Although our family lives in Lakeland, Florida, in the middle of Hurricane Alley, for nearly 100 years, it has always escaped every single hurricane. How? We have always had a hurricane detector!
"You can laugh if you want, but I tell you it's the truth," said Grandpa Willie, sitting on the porch of his shotgun house. He seemed to get a thrill out of telling the old family legend to everyone in the neighborhood, especially to his neighbor Otis, who never seemed to believe a single word of this strange family legend.
"Old man, you've been telling that lie for 40 years. There is no such thing as a hurricane detector. If there was such a thing, you could sell it and make tons of money," said Otis as the two men played a game of checkers. Checkers and memories were the staples of the retired folks in Lakeland. So were the hurricane stories. Every family had one, but no one believed Grandpa Willie's story.
If you asked anyone on our block to tell their favorite hurricane story, they would all sound similar. There would be accounts of people boarding up windows, trees falling, and debris flying through the air like missiles. Everyone seemed to tell stories about surviving floods, wading in chest-deep water, and returning to months of clean-up afterward. Everyone's story was the same, except Grandpa Willie's story. The truth is, every time a big storm came to Lakeland, Grandpa Willie was always gone, thanks to the family hurricane detector.
At least that's what he told Mr. Otis every day while sitting on the front porch.
I watched them play checkers and argue about the same things every day.
Mr. Otis lives in the shotgun house next to ours. They call them shotgun houses because the houses only have three rooms in a straight line. If a person shot a gun through the front door, the bullet would come out the back. Every house in our neighborhood is a shotgun house.
When hurricanes come through Lakeland, the shotgun houses seem to always withstand the storms. No one knows why; it's been that way for years. We get water when it floods, and the debris clutters our yards, but the shotgun houses always seem to stand. Maybe it's the good Lord's way of keeping his arms around the po' folks. That's what some people say.
Of course, our family only sees the aftermath of a storm. We are never around when a hurricane actually comes, thanks to our family hurricane detector. We have one now; we've always had one, regardless of what Mr. Otis thinks. I've never seen the hurricane detector, but Grandpa Willie says he'll show it to me and tell me the secret when my turn comes to lead the family. He says every man in our family needs to know about the hurricane detector. It's what keeps us safe.
"You think you know everything about hurricanes, but I got you beat," said Grandpa Willie, holding up a spit can to drop a slivery blob of snuff into the can with a plop. Dipping snuff, chewing tobacco, and talking about his hurricane detector were the high points of Grandpa's day.
"King me! You old fool!" shouted Grandpa as he moved his black checker into the king's row. The old board had scratches and marks from the thousands of games the old fellows played as they told their old stories to the listening ears of the neighborhood children.
"You're cheating!" yelled Mr. Otis. You're cheating again, just like you're lying again about that hurricane detector!"
"Ain't cheating, and you know it, you old fool!" Grandpa Willie said, his eyes glaring at the daily insult Otis gives him. "I ain't lying about my hurricane detector either."
They went back and forth like that every day. The kids enjoyed watching the two of them. Once, Grandpa Willie beat Mr. Otis in a checker game, and Mr. Otis turned over the whole board. He was cussing and yelling so loudly that Grandpa Willie threw his whole spit can on his friend.
They didn't speak to each other for several days. Then one day, as if nothing had happened, they were on the porch again, playing checkers and insulting each other.
What Mr. Otis did not know is that Grandpa Willie really had a hurricane detector. It really works. He's got a big cage around it, right in the middle of his backyard.
Mr. Otis considered himself an expert on everything, especially Hurricane Alley. He wasn't too happy when Grandpa Willie constantly claimed he escaped the hurricanes in Lakeland because of his secret hurricane detector. The truth is, Lakeland is called Hurricane Alley but has never been in the direct path of any hurricane.
"If you have a hurricane detector, why don't you sell it to those people that study the weather on the Weather Channel? They'd give you a lot of money for it," said Mr. Otis, turning up the corners of his mouth, showing he doubted Grandpa Willie's claim.
"You can say what you want, but ain't nobody in my family ever been kilted in a hurricane. We protected you," Grandpa Willie said.
"That's because your family has been living right here in Lakeland. This is the safest place to be when there is a hurricane. All you're going to get here is big winds and high water."
"Well, we ain't seen none of that either—until we come back," said Grandpa Willie. Every time a big storm heads toward Lakeland, Grandpa loads up the whole family, and we drive clean out of Florida, sometimes as far as Mississippi. He said he just watches the hurricane detector to know when to stop moving.
"You're the stupidest old coot I've ever seen. Packing up your whole house and moving out when there ain't no clouds anywhere There's even no wind. You just load up your family and that big dog and ya'll off to Alabama or Mississippi," said Mr. Otis.
