This month the thoughts are not brief.
A long, long time ago I wrote a story for my youngest son. I tried to write it in the voice of a boy not too much older than my son was at the time.
In the deepest part of us, there is something incredibly good, holy even. I’ve felt that for as long as I can remember. I notice it demonstrated most clearly in the times of disaster. Growing up on the Gulf Coast of Texas, these disasters often involve water and wind. It floods easily and hurricanes come calling. Nothing like water and wind to bring people together. Neighbors who have done no more than nod good morning, perhaps they don’t even know each other’s names, jump into a boat together and go from house to house rescuing others from rising flood waters. A stranger disregards her own safety and dives into churning waters to pull a stranded driver from her car. For those first few days of clean up afterward, there is this feeling of family.
Remember how we were at the beginning of the pandemic? We talked to loved ones through closed windows. We picked up groceries and left them on the porch for an elderly neighbor who shouldn’t be going out. We learned about the intricacies of Zoom. In New York City, every night at 7:00 o’clock, people went to windows and onto their balconies to applaud healthcare workers. There was uncertainty in the air, yes, but there were so many, many acts of kindness. As bad as the virus was then, it brought us together even as we stayed indoors or observed social distancing when we went out. The goodness in people was palpable.
I don’t know what happened. How did we go from loving our neighbors to refusing to wear a mask and roll up our sleeves for a shot? What is stopping so many from doing these things if not for themselves then for the good of the other?
We always come through in times of disaster. That had been my experience. The story I wrote for my son was inspired by a true event that occurred during the 1900 Storm, the great hurricane that came without warning and destroyed Galveston, Texas. Heroes and heroines died but I hoped that my son would see the goodness in them and the goodness in those who survived and worked so hard for others. My hope was that he would understand that he, too, carried that same goodness within himself. I hope the same thing for you.
I don’t remember my first day at St. Mary’s Orphans’ Asylum, but I remember my last. As some author wrote once, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” The sisters called me William. The other kids who lived at St. Mary’s just called me Wills. My last name is Murney and Sister Elizabeth liked reminding me that it’s an Irish name. She’d say my name with a smile and a twinkle in her eye.
“Murney, my lad, such a beautiful name. Tis an Irish name, you know.”
Then she whispered, “My last name is Ryan.”
I didn’t know nuns had last names.
“Ryan is an Irish name, too,” she said with a smile. I think she smiled that way because it was like we were relatives or something. I loved her like a mother. I loved all the sisters like a mother.
I don’t remember my own mother. She died before I could walk. So did my father and, I guess if I had any, my brothers and sisters died, too. My first family all perished during one of the yellow fever epidemics in Galveston. Story goes that Sister Teresa bundled me up and brought me to St. Mary’s, but by the time she got there with me, she was burning up with fever herself. She managed to tell the sisters my name and that my mother and father were dead, but she was too sick to say much more. Sister Elizabeth agreed with me that I must have had brothers and sisters because, “Afterall, you’re Irish, my boy, and whoever heard of a self-respecting Irish family with only one child.”
Sister Elizabeth had ten brothers and sisters living back in Ireland.
Even today I find myself thinking of Sister Teresa dying after she got me to St. Mary’s. A lot of the sisters died back then taking care of people with yellow fever. Fear of dying never stopped the sisters from ministering to the sick though. Those nuns were really brave. Sometimes I think maybe Sister Teresa somehow took the yellow fever that was meant for me into her own body so I could live.
So, my first family gave me a name, but it was my second family that gave me a life. Sister Elizabeth may have had ten brothers and sisters, but I had ninety-two. That’s how many of us lived at St. Mary’s. Well, ninety-three of us counting me. There were ten sisters of the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word and, of course, there was Henry Esquior. Henry could fix anything that was broken and he loved playing baseball with us. He could knock the ball a mile. Some of the priests, especially, Father Joseph and Father Francis were really good ball players, but Henry, well, he was something to behold. You should have heard us whooping and hollering the day Frank Madera struck him out.
