I have to say that I am a little bit nervous about traveling on Friday the 13th. Not because I am a superstitious person – I pick up tails-up pennies all the time, and I walk under ladders, and I had a pet black cat named Lucky, of all things – but because the last time I scoffed at traveling on Friday the 13th, rather dreadful things happened. Namely, THIS:
Maybe I should back up a little bit. Let’s imagine that you are me, almost seven years ago. It is August 2004, and you are about to trot off to college for the first time. Considering that you have lived all of your eighteen-and-one-half years in Ohio, save for four weeks that you spent in Normandy (two of which were spent largely in battling gut-wrenching homesickness), your mother is justifiably concerned that you have decided to go to college in Orlando, Florida.
But you are going, and you are equal parts petrified and rapturous about the future. You and the family chuckle a bit about the fact that you are leaving on Friday, August 13 – the dorms don’t even open until Sunday, but you, your sister, and your mother are going to enjoy the weekend in Orlando before you move in.
You get an earlier flight than your mom and sister, because your ticket is one way, and theirs are round-trip. You hear on the news in the couple of days leading up to Friday that there is a tropical storm somewhere down around Florida… but Florida’s a big state, and the little projected path on weather.com shows it going somewhere else entirely! You’ll be fine. You finish packing. It’s the night before you leave, and you’re too excited to sleep! So you stay up and watch re-runs of Laverne and Shirley while imagining your incalculably awesome future:
You go to the airport, leave your mom and sister (and half your luggage) in the Columbus terminal, and board your Southwest Airlines plane to Orlando. You buckle your seatbelt and wait.
"This is your captain speaking. Uhh.... facing some weather conditions down south... uhhhh... with any luck we'll land this thing in Orlando in about two hours."
Well. You can't really do anything. The plane is in the air. So you eat your peanuts and wait. Sure enough, the plane lands in Orlando without a problem, and you breathe a sigh of relief. The worst is over. You de-board, gather your bags, and settle onto a bench by the information desk. Your mom and sister should be getting in around 3:00. It's 2:40.
You check your watch (because it is 2004, fool, and you don't have a cell phone yet!). It's ten past three. They're probably about to land. You engage in some disinterested people-watching. Twenty minutes later, you check it again. And ten minutes after that. And every ninety seconds after that.
At about 4pm, it dawns on you that you are, after all, sitting right by the information desk, and they might actually have something resembling information. You inquire about Delta flight ####, and the gentleman behind the desk shakes his head. His lips move, and it looks like he's saying something like "CANCELLED."
You are quite shaken. You drag your heavy bags behind you as you frantically locate a pay phone and call home. Your mother answers, which cannot mean anything good. Apparently, Delta's finest informed her that they did not consider it safe to fly. They told her this AFTER your flight was already in the air. She's a little on edge. Oh, and that little Tropical Storm Charley has turned into a Category 4 Hurricane. It should hit Florida by nightfall.
So what do you do? The only thing you CAN do. You tell your mother that you're all right, and that you will take the shuttle to the hotel and hunker down there. You can only hope that plan will work. But when you hang up the phone, it's not a good feeling.
So I had just hung up the pay phone in the airport, having confidently assured my mother that I would absolutely survive the storm of doom that was hurtling towards me. However, having no idea what a hurricane was like or how to prepare for it made my insides feel like a maelstrom of airplane peanuts and terror.
I called for the shuttle and made my way to the Orlando airport Clarion, an attractive hotel with a glass atrium lobby full of potted plants and demure furniture. On my way there, even as scared as I was, I couldn't help but bounce in my seat to see the palm trees and pale stucco buildings. I was going to go to school in Disney-town!
I checked into the hotel on my own and lugged my luggage up to my very own room, feeling like quite a big girl. This was around 5pm. I turned on the TV, checked the weather channel, which told me that Hurricane Charley was probably going to hit in Tampa and stay along the Gulf Coast (good news!), and then watched "That's So Raven." At about 5:30pm, it occurred to me that I had not had lunch and was famished. I grabbed the information folder and called Papa John's to order a pizza.
"Hello, Papa John's - we are limited to pick-up because of the hurricane - can I help you?"
"I guess not." I said sadly, and hung up.
I went down to the lobby to eat at the restaurant.
"It's closed." The girl at the front desk informed me.
"C-closed?" I repeated.
"For the storm." She said.
"Will it be open tomorrow?" I asked, beginning to panic as I realized that it was not a hurricane but hunger that would be my end.
Resisting the urge to ask if she had ever helped anyone EVER, I instead inquired, "Is there anywhere that I can get something to eat?"
