Columns, Photos

A Storm Named Earl

As soon as a hurricane watch had been issued for coastal Delaware, I began clearing the decks at work. Meetings were postponed. Deadlines changed. Even Ted Turner’s people were gonna have to wait to discuss a charitable contribution. Earl was coming and I needed to be in Rehoboth.

Hurricanes, for those of you who don’t know, are in my blood. Most families bond around holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries. For me and mine, its hurricanes. September and October is our holiday season and my ninety-four year old grandmother is the high holy empress, watching over the tropics, calling with warnings, and spinning tales of hurricanes past. A native Floridian, she has experienced many a hurricane and is mighty proud of the fact that she’s only ever evacuated once. Against her will, of course.

I arrived in town on the Thursday night before Earl was due and found the Blue Moon hopping. It wasn’t a hurricane party per se; most people were there for karaoke. But at least the TVs were tuned to the Weather Channel. There was a hint of excitement in the air and much amusement about this storm named Earl.

For me, the name Earl conjures up an image of a big ol’ bubba who enjoys Garth Brooks music, Bojangles Fried Chicken, and pontoon boats. He owns a countrified yellow dog, the kind you see riding in the back of pickup trucks and on tractors.

A few of the fellas I spoke with in the Moon, however, had other ideas. They thought that Earl could be kind of hot. A former high school jock with big biceps, a big belt buckle, and the beginning of a beer belly. A good-looking, goateed-guy in an Auburn ball cap who likes nothing better than to kick back with a Budweiser and let someone else do all the work.

It was the liquor drawing forth these fantasies. But in any case, there was unanimous agreement that Earl was a name better suited for a Gulf coast hurricane rather than one threatening the Mid-Atlantic, Long Island, and Nantucket. This led naturally into a discussion of who actually names hurricanes. On that note, I ordered another dark rum and tonic and began telling what I knew.

For hundreds of years, hurricanes in the West Indies were named after the particular saint’s day on which the hurricane occurred. There’s a saint’s day for every day, so this wasn’t as random as one might think initially. Following this practice, Earl would have been named The St. Gregory Hurricane.

In this country, hurricanes were originally referred to by the year or by the place they hit. When meteorology was still new, our weather service wanted a more scientific method by which to track storms, so they began using a cumbersome latitude/longitude designation.

This all started to change during World War II, when Army Air Corp and Navy meteorologists began naming Pacific storms after their girlfriends and wives. Made them easier to keep track of. From 1950 to 1952, hurricanes were identified by standard radio names: Able, Baker, Charlie, etc. But, in 1953, the US Weather Bureau switched back to women’s names.

The practice continued until the late 70s when in a politically correct move, the World Meteorological Organization and the US National Weather Service added men’s names. Since then, names and lists have been revised again to include common English, Spanish, and French names – the languages of the Atlantic and Caribbean countries most impacted by hurricanes.

Nowadays, there are six lists of hurricane names that are reused every six years unless a storm creates enough havoc to have its name retired. Think Hugo, Andrew, and Katrina. No names begin with Q, U, X, Y, or Z, and if names are used up in one season, forecasters use letters from the Greek alphabet to name late season storms. A storm is named when it reaches tropical storm strength with winds of 39 mph. A storm becomes a hurricane when its wind speed reaches 75 mph.

So back to Earl. Friday in Rehoboth was gray and somewhat ominous-looking. People all over town nervously watched the sky, looking to the east, waiting for the storm. Despite Weather Channel warnings of tropical force winds and rain, very little happened. There was significant enough surf to close the beaches, but nothing special. Wind? A mere two blocks from the ocean, it was deadly still. Rain? I had to water my garden.

I think its fair to say Earl was a big disappointment. A lazy fella who couldn’t get it up. It happens. But, as we know, there’ll be another coming along – Karl, Matthew, Otto, and – should we get so far – Richard. Rest assured he won’t have that problem.

