A friend in need

The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT) - - OPINION - Don Pesci Colum­nist Don Pesci is a writer who lives in Vernon. E-mail: don­pesci@att.net

We of­ten think of news peo­ple cold-heart­edly “mak­ing a record,” as they say, of our mis­ery and tears, “push­ing a mi­cro­phone in my face,” as one har­ried sur­vivor of Hur­ri­cane Har­vey put it, rather than lend­ing a help­ing hand, as any or­di­nary mor­tal might do.

Well then, here is a “man bites dog” story that al­most cer­tainly will not make the evening news.

My wife’s sis­ter Sandy, in whose mar­row runs the blood of a sturdy pi­o­neer woman, lives quite alone in Naples, Florida, which last Sun­day bore the brunt of Hur­ri­cane Irma. Dur­ing the storm’s course, many news out­lets were parked in Mi­ami or West Palm Beach when the eye of the storm lin­gered over Naples on a route to Fort My­ers; Fox, CNN and ABC were re­port­ing from Naples.

Sandy, not in the best of health, had taken nec­es­sary pre­cau­tions. She had food and wa­ter aplenty, an ex­tra sup­ply of oxy­gen tanks; her house was hur­ri­cane proof, and one brave neigh­bor, Elvin, who had not high-tailed it – an Amer­i­can of Turk­ish de­scent liv­ing across the street – could be called upon if things got dicey. Even so, her sis­ter An­dree, my wife, tossed and turned all night in an­tic­i­pa­tion of the phone call. Ev­ery­one whose loved ones are in danger fears that call, which pierces the heart like a sword.

The phone rang in the morn­ing — a call from her nephew, Ernie, Sandy’s son. A slight pause, then: “My mother is OK, Aunty On­day.” Fear fled, joy blos­somed.

Wor­ried about his mother, Ernie had called emer­gency ser­vices in Naples. Could some­one check up on her? No luck, for ob­vi­ous rea­sons. “We can check in 12 hours.”

Ernie put in a call to John, an as­so­ciate with a ma­jor news out­let, then in Naples di­rect­ing cov­er­age. The two had be­come friends over 20 years ago through their chil­dren, and Ernie, like his Aunt, ten­derly nur­tures old friend­ships. Could John do some­thing? Fif­teen min­utes later, Ernie re­ceived a call. John’s car had been dis­abled by a fallen tree, but he had rented a car and was on his way to Sandy’s house. He would call again when he ar­rived, but his own phone’s bat­tery was low, and the rental car lacked a recharg­ing point. Per­haps he could use Sandy’s phone, or pos­si­bly her neigh­bor Elvin — like Sandy, a hold-out in a wa­tery Alamo — might have the use of a cell phone that worked.

The drive from John’s ho­tel room to Sandy’s house, nor­mally a half hour, took more than two hours. Trees were down ev­ery­where. Power lines, like black spaghetti, lit­tered flooded streets. John was forced to de­tour over lawns. Spot­ting a firetruck, he stopped to ask direc­tions. In­dis­pens­able, heroic first-re­spon­ders were help­ing peo­ple in des­per­ate need along the route. Mid­night was ev­ery­where but for a house with its gen­er­a­tor purring. John stopped for direc­tions from the house­holder, who obliged, pis­tol in hand.

On ar­rival, John found a safe spot for the rental, parked the car, and waded across a street now roil­ing with thigh-deep rush­ing wa­ter, to­wards Sandy’s house, shrouded in black­ness, the light from his cell phone show­ing the way. Only Sandy’s front door, he no­ticed, was damp. He rounded the house, banged on the back door win­dow, in­sis­tently call­ing out Sandy’s name. A death­watch wait, si­lence, and then a soft voice from in­side an­swered, con­firm­ing his reawak­ened hope. Later he would tell Ernie his most pow­er­ful feel­ing was when he was bang­ing on Sandy’s back win­dow shout­ing out her name and heard her faint voice re­spond­ing to his call. “I will never for­get that voice,” he said, “or that feel­ing.”

In­side, he found all was well — no wa­ter dam­age. John’s phone was dy­ing, and there was no phone ser­vice at Sandy’s house. He would wade across the street to see whether Elvin could look in on his neigh­bor once he had left. Elvin did not bran­dish a gun at the stranger, and for some in­scrutable rea­son, he had cell phone ser­vice. For hours af­ter, Elvin would look in on Sandy, though the roof of his own house had suf­fered se­vere dam­age. In times of trou­ble, we all de­pend on the kind­ness of neigh­bors and friends.

Ernie will not for­get John’s im­me­di­ate re­sponse to his call for help: “I’m gonna get to your mother, Ernie. She’s your mother.” Later, John would tell oth­ers, “When Ernie asks you to go, you go. Why? Be­cause he means some­thing to me. Any­thing for fam­ily.” Mis­sion ac­com­plished. The names above have been changed. A valu­able as­set to his em­ploy­ers, “John,” mod­est by na­ture, did not wish to be­come a prom­i­nent char­ac­ter in a news nar­ra­tive.

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The drive from John’s ho­tel room to Sandy’s house, nor­mally a half hour, took more than two hours. Trees were down ev­ery­where. Power lines, like black spaghetti, lit­tered flooded streets.

DAVID GOLD­MAN / THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILE

An­nette Davis kisses her son Dar­ius, 3, while stay­ing at a shel­ter in Mi­ami af­ter evac­u­at­ing from their home in Florida City, Fla., ahead of Hur­ri­cane Irma.

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