sex offenders. Had it been discovered they were, they would have been assigned their own room with their fellow offenders where they could have presumably molested each other. The day after the storm, knowing they had no electricity at home, they headed toward Tampa in search of a hotel. Their worried son, who had access to the Internet at his Georgia office, texted them the names of the two or three hotels he was able to find that had available rooms. One of them was a clothing-optional hotel. They came home.

Some well meaning people have said the reason we escaped with minimal damage is that God was looking out for us but I don’t buy that for a minute. If He was looking out for us, why wasn’t He looking out for St. Maarten, Antigua, Barbuda, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and Cuba, whose residents have been decimated by Irma and Hurricane Maria? Or for the 200,000 Houstonians whose homes were flooded by Harvey? Or for the unfortunates lined up at the food pantries a few miles down the road for cases of water, boxes of Keebler cookies, jars of peanut butter, packages of cheap diapers and cans of tuna and pears imported from China? Yes, China. The country where, when I was a kid, we were told people were starving, is now sending food to poor Americans.

As my Aunt Margaret used to say when confronted with a question for which there is no easy answer, I don’t know. I just don’t know.

But I do know and appreciate how, whatever God was or wasn’t doing, we got off lucky.  

Front yard of the house across the street, piled high with hurricane
debris awaiting removal.