“Can you believe it, Wills! Can you believe it!” Frank was screaming and jumping up and down. We all were.
“With your curve ball, Frank. What a pitch,” I slapped him on the back about a hundred times. “What a pitch. What a pitch.”
It was the first time any of us could ever remember getting Henry out. I even remember the date. It was on September 7, 1900. That was the day before most all of my second family perished. This time it wasn’t yellow fever that took them.
I remember it was really hot on September 7. At night, with a breeze coming in off the Gulf, it wasn’t bad, but during the day it was hot as blazes. More hot than of us every remembered it being. The heat didn’t stop us from playing baseball though. After striking out Henry, we couldn’t wait for the next day. It was going to be Saturday and on Saturdays we had longer for our games unless we fooled around and didn’t do our chores well. We promised each other that we’d jump right out of bed and do those chores better than ever before so the sisters would let us go early. When I opened my eyes the next morning, I could hear some of the shutters banging against the side of the building and I noticed the room was kind of cool. I took a moment to say a prayer of thanksgiving to God for the break in the heat wave. I thought it was going to be a perfect day for a ballgame.
First thing after Mass and breakfast, I got the wagon ready for Sister Elizabeth. She was going into town to get supplies for us, but promised to get back in time for the game. She liked baseball, too, and was sorry she hadn’t been there the day before to see Frank strike out Henry and to see me hit the triple. I was pretty happy that she knew about my hit. It was sunny when she left. I remember looking up at her as she was leaving and having to squint because the sun was so bright. She couldn’t have been gone more than a couple of hours before the dark clouds began to roll in, but even those clouds didn’t dampen our spirits. We couldn’t imagine anything interfering with our game.
My optimistic feeling began to give way at noon that day. I remember it was noon because we were in the dining hall and when I opened my eyes after we finished praying, everything looked orange. I looked out the window and the sky was the oddest shade of orange I had ever seen. It made my stomach hurt. I saw some worried looks on some of the sisters’ faces when they didn’t think we were looking. That made my stomach hurt, too.
By the time we had washed and dried the dishes, the lightning and the thunder had the little kids really scared and some of them were crying. The rain was coming down hard. Mother Catherine announced that we were all going to the chapel.
“Hey, Wills, we’ve gotta pray real hard that it’ll stop raining so we can get our game in later today,” whispered a buddy of mine by the name of Albert Campbell.
“Yeah,” is all I could mumble.
The first thing I did when I got into the chapel was to pray that Sister Elizabeth would get back safe and sound then I prayed that the rain would stop so we could play ball.
I don’t know how long we were in the chapel; it became one of those days where you lose all sense of time, but I remember Mary Carol pointing out the window and shouting, “There’s Sister Elizabeth. There’s Sister Elizabeth.” Not one of the sisters got mad at Mary Carol for shouting in the chapel.
Albert, Frank and I ran outside to help her with the wagon and the supplies. We couldn’t have been out there more than ten seconds before we were completely soaked.
“Unhitch the horse,” Sister Elizabeth told me. “We’ll leave the wagon here.”
“I’ll take her to the barn.”
“No, William, just let her go,” Sister Elizabeth said as she, Albert and Frank rushed supplies into the building.
The rain was pounding hard and blowing right into my face, but I could still see a lot of things were ruined. The flour sack was torn open and the flour had already turned into a thick paste. Our mare, Brigid, was scared and was pulling this way and that. She was neighing something fierce, too. It crossed my mind that I could lose a finger unhitching her if I wasn’t careful. My fingers were wet and cold, but finally I managed to get her free and she lit out so fast splashing water and mud everywhere. The water was deeper than I thought.
“You should have stayed in town, Sister,” I said as Sister Elizabeth met me at the door.
“That’s what Mother Catherine said, but I couldn’t let our children go hungry now could I? Wrap up in this blanket, William, your teeth are chattering.”
