Retroblog: The Eye of Bob, August 19, 1991, 9am

Monday 9:19 am. 39.2 N 72.9 W... Just got a call from my Uncle Art, who was suitably reassuring. Even in 1938, the water only just came up to the house. Okay, it came thigh high up to the house, but what do you want? It's got two stories. The houses down closer to the beach suffered the dislocation and damage from the storm surge, and that was (as we already know...) at high tide, so in all likelihood the precautions I've taken: moving all the books up to the second floor; packing up the Mac and hard disk and loading them into the car; prepping the house for an immediate Evacuation Procedure, all these may not be necessary, but again, we probably won't know that until we go mano-a-mano con el urugamo...

As if the hurricane wasn't bad enough, sez the news, now there's a tornado watch in effect. Those feeder bands moving in the vanguard of Bob may be strong enough to spawn some of the nasty, twisty little critters. What's that old Greek saying..."One thing never happens?" And now, this...Ted Koppel, who I guess had been on vacation, is back, buttoned-down as always, talking with correspondents fresh from an audio-only Q&A with George Bush who managed not to say much of anything except he was concerned about reports of the coup and we'll see what happens. Oh, and here's Dan Rather, with a stupid fresh Haircut & Coloring, yammering, "The key question is: 'What is going to happen on Wall Street this morning?'" Oh, right, how could I forget, that's the key question. Just ignore those hook echoes on the doppler radar.

The Town of Portsmouth Police just drove by doing that Bwoop! Bwooop! thing on the electronic siren. They're here to enforce the Lieutenant Governor's Executive Order: "Public water will be shut off during the hurricane. Evacuate the area immediately."

"You heading out, sir?"
"Looks like I better."
"Okay. As soon as you can."
"What time should I be out by?"
"As soon as possible."
"As soon as possible?"
"We'd like it by ten, but get out as soon as you can."
"I'm packing up."

There's a world of difference between 'Roger' and 'Wilco' as wily old Bob Heinlein said somewhere.


"Today, we are all Jewish."
-Elie Weisel, panel discussion following
The Day After

I had a hard time falling asleep Sunday night. The weather outside was clear and calm, but for some reason that only made things worse. Island Park is a quiet place; any outside noise is enought to prod you into wakefulness, and surfacing through sleep, I could hear people working: the near or distant pounding of hammers, car doors and the hubbub of vehicle loading, the occasional rip of a power saw. It felt like the Day Before the End of the World.

I kept flashing back to Hurricane Gloria in 1985. It hit on a Friday, late in the season, when the ocean was already cooling off. I was back in Brooklyn. Despite the best efforts of the New York news media to frighten the city into paralysis, Gloria slipped by the Big Apple entirely. I had taken a nap after taping up windows and clearing the basement, and when I woke up, it was brilliant blue sky and mild breezes. The Big Pineapple was not so lucky; Gloria expended much of her wind's fury on New England, battering Newport with gale force winds and leaving folks without power for nine days.

The connection I kept making, though, was with the semiotics of disaster. 1985 was the year of the Mexico City quake. We had been renormed by such ripped-from-the-headlines classics as Special Bulletin and The Day After. Something kept gnawing at me about the desire of Americans (or the news media, anyway, which really amounts to the same thing) to see, to have a virtual presence at disasters of magnitude. Can it be explained away with the cavalier "there but for the grace..." defense, or is there something deeper, more darkly resonant in our preoccupation with Watching Ourselves Die?

The Eighties were the decade that saw the tech noir disaster film come into its own. The churning, societal epics of the Seventies (Earthquake, Airport, Poseidon Adventure, Towering Inferno ) were not so much about disaster — or even the Four Elements — as they were about the fallout, the ripples of change propagating through culture from the Sixties: Defrocked priests & the agony of Belief, divorce & unmarried pregnancy, the new mores, the (re)discovery of corruption. All told in a style more reminiscent of the broad brush of Katherine Anne Porter or Wilder's Bridge at San Luis Rey. But one of the few lessons that movies learned from television is the power of focussing on the beauty — or horror — of the everyday. It was a lesson that Paddy Chayefsky taught the Tube back during the Golden Age, and it really is the intelligent exploration of personal disaster that characterizes the films of the Eighties.

Consider Alien. This transitional film, released in 1979, is right on the cusp. The 'bomber crew' cast typical of the Seventies is gradually devoured by H.R. Geiger's insectile horror. Kubrick's monolith has come to life, and it ain't just a squeal in yer headsets, space cadets. By the end of the film, Ripley is alone, in a tiny escape pod, where she will remain for the following decade. She will reappear as Sarah Connor in Terminator. In James Cameron's thematic couplet of Aliens and Terminator 2 she returns, sublimating the horror of mortality through childrearing. Ripley, believe it or not, even manifests herself in the wisecracking hairbreadth bravado of John McClane in Die Hard/er. For unlike the 'terrors' of earlier days, where the plot would elaborate our harmatia, by the Eighties we realized that the One True Fear was the random evil that could Just Happen To Us. Woman crushed by a crane; kid killed by a stray bullet in his living room; young woman working in a fast food restaurant gets a nail gun fired into her head, someone walks into a Post Office or a McDonald's and starts shooting. The Western necrotechnopolis had become a giant machine operating at insane speed with no safety nets or OSHA protective gear. And the very ordinary people it produced: terrorists, serial killers, mass murderers, stoned freight train engineers, NASA administrators, US Presidents...well...if they didn't scare you, you must really believe it's only a movie...