This story is true except for the name of Cousin Percy. My dad always said he needed to change the name of the original cousin. Having never heard of him at the time, I asked why. My dad said some of his family was still alive and might see his name in the story. Well, he died before he got around to changing the original name so I have renamed the cousin Percy. It seemed a fitting name for such a character. Oh, and the lightening strike at the barn was added for effect. Never happened. The rest, though, you can take to the bank.
Uh, except the 1916 hurricane hit on Wednesday 18 October; not August. But other than that….
Herman Arthur Merritt
In 1916 the War was underway in Europe. While most of the news was from the Eastern Front, history was also being made in the Florida panhandle. Unlike events in Europe, though, history here unfolded without advance warning, grabbing up participants who had no idea they were becoming a part of folk lore that would be reminisced over for decades to come.
It was late summer. Corn, tall and loaded with fat ears, waved in the warm August breeze as we walked down the path between the fence and the ends of the rows. Mom had sent us down to the watermelon patch to bring one up to the house to cool.
My dad, younger brother Jack, and my older cousin Percy who was nine, were ahead of me. Old Bull, our thick necked brindle catch dog, trotted along ahead of us. He still had a slight limp in his left hind leg from where he had lost three toes to a steel trap two weeks before. Suddenly, Bull stopped and sniffed the air. After a moment he let out a low growl. Since Bull was a first rate rabbit dog, we all looked out across the field but there was nothing but a small dark cloud floating just above the horizon. Then the faint sound of horse's hooves came up from the dusty road on the other side of the fence as Mr. Barrineau's shiny black buggy rounded the bend at the head of a cloud of dust. When my dad waved, Mr. Barrineau reined his high stepping chestnut trotter to a halt dumping the U.S. Mail sack to the floor board. He squinted over his shoulder into the sun and wiped a sleeve across his brow before he spoke.
"Looks like there might be a couple drops of rain in that cloud there."
Mr. Barrineau stepped down, tied the reins to a buggy wheel, and raised and buckled the top in place. The horse stretched out in a beautiful pose, showing off his long legs and magnificent body. The shining leather harness and brass buckles gleamed with an oily sheen in the strange yellow light that had come up since we left the house. Percy pushed Jack aside and climbed up to the top of the fence to get a better look. I grabbed Jack before he could kick Percy's broad butt which now blocked our view of the buggy. Jack and I moved down the fence line a piece while Dad stood with one foot resting in the fence wire and traded news with Mr. Barrineau. I was marveling at the neatly stenciled red pin stripe trim on the buggy when a light rumbling rolled in from the direction of the little cloud.
And then the rumbling grew louder. A soft breeze stirred the corn tassels as Mr. Barrineau swung up into the buggy and slapped the reins down on his horse's rump. The horse lunged forward making the dry dust boil up as he broke into a fast trot.
A few large drops of rain exploded holes in the dust as we ran for the house. A clap of thunder hurried us along. We had barely hit the porch when the rain closed in behind us followed by thunder and searing flashes of lightning.
In a matter of a few minutes the strange yellow light had faded to near total darkness. Mom lit the kerosene lamp and we all huddled around it listening as rain pelted the window panes. Dad tried to make a fire in the cook stove but the wind kept whistling down through the flue blowing it out so he gave up. We huddled amidst the shadows of the lamp and shared some cold fried chicken and potato salad left from lunch. The dark unpainted walls returned little of the lamp light to the kitchen. As we washed down the final bites with warm milk, the night closed in totally. Percy was sitting right next to the lamp. His round eyes were the brightest objects in the room.
The wind came out of the night in great gusts making the house creak and shudder. Dad started worrying about the livestock down in the barn, afraid it might blow down on them. He lit the lantern, donned a slicker, and as his hand touched the door knob the wind slammed the door back into the wall. Jack and I leaped up and struggled to help him get the door closed. As the latch dropped into place we hurried to the window. Dad leaned into the wind, his slicker whipping about his legs, as he made his way across the yard to the barn to open the doors and the lot gate so the livestock could get out and fend for themselves.