The four of us were soaked, but none of us went to change clothes. We stood there in the chapel dripping water onto the floor. Suddenly there was a huge ripping sound followed by a loud crash and the wagon flew through the front doors landing in the foyer right outside the doors of the chapel.
“Why did I leave it parked there! Jesus, Joseph and Mary, how could I have done such a thing? We have to try and prop up those front doors, there’s too much water blowing in,” Sister Elizabeth was already working hard at getting one of the doors up off the floor.
Some of us ran to help, but it was no use, the wind was too strong and we couldn’t budge the doors or the wagon. I glanced outside and I thought I saw Brigid in the distance, but I didn’t say anything because it just didn’t seem right. It looked to me like that old horse was swimming. I wondered how that could be. The Gulf was close, but not so close that I should be able to see a horse swimming in it.
Well, the wagon breaking down the front doors and some of us running around not having much success putting them back in place pretty much scared all the children and all the little ones started crying then. Sister Regina asked us to sing Queen of the Waves. It seemed to calm things down for a bit. Some of the youngest children actually fell asleep in the laps of some of the sisters. We kept singing quietly.
“Sister Elizabeth, do you see the water?”
“I do, William.”
The water had been seeping into the chapel for some time.
I heard Mother Catherine whisper to Sister Mary Paul to go to the infirmary in the main building to get medical supplies.
Then she said, “Children, we want you to take our hands, take the hand of a friend. We’re going upstairs to the girl’s dormitory. You’ll be all right. Let’s sing as we go up the stairs. Let’s sing Queen of the Waves. Hold each other’s hands.” Mother Catherine’s voice sounded very soothing even if she had to shout over the sound of the wind.
The wind was howling, but we sang louder than it could howl or at least we tried. We held hands and even in that storm Albert, Frank and I exchanged looks because we’d never been to the girls’ dormitory before. We’d joked about what it would be like up there and now we were actually going to see. It was too dark to see much though. Frank and I helped Sister Elizabeth carry up some lanterns and candles. No use. Nothing could be lit because of the wind. It seemed the wind was coming in through every nook and cranny or even straight through the walls as if they weren’t even there.
“I brought as much clothesline rope as I could find, Mother Catherine.”
It was Henry. I hadn’t seen him come into the chapel or being sent out to get clothesline, but there he was with us on the second floor. He and Mother Catherine started cutting the clothesline into sections.
“I’d rather we were playing ball, Henry,” Frank said.
“We will, Frank. Tomorrow we’ll play ball. I think I’ve figured out how to hit your curve.”
It was about an hour after that that we heard the sound of what we figured was the boys’ dormitory being ripped loose. Not too long after that, the sisters used the clothesline rope to tie the little ones to themselves so they could hold on to them better.
“William, go to the roof. Get the older children and climb out onto the roof.” It was Sister Elizabeth talking to me. She was right next to me, but her voice seemed a hundred miles away.
About twelve of us made it to the roof. I could still hear the children and the sisters singing Queen of the Waves. When the wind took a section of the roof, I looked down and I could see Mother Catherine holding the Belard twins, one in each arm and I heard her promising she wouldn’t let go of them no matter what and I knew she wouldn’t. She was holding them so tight. There were six other children tied to her, too.
I thought the roof was going to hold, but all of a sudden there was nothing under it to hold it up. The dormitory was being lifted from its foundation. When the roof started to go, four or five us made it into the top of a tree. When the tree was torn up by its roots, three of us managed to hang on as it started rushing through the water. I didn’t know if we were rushing toward the Gulf or away from it. I don’t know how long any of this took. All I knew was that I had to hang on to that tree. I could see that Frank and Albert were doing the same and it wasn’t easy what with all the debris flying at us from every direction. What looked like a door nearly got Albert in the head. If it had hit him, his head would have rolled one way and his body another.
Every once in while through the wind I could hear people screaming or I thought I could. Sometimes I was sure I was imagining all of it and that I was going to wake up in my bed back in the dormitory and it would all have been a nightmare. I didn’t think I could ever get more scared, but I did when I realized I couldn’t see any land. There was nothing but water all around us. It made me think of Noah, but this tree we were on was no ark.
