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Hurricane Hugo, Galileo, and the cranberry scare of 1959 - 24 November 1989

Well, finally winter is a-comin' in.

After a prolonged Indian summer that had us, only 10 days ago, frolicking – strolling anyway – in 70F, the icy winds came whistling in from the west and the snows, which have been confined till now to the High Sierra and the peaks of the Rockies, came slamming across the country, so that on the Wednesday before Thursday's Thanksgiving, my daughter telephoned me from Vermont – which is the site of the family pow-wow this year to warn me, "It's all white here and it's on its way down below zero. Winter wrappings and snow boots will be worn".

Zero, may I add, in America, means always "zero" Fahrenheit, namely 32° below freezing.

The first sign that the iceman cometh blew in in outrageous gusts last Monday evening. All was calm, all was bright when we went to bed. At about four in the morning, I was wakened by an express freight train hurtling through my bedroom.

Such is the marvellous adaptability of the human mind coming out of sleep, that before I had time to wonder what a train was doing in my bedroom, I knew it was nothing less than the wind. The weather boys had promised us plunging temperatures, clear skies and winds gusting to 35mph. Such gusts usually hit our windows like sacks of wet sand. Bap!! But this was quite different.

I got up and went to look out over Central Park and another train came roaring till I plugged my ears and waited for the brakes to go on. The window bounced in an inch or two and then, thank God, bounced back. The only time I'd seen that was a couple of times over the past 40-odd years in an apartment in San Francisco.

Well, it wasn't The Big One, the earthquake, which the dreaded seismologists have promised the east coast – our coast, mind you – some time in the next 10 years as against a 50-50 chance of its hitting California in the next 50 years, a piece of information which easterners either don't know about or ridicule. I mean, look what happened to the much-damaged Watsonville, California and, to a lesser degree, to San Francisco.

Well, next morning, all, as Mr Churchill used to say, was made plain. The paper told us that the north-west wind had come blowing and cracking its cheeks across northern New Jersey, trees falling everywhere, on over the Hudson and bang across Manhattan with gusts, and here was the nitty gritty, the bottom line, with gusts from 55 to 85mph.

A cab driver I hailed later in the day who'd been talking about baseball, said casually, "I seen where they brought back Hugo". Hugo? I didn't recognise him. I knew that Mr George Steinbrenner, the owner of the Yankees, was thoroughly upset by his team last season, as well he might be and might have brought in another manager, maybe. Billy Martin, again.

"No!", the man said, "Hugo! You know, from the Carolinas!"

I couldn't think of a player, coach or manager down there. He must have thought me very dense.

"You know? Hugo, man!! I just come from downtown, round Christopher Street. I mean, man, they got several blocks all roped of! Winders blown out, cement all over de place! I tell you, it was nobody but old Hugo!"

Of course, I finally got it. But if it had been another hurricane, unheard of anywhere in the United States at this time of year, it would've had to be Iris or Ida or Irene, some female name, for one of the minor triumphs of the feminist movement, and one of the earliest, was the successful campaign to have the Weather Bureau, through the Hurricane Centre in Miami, change the age-old custom of naming all hurricanes after females – I remember with a shudder Carol and Diane in the '50s – and name them, alternately, male and female.

So this past season, for example, it would go Alice, Bernard, Caroline, David, Edna, Frank, Gertrude and Hugo. The cab driver, a big, handsome man, 25 years out of Jamaica, took an impressive pause. "You wanna know why we had Hugo again, right on top of that warm weather? You wanna know?"

He was at the wheel and I said, "Sure!", I wanted to know.

"Well", he said, "it would take a Harvard degree to figure it out. But I figured it! And I got it all written down here to give to the papers. I got it in the form of poetry. And I call it 'The Satellite Scenario'. Like that?"

I thought it was fine.

Well, it seems that everything went wrong with the weather the moment the last astronauts released the satellite on its way to Galileo.

"Now", said the driver, as you would begin to tell the secret of the scriptures to a class of very small children... "Now! This is the way it goes! They released that satellite and they sent it on its way, and, bam!! We got this warm weather. Right?"

Suspiciously warm, I thought, very good.

"And wham! Hugo! And maybe... maybe I'm jumping to a conclusion, but maybe the San Francisco earthquake. Maybe. But it all has to do with the transmissions from that satellite. You know it's transmittin' back to Earth? But not all the time. On and off! You follow me?"