Sometime during the night an extra strong gust of wind tore off some of the roofing and the water began to pour in. Dad rounded up all the pots, pans, and tubs to catch it. This added to the din. They soon filled, however, and water covered the floor. Small wavelets lapped at the base boards and rippled around the chair legs. In desperation he bored some holes in the low corner of the room and that kept the water from getting any deeper.
The beds had been moved and were kept fairly dry, so we were comfortable enough to all get some sleep. When Dad finally sent us off to bed, Percy wanted to sleep in the bed with me and insisted on the side away from the window. I was awakened much later by the crackling of a fire in the fireplace. Mom had all the chairs and the fireplace screen hung with wet clothes to dry. It was daylight and the wind had subsided some but the rain still poured down. Shortly after breakfast it was still cloudy but the rain had pretty much quit.
"Looks like that's the worst of it," Dad said as he dropped his plate in the dish pan.
Mom was worried about grandpa and grandma Mullins at Muscogee. The horses having been turned out were nowhere to be seen, so the only way we had to cover the five miles to Muscogee was on foot. Having traveled the three-trailed wagon road many times, I knew every inch of it. We three kids had been cooped up so long we were raring to get out. So, since the storm appeared to be over, they gave us permission to go on ahead and they would follow with Dad carrying my baby brother on his shoulders.
The buggy trail wound through thick stands of tall pine. In the heavy gloom the trail seemed to end in a distant wall of trees but I knew that when we got there the trail would bend and lead into another dark corridor. We rounded one dark bend after another until finally we came out where the timber had been cut. Small trees and saplings mingled with the topped remains of the old trees rotting in the underbrush and tall wire grass.
Now we were getting close to the only house on the trail, a one room shack surrounded by corrugated metal shed roofs where Mr. Pierce kept his farming equipment. He lived a few miles north and only stayed there during the growing season.
By this time we were partly out of breath and slowed down to a walk. It was growing darker even though it was still morning. Distant thunder rolled in from the northwest, followed by rain. The wind picked up and the black clouds boiled, churned and raced across the sky. Percy started to complain about his side hurting and wanting to rest up under the shed for a while. So we climbed up the slope toward the house and crawled under the shed roof. Old Bull dropped into the driest pile of straw and burlap bags he could find but Percy ran him off and took the spot himself. We had been there about ten minutes when Old Bull started barking and growling and running around in circles pulling at our sleeves and pants legs.
"Go away you stupid dog," Percy shouted as Bull tore his shirt sleeve.
"I don't know, Percy," I said. "Maybe we better be on our way. The weather looks like it's getting real bad again."
Percy gave a big sigh and struggled to his feet. He threw a wad of straw at Bull as he joined us on the road.
Suddenly a blinding streak of lightning sent pieces of metal roofing sailing through the air, followed by a deafening clap of thunder creating an acrid blue vapor of ozone. The lightening danced around under the shed for what seemed like minutes before it found the metal hand pump in the house and finally went to ground. As our eyes readjusted to the gloom we saw spinning firebrands of burning burlap dropping toward the ground. We watched the cinders scatter on the wind for a few seconds then turned back down the trail.
The wind was howling now making it hard to keep our balance, some trees had blown across the trail slowing us down, Jack was climbing over one and was blown back, knocking the breath out of him. Percy stepped over him and sat down on the log to rest. While we were waiting for him to get his breath back, an old raccoon with two half-grown cubs came by without giving us a second look.
When we came to what we called the Big Savanna, the trail dropped off into scattered gallberry patches and eventually led out into a broad boggy field. Grandpa and Uncle Ed had laid pine poles across the trail back in '09. Over the years the poles sank into the mud and provided footing for the wagon horses. The water was already flowing over the poles and filling the savanna. Where masses of bog plants grew was now almost knee deep. Old Bull knew where we were headed. He charged into the swirling water and turned downstream toward the creek that drained the whole area.