“Where are we, Wills?” Albert yelled over the howling wind.
“Just keep holding on, you don’t know when something might bump into us. I don’t want to have to go swimming out there after you.”
“There’s a horse, Wills,” Frank indicated with his head.
I think all three of us had the same sick feeling the dead animal being thrashed about in the water was Brigid, but we convinced each other that it wasn’t.
“Let’s sing Queen of the Waves. Maybe one of the sisters will hear us,” I suggested.
We sang for a long time pausing once in a while to see if someone would sing back to us. We wanted to find somebody from St. Mary’s really bad, but no one ever sang in reply.
Frank, Albert and I rode out the rest of the storm holding on to that tree. Even after the water went down and it was resting in the mud, we didn’t let go right away. When we did, we had no idea where we were or even how to figure it out. There were no landmarks anywhere. Finally, we started walking or wading is more like it. Well, Frank and I did. Albert’s leg was smashed pretty bad. So, was Frank’s arm. It was his pitching arm. He got on the side of Albert where is good arm was and I got on the other side and we got his arms around our shoulders so we could help him along.
“There’s somebody,” Albert said.
It was a man, but when we got to him, we saw he was already dead. We saw more and more dead people. I didn’t want to count them, but somehow the numbers just kept piling up in my head. I stopped at a hundred and nine. That’s when we found Mother Catherine and she still had the twins in her arms and the six other little children tied to her waist. They were all dead. Frank, Albert, and I cried. We didn’t say anything. We just cried.
I don’t know how but we found St. Mary’s. It’s more like it found us. We just stumbled on it. Some of the main building was still standing. We helped Sister Mary Paul the best we could. Later we figured out that when she couldn’t get back to the girl’s dormitory, she tied herself to the infirmary balcony. Whenever she could, she pulled people in as they floated by on the debris. Most of them were hurt really bad. There wasn’t any food or water. Sister Mary Paul and I walked the area and scrounged what we could. One of our kitchen cupboards hadn’t been completely destroyed. Much of the food was soggy, but we built a fire and did what we could with it then took it into the infirmary to feed people the best we could.
September 10 turned out to be a beautiful day or at least it was if you just looked up into the sky. If you looked at the island, everything that had been beautiful about it was gone. It was a sunny day and Sister Mary Paul pulled me aside and explained to me what was going to happen to the bodies if it heated up like it looked like it was going to do.
“William, you’re awfully young to be seeing some of the things you’re going to see. Do you think you can find it within yourself to help bury the dead? They’ll have to be buried right where they are, but you’ll say a prayer for them won’t you, my boy?”
And I did.
We didn’t know it right away or maybe it was that we didn’t want to believe it, but as those next few days passed, it became clear that Frank, Albert and I were the only kids from St. Mary’s Orphans’ Asylum to survive. Sister Mary Paul was the only sister that survived. We kept on looking for weeks though thinking that we’d find somebody else from St. Mary’s. We never did.
Even today I find myself thinking of Sister Elizabeth and all the rest who died. Sister Mary Paul died, too, a few days after the 1900 Storm. We guessed it was the heat and exhaustion. Fear of dying never stopped the sisters from ministering to those who needed their help though. Those nuns were really brave. Sometimes I think maybe Sister Elizabeth somehow took the water that was meant for me into her own body so I could live.
Every disaster produces heroes and heroines. We know some of their names, but the majority are regular people whose names we will never know. Regular people helping other regular people. What they do for others, for the most part, goes unheralded.
COVID has been steady and long unlike the 1900 Storm but no doubt it has produced many, many heroes and heroines, too. We are at the point where every single person twelve years of age and above is a hero or heroine simply by receiving the vaccine. Love is willing the good of the other for the sake of the other.
If you’re not vaccinated and you can be, please go get vaccinated. Please. And wear a mask.