I was little in July 1992 when Grandpa Willie made us pack up everything. We had a red Ford pickup truck and loaded everything we could carry into the back of that truck. We covered it over with blankets and tied it down with rope. In the house, we covered the mirrors and stacked all of the furniture we couldn't carry up high in case of high water. We boarded up the windows and doors with plywood and squeezed into the cab of that little red truck.
Everybody on the street looked at us and laughed. We became the neighborhood joke after Mr. Otis told everybody the reason our family packs up and leaves Hurricane Alley, going to who knows where.
"Hey, Willie! Did your machine tell you to leave again?" Laughed a neighbor as me and my brothers squeezed into the cabin of the truck, sitting in each other's laps. We could hear the laughter from house to house.
For a month, there were nothing but sunny days in Hurricane Alley. It was 90 degrees during the day, and the nights dropped to 70 degrees. Every evening there was a thundershower, and then the sun would come from behind the clouds.
After we were in Mississippi for a month, the warnings went out all over Florida. Hurricane Andrew was coming. In August, a month after we left, a big hurricane hit Florida hard. Houses flew in the air like kites. Trees bent low, and streets flooded. The weatherman said it was a category 5 hurricane—as big as hurricanes get.
Lakeland caught the big winds and rain. There was flooding, too. Of course we were lying back in the sun, enjoying ourselves in Uncle Charlie's rental house in Mississippi. We stayed there, safe and sound, until Grandpa Willie's hurricane detector said it was safe to go home.
When we drove down the street, we saw Mr. Otis and the other neighbors trying to pick up tree limbs and make house repairs after the storm. They didn't laugh at us when we returned. Either they were too busy or they were angry that we had been in Mississippi soaking up the sun while they were shivering in the winds, wondering whether Hurricane Andrew would finally be the big one that tore up Lakeland.
Nobody was hurt; they were just tired and frustrated from all of the repairs and mopping up. When you live in Hurricane Alley, it gets routine. Mopping up and cleaning up because no hurricane really hits Lakeland. Ever.
Mr. Otis still doubted that Grandpa Willie had a hurricane detector, but the neighbors were having second thoughts. They saw how many times we left Lakeland just before a storm and returned after the storm passed. Many of the neighbors became curious.
After Hurricane Andrew, people looked at Grandpa Willie strangely. All over the state, there was damage. Over 100,000 homes were damaged or destroyed, and many lives were lost. Folks in the neighborhood lived through the horror of the winds, fearing for their lives. Yet, Grandpa Willie packed up and took a vacation just before the storm. Mr. Otis still laughed at his talk of a hurricane detector, but others in the neighborhood were not laughing.
Some of the old-timers in the neighborhood remember Great Grandpa Jake. He claimed he had a hurricane detector, too. In 1964–65, he moved the family four times. Just before tropical storms Cleo, Isabel, Erina, and Betsy hit, one behind the other, we packed up and moved all the way to Louisiana. The detector worked for us.
He'd sit on the porch in an old rocking chair, smoking a pipe, and tell the family to heed the hurricane detector's warning.
"When it says move, you move. I don't care what people around you say. You pay attention to the best detector there is," he'd say. He thought nothing of loading up and moving instantly. When he died, he left the hurricane detector secret to Grandpa Willie.
Grandpa Willie raised me and my brothers by himself. We all lived down near Miami when a big storm started to brew. A few weeks before the storm, Grandpa Willie showed up in that red truck of his and told my dad that he should leave South Florida and come with him to safe ground because the detector says it's time to move. Daddy wouldn't go, so Grandpa Willie grabbed me and my brothers and took us back to Lakeland. He loaded up his traveling stuff, and we went to Alabama.
In a couple of weeks, we heard on the news that a big storm had swept through Miami. Among the dead was my dad.
Grandpa Willie didn't say anything. He didn't even go to his son's funeral. He just sat on the porch and stared out into space.
That's when we learned to pay respect to the hurricane detector. My dad didn't, and it cost him his life. Great-Grandpa Jake said he learned about the power of the hurricane detector from his dad. His dad learned it from his dad before him.
It's the secret to surviving all of the storms in Florida, even if we do live in Hurricane Alley, where no major storm ever marches through. Ever.
Mr. Otis didn't think much of Grandpa Willie's talk about the hurricane detector, but after a few years, the neighbors noticed how our frequent absences were always followed by a big storm or a hurricane. At first, they thought it was a coincidence, then they became serious.
I remember the day that Miss Ethel and Mr. Otis talked to Grandpa Willie on the porch. They caught him on one of his really bad days.
"Willie, you've been talking about that hurricane detector of yours; I want to see it," asked Mr. Otis.
"I ain't showing it to nobody", answered Grandpa.
"Ethel here says all of the neighbors are curious how it works. They want to see it," said Mr. Otis.
Grandpa sat in his rocking chair and laughed at both of them.