I was following and also watching his index finger and thumb on the steering wheel.

"Well, now", he said, ready for the big news, the punch line, "when it's transmittin', it's going to be warm. When it ain't transmittin' – wham! Big winds! And cold. But big winds! I mean, man, bigger than what you'd ever guess! I got it all down right here."

He pulled out a sheet of green paper from his pocket which evidently contained his enlightening poem. He told me that on the coming Thursday, he was going to eat his Thanksgiving turkey and on Friday morning was going down to the office of The Daily News and hand over his poem to the editor.

As I left him, he wished me a Happy Thanksgiving and shouted, "Watch out, man! That satellite's gonna take six years to reach Galileo and for six years, we're gonna have a heap o'crazy weather! Winds, hurricanes, hot spells, the whole ball of wax."

It is true that since the big blow, the weather men have been stumped for an explanation. They're fiddling around now with variations on the Greenhouse Effect and not getting us very far. So I thought I ought to bring to their attention this fascinating new theory. I hope to keep you posted. So far, the Satellite Scenario has not appeared in The Daily New.

To most people who don't really care where the big blow came from, the immediate question last Wednesday was, would they safely and on time to their mother, aunt, in-laws, children, grandparents? For the day and the night before Thanksgiving, which is always the fourth Thursday in November, the day before Thanksgiving, is the worst possible day to travel anywhere in the United States because everybody's doing it. Much worse than Christmas, which is, I should remind you, a Christian festival and not one celebrated like Thanksgiving, as a national family festival.

At this time of the year, in the early days of this talk, I used to describe the origin of this unique American festival. Its accepted myth, anyway, which dates it either from the moment the Pilgrims touched the weather-beaten shore of Massachusetts and fell on their knees, or, more plausibly, and now generally accepted, as being the feast of thanksgiving that they threw after their first harvest.

It's very unlikely that this is the truth, for the Pilgrims didn't approve of feasting or merrymaking and it's a fact that the day they got off the boat and began to dig the foundations of a colony, it was Christmas Day, when all merrymaking and even sacred rituals were forbidden on the dour ground, reported by their most famous chronicler, William Bradford, a Yorkshireman, that what day so-ever our Lord was born, most certainly it was not 25 December.

So, for at least 240 years, Americans did not make a point of taking a holiday or celebrating Thanksgiving. Abraham Lincoln was the one who had the idea of putting out a national proclamation, but few states took him up on it. By the end of the century, however, more and more states thought that another national holiday was a good idea but they celebrated it on different dates.

Only in our own time did a president dare to suggest – proclaim, rather – that it should be an immovable American feast and should be celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November. And that president was Franklin Roosevelt, and the Republicans, especially those who were used to their own date, raised Cain, denounced Roosevelt as a tyrant, on the model of Adolf Hitler, and foresaw the end of the Republic. But it's been so, ever since.

Two items of Thanksgiving – no, three, are standard throughout the country since they were discoveries of the Englishmen who settled on the Massachusetts coast. Turkey, a strange and delectable beast, cranberry sauce, made from the cranberry bogs of Cape Cod, and pie, made from the pumpkin that the Indians grew.

One day, during the reign of President Eisenhower, there was a terrible scare about the cranberries. The Food & Drug Administration suspected they were tainted with an acrid element identified as amino-triazole. The secretary of health found two tainted shipments. The other seven million pounds of cranberries preserved for the Thursday consumption were declared safe. Even so, President Eisenhower served apple sauce and was promptly damned by the Democrats as a traitor.

This year, there are no warnings, except about the likelihood of excess consumption of cholesterol and what with all the hounding of the people over the past 30 years about the terrors of cholesterol, you'd naturally expect that the annual consumption of turkey had declined as drastically as, say, that of milk.

Well, in 1939, the per capita consumption of turkey was 2.5 lbs. This year, it will be 17lbs.

THIS TRANSCRIPT WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING OF THE ORIGINAL BBC BROADCAST (© BBC) AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT. BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING, THE BBC CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.

Letter from America audio recordings of broadcasts ©BBC. Letter from America scripts © Cooke Americas, RLLP. All rights reserved.

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