(Originally published Sept 17 in Letters from Camp Rehoboth)

Columns, Photos

Cocktail Croquet 2011

The blue ball ricocheted off a tree, across the lawn, and up onto the back porch steps where it came to rest against a silver shell-shaped serving dish of residual shrimp. ‘Twas a highly improbable yet entirely plausible shot. For cocktail croquet, that is.

A variation on the classic game, cocktail croquet originated, so to speak, in New York and Boston of the late 19th Century. Originally fashionable with high society, croquet soon lost much of its shine due to a growing association with gambling, drinking, and philandering. It’s true! The game was banned in Boston because the behavior of players so alarmed the local clergy. By the early in the 20th century, though, the game generally had regained its luster among the gentile class.

Cocktail croquet has been played in Rehoboth at a certain discreet home in the Pines neighborhood since the early 1980s. There is no set schedule, no regular teams, and no ordained uniforms. It happens when it happens, perhaps when a special guest is visiting, possibly after Peyton Manning quarterbacks a particularly good game, or, as in this case, when a certain challenge has been issued.

I wouldn’t label the game “a tradition” because that sounds way too formal and cocktail croquet is anything but.

This summer’s marquee match pitted “Lewd and Lascivious Lower Columbia” versus “Millionaire’s Row,” also known as Sussex Street, the place where dreams are realized and fortunes are lost. As a neighbor and a friend of the hosts, I was playing on the salacious squad.

On the day of the match, the oppressive heat had lifted and a light breeze was blowing from the east. The lawn was in excellent physical shape. Lush. Green. Mosquito-free. Such a lawn, few of which remain in todays chopped up, over-built Rehoboth.

The bar too was ready for the competition and well furnished with vodka, gin, and scotch. Ice was plentiful. The Italian antipasto was handmade: asparagus wrapped with proscuitto, sweet peppers stuffed with boursin cheese and served popsicle style on a pretzel stick, and bruschetta with a spicy black olive tapenade. Shrimp cocktail platters shimmered in the sunset.

At six o’clock, the athletes began arriving on foot, by bicycle, and in cars. Soft boogie woogie piano music wafted from the house. “Millionaire’s Row” was turning out in mass for its inaugural match. To use a college football phrase, they were “traveling well,” bringing a multigenerational entourage of old party boys and young fabby boys, homeowners and summer renters. Those too nelly to play came to cheer, brandishing red and blue pompoms.

They even brought a member of the opposite sex – a first for cocktail croquet. Miss Kissy embarked from a silver Mercedes convertible, nattily attired in Connecticut country club couture. Her little navy blue needlepoint slippers with embroidered anchors and bows were the envy of every fellow.

Cocktail croquet, however, is where expectations are turned upside down. Rather than polite, it is cut throat. Pomp and circumstance? Dismissed. White wine and beer? Absolutely not. Rules? The hosts “interpret” them. And it is difficult – embarrassingly so.

The course is always set up in a classic nine-wicket, two-stake, double diamond arrangement. Rather than being arranged in the middle of the lawn, most wickets are placed on the perimeter, along slopes that lead directly into gutters and flower beds where seventy-odd low-slung azaleas and rhodos await. Hit your ball under one and you must play it as it lies, no matter what contortion you must go though in order to do so.

Back on the eighty-foot course, huge oak trees with ancient roots disrupt your path. And then there’s your opposition, every one vengefully poised to send your ball careening across Columbia Avenue, bury it in the ivy, or force you to play off concrete steps next to the shrimp tails.

Uninitiated, “Millionaire’s Row” didn’t stand a chance. Mercifully, the game was called on account of darkness.

As I stood on the course, mallet in hand and enjoying the smell of cut grass and the flickering of the fireflies, I began to reconsider whether or not cocktail croquet was indeed “a tradition.” The beauty of this particular match was the generation exchange of values, i.e. the old guard showing a fun group of newcomers a side of Rehoboth they hadn’t seen. Certainly there was rowdy drinking going on. I didn’t witness any gambling. And, I’m not sure I saw any philandering. But, then again, the way some of the fellas were backing up against the bushes for their shots, one never knows.