Percy hollered something over the scream of the wind. I couldn't make it out so I went back up the bank to where he was standing. He hollered again. "Where's that stupid dog headed now?"
"Down to the bridge," I yelled back but the wind pulled the words out of my mouth and I wasn't sure they made it across to Percy. I turned back and followed Jack who was already a hundred feet out in the water, following Bull to Grandpa's house. By the time I caught up with them I turned to see Percy tiptoe into the water and finally charge in full force toward us. He opened his mouth and hollered something else but I didn't hear it.
After about ten minutes we reached the spot where the bridge crossed over but it was under water. It was a short, low, narrow bridge and was now covered with the raging swollen rain laden water of the creek. There was no railing to guide us but I knew the way across, so we waded in. As the water got deeper, I put Jack up on my shoulders. Percy got right behind me as I felt for any missing planks with my bare feet, then there was a missing plank. My heart pounded, but I chanced it and took a big step and found solid wood. Breathing a sigh of relief, I continued on across. On my next step I fell through a big washout and Jack and I flailed around for a minute before we figured out what to do. Bull had jumped in with us and was swimming around barking and generally getting in the way. I grabbed Jack and started pulling him toward the opposite shore as we floated down stream. Within a couple of minutes we dragged ourselves out and Bull paddled up after us and shook himself off. Percy was standing on the bridge crying when the bridge gave way. As he floated by us, Bull barked several times then jumped in and swam out to him. Percy grabbed at Bull and tried to climb up on his back. This pulled Bull under so that Percy had to let go but he had reached shallow water now and managed to stand up and struggle to shore. I saw Bull float to the surface way below and bob along on the current till he was out of sight.
Another steep hill was just ahead. I remembered that the trail had been cut through the side of it making a high bank where we might get cover for a short rest. The ditch under it was full of water but we were already soaked so we sat in it out of the wind and rain. I looked at Jack. He had been crying but neither Percy nor I had noticed. Little streaks of blood were running down his face where the strong wind had impaled pine needles into his skin. Percy had the same thing, so I guessed I was just like them.
"Does it hurt?" I yelled as I put my head up next to his.
I tried yelling again. He seemed to hear me this time.
"When's Ol' Bull comin' back?" he sobbed.
I figured we better get underway again. Maybe Bull had crawled out somewhere downstream and was already waiting for us at Grandpa's.
The trail now led up a slight hill and made a sharp bend through a sheltering stand of large sweetgum trees and there in the path was a tight little knot of woods cattle taking shelter. They stood facing the wind with their heads lowered. When we got closer I started yelling and waving at them thinking they would move but they paid no attention to me. As we came closer still they just stood there staring at us. Then I thought maybe it was because we were just children, so I put Jack up on my shoulders and charged at them. They quickly scattered into the brush and we went on by.
The wind was dying down now and the rain blew by in light patches. When we reached the public road, the rain stopped completely. It was not far now to Grandpa's house. The rain had beat the clay road into thick mud and we were having fun slipping and sliding and squishing it up between our toes when Mom caught up with us.
"Thank goodness you're safe," she said all out of breath. "I've been worried since we got to the bridge and you weren't there. Your dad and I had to go upstream to the trestle to get across". Then she gave us all a tight hug.
Grandpa and Grandma were all right. They were worried about us and were relieved when we showed up. After a bath and dinner we were trundled off to bed. As we climbed under the mosquito bar we heard a clatter of feet coming down the hall. Ole Bull leaped the last three feet and landed on Jack. Grandpa came in a second later and said, "He just showed up. I figured you boys would want to see him before you went off to sleep."
Exhausted and full, we quickly fell into a troubled sleep, not realizing until days later that we had come safely through one of the most destructive hurricanes ever to hit the Florida panhandle.