"You think I'm foolish enough to show you my hurricane detector so you can come in here and steal it?"
"Willie I'm surprised you think I'd do something like that. I'm a churchgoing woman. I believe in the good Lord. There is no way that I would steal anything from anyone. It just isn't in me," she said.
Miss Ethel was a churchgoing woman, but she and Mr. Otis were known for doing things that church folks weren't supposed to do. She always buys things that have been stolen from someone else. The neighbors say every stick of furniture in her house is stolen merchandise, including that new television she has. She and Mr. Otis live in the same house, but they aren't married. She plays bingo, and he loves to shoot dice. She's a churchgoing woman, but that didn't mean she wouldn't steal Grandpa Willie's secret and make money for herself and Mr. Otis. In fact, Mr. Otis may not even be in the picture at all if she ever gets her hands on a large amount of money.
"Ethel, you're a fine woman, but I'm afraid you’ll lose your walk with Jesus if I tell you the secret about my hurricane detector," said Grandpa Willie.
Ethel put her hands on her plump hips and shifted her weight to one leg. She raised a finger and pointed it at Grandpa as the fat under her arm dangled. She pursed her lips and squinted her eyes as she shouted at Grandpa.
"What are you trying to say, Willie? What are you saying? Are you saying I ain't walking with Jesus?"
"I ain't saying nothing but the fact that when somebody walks with Jesus, they can't be shacking up, selling their food stamps to get bingo money, and buying hot pork chops and steaks out of the trunk of somebody's car. Things like that force people to give up their walk with the good Lord," said Grandpa without even breaking his stare into space. The cadence on his guitar was never broken.
"Look here, old man, you don't have the right to sit on this porch and cast judgment on me. You may be old, but I'll beat you to death with your own walking stick if you don't watch your mouth!"
Grandpa Willie didn't say anything for a few seconds. He knew Ethel and Mr. Otis all too well. They were the neighborhood hustlers. If there was a way to make money on top of the table or under it, Ethel and Mr. Otis knew exactly how to do just that.
"I told you, but you wouldn't listen. He's nothing but a fool with all of his talk about a hurricane detector. That's about as dumb as he looks," said Mr. Otis, convinced that Grandpa Willie's claim to have a hurricane detector was his best tall tale. "I just wanted you to hear it for yourself. I have to hear it from him every day."
Ethel was insulted by Grandpa's poking into her business, but she was not convinced that he was lying about the hurricane detector. He obviously has something that he uses to get out of Lakeland just before every hurricane and bad storm. That old man sitting on that porch had a secret, and she was determined to find it. If he really had a hurricane detector, it would be worth millions of dollars. She could sell it to the Weather Channel or to the government. It would be a historic discovery that would make her famous.
Late that night, she and Otis sat on their front porch, waiting for Grandpa Willie's light to turn out. He always went to bed at the same time every night. He walked through the house, turning out the lights, and the light in his room was the last. Ethel and Otis knew his routine. They knew everyone's routine; they'd watched everyone for years.
About an hour after his light went out, they grabbed flash lights and tipped across the street to Grandpa's house.
"Ethel, you're wasting your time; Willie’s been telling that story for years. There ain't no hurricane detector!" said Otis.
"I ain't so sure. If he's got one, I'm going to find it and then get somebody to tell me how it works. Then I can make my own and sell that bad boy to some millionaire and become rich," said Ethel.
The neighborhood was completely dark since the Johnson kids shot out all of the street lights a week ago. Except for the safety lights on each house, it was completely dark.
The two of them tipped around the back of Grandpa's house. They tipped right past his window. They walked past my window, but I wasn't asleep. I saw them tipping through the grass with their heads bowed and flashlights glaring in the dark. I peeked through the curtain as I watched them open the gate to the chicken wire fence Grandpa built to keep the critters and occasional gators from walking away with his chickens. He never put a lock on the gate because he knew chickens and the old dog in the back couldn't unlatch anything.
"Wonder if it's big or something little?" asked Ethel as she scanned the yard with her flashlight.
"It ain't big or little, woman. I told you there ain't no hurricane detector!" whispered Otis.
"Then what are you out here for then?"
"Because I don't want you to be out here progging around in this yard, in the dark, by yourself."
"That's what you say, but you don't want me to find that hurricane detector and get the money all by myself!" she said.
They peeked into Grandpa's tool shed and flashed their lights inside. They saw a collection of rakes, hoes, shovels, and garden tools covered in dust. Bags of cans in plastic bags sat in a corner, and there was an old lawn mower with no handle. A stack of cardboard boxes was in one corner, and several picture frames were leaning against the wall in another. There was nothing that remotely looked like a machine that could detect hurricanes.
