by Tim Gilmore, 9/22/2017
Across this pile of dismembered limbs—
by which I don’t mean the arms and legs cordwooded high outside war camps across the landscape in the American war called “civil”—
but the hundreds of arms and legs of the true guardians of place and time in this land—the oaks—
coursing across these amputated limbs are native vines, lianas, honeysuckle, but also power lines and Comcast cables.
I couldn’t tell that Irma beat harder against us than Matthew. Technically, Matthew hit us only with Tropical Storm-force winds, but Irma hit us as hurricane.
Technically, Irma wasn’t the first hurricane to hit Jacksonville since Dora in 1964, because Irma didn’t hit Jacksonville. Irma hit Florida. All of it.
When I was 20, I finished typing a story as a tornado ripped the trees from the street, Colonial Avenue, outside my little house. I’d heard a train rumble loud and close, but hadn’t realized that train roared through the oaks until a friend called to check on me.
When I was 30, a hurricane weakened to a tropical storm, and you and I drove north and east to Fort George Island. We stood beside the unfinished slave-mistress tabby house and watched the wind and rain whip the trees in circles above a declivity in the earth where peacocks and peahens gathered in a circle, their heads down, all facing the center, as though observing some ancient pagan mass in a gothic novel by J.K. Huysmans.
I watched Matthew from my Riverside front porch. I watched Irma from the same front porch.
At some point in both storms, the winds blew so shockingly hard that I didn’t know the house stayed rooted. I stayed. The house stayed. I wrote nonsense verse in a tiny notebook.
Water Oaks stretch straight up, knowing their time is short, soak up 80 years of rain, then crash into houses and cars. Live Oaks reach outward for centuries, delicately balance through hurricanes and histories.
Does anyone rightly own a tree? (Joyce Kilmer didn’t say. It’s probably better that way.)
The neighbor whose Water Oak fell mows her lawn two days after the storm. She looks over her shoulder while a crew of eight men chainsaws the tree to pieces.
One short man wears his hardhat at a jaunty angle, leans back watching, hand on his thrust-forward hip, dramatically puffing on a cigarette and arching it away from his face.
An older man shuts off his saw and shouts, “Can you get out of the goddamn way so I can cut up this fucking tree?”
The shorter man smokes his cigarette a little further away, shoots out his pelvis just a little more prominently, observes, takes a few steps this way, observes, then that way, arcs his cigarette dramatically away from his hardhat, observes.
All the streets along the St. Johns flood with river surge. Archimedes. Water displaced goes somewhere. Demands it. Surfers tell me they ride hurricane tides and call them “sick.” All my experience in rivers and oceans has terrified me with my infinite smallness and lack of importance. I am archetypally afraid of the violent surge of large volumes of water.
Hurricane Irma hit earlier islands and far-southern keys as a Category 5, then 4, then 3, but the winds with which she battered Jacksonville were only Category 1. Still the storm surge flooded San Marco and Riverside closest to the water.
The storm took cars out into the river and coughed up old toys, obsolete engines, and decades-old beer cans. The Winged Victory statue in Memorial Park seemed to float like a bronze buoy, while the balustrade that fenced the park, well up from the river for a century, washed out to sea.
In came the linemen. They worked 18 hours a day to restore almost 300,000 households without power. They came from Georgia and Indiana and Texas and Oregon. Boil Water Advisories issued for particular portions of town.
The Jacksonville Electric Authority sent messages saying 250 households were associated with a particular outage. Another day, 13 households. The next day, 2500.
Day after the storm, “Tommy Frye, the Electrical Guy” replaced the weatherhead the storm pulled from the roof of the house. Two days later, a JEA inspector knocked on the front door, open to porch and unheated, early in the morning, said the weatherhead was good, ready to reconnect.
Several times, in the next several days, the JEA said by phone they’d no record of the new weatherhead. Subcontractors who chopped up the tree said they’d no communications from JEA, but that JEA should follow. At 3:45 in the morning, between Thursday and Friday, a lineman came down from the bucket extended beside the transformer, said he’d had no communication, from days before, that any weatherhead had been replaced, nor that the transformer needed replacing.
Friday and Saturday, the JEA informed us it was informed of our outage. Then JEA sent automated phone calls saying power was restored. It was not.
Saturday night, the man in an H&M tuck, Henkels & McCoy, front license plate from Indiana, US DOT 010515, steps down from his work truck, looks into the trees, smiles and jokes with the neighbors who surround him almost obsequiously.
Though a man in a white hardhat from a nearby truck scowls at these desperate neighbors, the redbearded man in the yellow hardhat, who’s been working 18 hour shifts, smiles, says he can’t take a neighbor’s bribe of beer or he’d never get his job done. He lives in Keystone Heights, well outside of town, but says he’s happy to help people and happy when they’re happy he’s helped them.
He climbs atop houses, cuts cables, reconnects wires to newly replaced weatherheads, steers the bucket arm above the utility truck, raises himself into the trees, dons protective arm coverings, unwratchets a dead transformer, a dangling wire from which a surge soared to a nearby “pot,” or transformer, which absorbed the shock with a small explosion and smoked its buffer through the trees of nearby streets.
He doesn’t seem to mind the crowd underneath, watching him dislocate and remove the blown transformer, then arc the truck arm down to an upcoming supply truck, retrieve a new “pot,” then raise it into the trees, connect it to the power pole, reconnect the wires, and repower the houses beneath.
Is the redbeard of H&M 010515 a poet? What he’s done tonight is performance art. Not through Hollywood, Nashville, hip hop, not through particular small circuits of artists has he made truth and beauty. He rode atop Jacksonville after Hurricane Irma and humbly performed this grand spectacle that brought power back to the powerless, light back into sightless sweating night.
I don’t know what pushed him to become the man performing electrical surgery above our homes and trees. Maybe he never knew what directed him or where it headed him. He’s a kind man, I know, no more self-entitled by his contemporary Jacksonville functions of Thor and Odin over and across the city than any ordinary young person surprised by the complexities of a life whose tragedy and drama she never signed up to complete.
His captive audience praises him, sits back on porches with hot dogs and bottles of Sam Adams, cheers, claps, claps him on his back. Somebody hums a line or two from “Wichita Lineman.”
Quite frankly, it’s a little embarrassing, but it’s the best show anyone’s seen all year. A little embarrassed himself, he obliges. When his feet touch the ground, he takes a bow.
Then he’s off into the night. And his audience lies back under air-conditioning, sighs, and talks happily about how soft and weak we all are.