"Maybe it's under the house?" whispered Ethel. She squatted under the house and flashed a light. The house was set on pegs to raise it above water level in case of high water. It was not unusual for some to store equipment, wagons, tools, and sandbags underneath houses that could be as high as three feet off the ground. "Otis, go under there and look!" she said, pointing her light to the dark, cavernous space underneath.
"Woman, you must be losing your mind. I ain't going under there. Suppose there is a big alligator under there, waiting for some old fool to come crawling in. I ain't about to be no alligator's lunch!" grunted Otis.
"Then I'll do it myself. If I find that hurricane detector and make money off it, don't you expect to get none of it? You hear me?" Ethel said as she grunted to get on her knees to look under the house. She was a comical sight down there with her bottom up in the air, pointing the light under the house.
"You think he might have that thing in a box or covered with something?" she asked.
"Ain't no thing! There ain't no box, either, because there ain't no such thing as a hurricane detector!" rebutted Otis.
"You keep saying that, but I see you keep looking, too," she said. "You ain't no fool. You know that there has got to be something somewhere that tells him when to leave Lakeland just before every storm. It's got to be old too because he said his dad and grandpa used it."
"Well, if he had one, he wouldn't be keeping something like that under the house; get up and let's go!" said Otis.
Ethel grabbed Otis' hand and pulled herself up. She scanned the yard again. She saw Grandpa Willie's dog staring at them. That big dog could tear them to pieces if he wanted to, but then she saw his tail wagging. He recognized them. She patted the dog on the head in a friendly but cautious way.
"Dog, do you know where that hurricane detector is?" asked Ethel.
"Lawd, woman, you have lost your mind. Now you're talking to the dog, trying to find that thing. I'm getting out of here," said Otis.
She patted the dog once again as they left the fenced yard, frustrated that nothing that appeared to be a machine that could detect hurricanes was there.
"I'm going to find that thing if it's the last thing I do," said Ethel.
The next morning, Ethel and Otis were flabbergasted when they saw Grandpa Willie loading up the truck with suitcases and boxes.
"Otis, do you see that?" she said.
"It looks like he's getting ready to move out again," said Otis.
I don't know what really happened. All I know is that Grandpa Willie got up and went into the back yard to feed the dog. When he came back, he said, "It's time to go!" When I asked where, all he would say was that the hurricane detector says it's time to go. He moved quickly for an old man, but soon he had packed food, his important papers, his favorite chair, and suit cases into the back of his truck.
"Where are we going, Grandpa?" I asked.
"As far away from here as we can get!" he said.
Otis and Ethel checked the weather on the television. There was no news about any storms or projected hurricanes. In fact, the weather was calm, hot, and routine for Lakeland. That made the activity at Willie's house all the more mysterious. He was packing again, which meant that mysterious hurricane detector of his was predicting a storm.
"We looked everywhere around that house. There ain't nothing under the house or in his tool shed. He must keep it in the house!" said Ethel.
"Ain't nothing in that house, woman. I know. I'm over there every day playing checkers. When I go to the bathroom, it's in the back of the house. I look in every room when I pass by. There isn't a machine in there. If it is, it must be on a little plate or something," said Otis. "There ain't no hurricane detector."
As the two of them argued about the detector on their front porches, Grandpa Willie was nailing boards to his windows. He caused a considerable stir in the neighborhood as everyone watched from the porches and front yards as the old man nailed up his windows. Every time he did that, it meant a hurricane was brewing somewhere.
"Get in the truck, boy!" said Grandpa Willie.
"Where are we going, Grandpa? Back to Alabama or Louisiana?"
"Don't think so; I have to wait to see which way my detector says we ought to go!" He said this as he loaded a huge bag of dog food onto the back of the truck. Every time Grandpa Willie left Lakeland, he always carried the dog with him; he was part of the family. There are pictures on the wall of my great-grandpa and even his dad. They all had dogs that looked just like ours. Dogs are part of our family heritage, I guess. If there is going to be a storm, we can't leave a family member in the storm.
As Grandpa Willie brought the dog around the house, it began to bark, howl, and pull on the leash. It pulled to the East even though Grandpa pulled to the West. Finally, Grandpa lowered the tailgate, and the dog jumped in, still howling in the wind.
We jumped in the truck, and Grandpa started the engine.
"We're going over to Charleston. We're going to stay with your aunt Edna for a while," said Grandpa.
"I thought you didn't know where we were going?"
"I didn't until the hurricane detector told me to go East."
That's when I learned the family secret that had been passed down through the years. It's also the reason every generation of my family kept a dog just like the ones in the pictures. The dogs were the hurricane detectors. Many of animals can sense changes in the weather weeks before they actually occur. Sharks go out to sea. Birds fly away, and certain dogs howl and bark to give warnings.
Grandpa Willie and I drove off with the truck packed and the dog howling in the back!
Grandpa looked at me and said, "Now you know our family secret!"
Our hurricane detector was our dog!
Who would have ever guessed?