"There's a Seven-Eleven next door."
Resisting the urge to congratulate her on being marginally helpful, I sped out the door to the Seven-Eleven to stock up.
You know how people say that you should not go grocery shopping when you're hungry, because you will impulse-buy so much more junk than you need? That condition is compounded by not knowing when you will be able to buy food again, and by buying your groceries in a Seven-Eleven, where the food groups revolve around Doritos and beer. Fortunately, I had a mini-fridge and a microwave in my room, so my options were a little more open.
Unfortunately, the Seven-Eleven had already been ravaged by other hotel guests and locals, who must have finally exhausted their Y2K stockpiles and needed to refill on Spam and Twinkies in time for THIS apocalypse. I grabbed a basket and began filling it as quickly as I could, before the current wave of shoppers snatched up everything but the motor oil and copies of Red Book. I managed to grab a huge bottle of water, a jumbo bag of Twizzlers, Pepperidge Farm Milano Cookies, Stouffer's frozen dinners, kettle chips, Snickers bars, bottles of Diet Coke, and a few other gems. Looking guiltily over my unchaperoned grocery basket as the checkout clerk silently judged me, I tossed in a few apples and some sugar-free gum.
I slogged back to the hotel by about six o'clock, and the wind was starting to pick up. The sky was filled with unfamiliar clouds. I went back to my room, took a shower, changed into my pajamas, and checked the weather again. The Gulf Coast was about two hours to the west of Orlando, which meant that we would get hit with something called "feeterbands," the outer arms of the hurricane that would hug us with rain and high winds; but the "eye" of the hurricane, the most ferocious part, would miss us by at least eighty miles or so. I breathed a sigh of relief, popped in a Stouffer's dinner, and called my mother to tell her the good news.
Being informed that the hurricane was not going to personally swallow up her daughter must have been a relief, but it enabled my mother to return to those more familiar parental worries, like Norman Bates possibly having the hotel room down the hall from me. I reassured her that I had the door locked, the deadbolt locked, the chain on, and the dresser wedged in front of the door (which may have been a slight exaggeration), and that I had enough food to last me at least until she could get on the next flight to Orlando, which would be Heaven-knows-when.
Her last words before we hung up, other than "I love you," reiterated that I should under no circumstances leave my room, for ANY reason, ESPECIALLY AFTER DARK. I returned to my frozen dinner and watched some more Disney Channel. I was a mere ten miles or so from Disney World, and every commercial that showed some bit of the theme parks had me bouncing again with excitement.
I checked the weather again at about 7pm, when rain really started HITTING the window.
"Hurricane Charley has turned. It is a Category 4 storm with sustained winds of up to 150 miles per hour, and it has made landfall in Punta Gorda. Charley is expected to reach Orlando shortly after sunset."
At that moment a piece of paper was slipped under my door, almost causing my arteries to implode from stress and fear. I scurried to the door -- had the Grim Reaper left me a confirmation number? -- and read the paper. It wasn't from Death, actually, but from the hotel management. They would monitor the weather report, and if deemed necessary, they would either knock on doors or call rooms to herd us all into the windowless ballroom for the night. If we failed to comply, they said, we did so at our own risk.
Well, the next couple of hours were kind of a blur. I called my mother back and told her the bad news, at which point she told me to UNblock and UNlock my door, in case I needed to get into the hallway in a hurry. When you being confronted by a Norman Bates-like murderer scares your mother LESS than the alternative, you know it's bad. I rotated among trying to watch TV, praying, and contemplating the fate of Mickey Mouse and the rest of the Magic Kingdom. I don't know why, when confronted with a potentially life-threatening situation, I felt the need to concern myself with how Disney World would survive, but I did.
It had just gotten dark when the lights went out. I huddled in the bed farthest from the window and waited, listening to the winds growing stronger and the rain smacking harder. There was a knock at the door, and I opened it carefully, hoping that it wasn't a strangler.
An innocuous, tired-looking hotel employee, with several flashlights in his hands, informed me that it was time to go to the ballroom, or face the storm monster alone in my rapidly-darkening room. I wasn't sure what to bring, so I grabbed my Bible and a pillow and shoved everything else into the bathroom. I padded down the dark hallway and joined a growing stream of harried guests clutching pillows, valuables, and children. We stepped cautiously down the dark stairway, wondering why there were no emergency lights. The skylight in the stairwell had fallen open, allowing rain to tumble in upon us as we hugged the walls and slipped around it.
As we hurried across the lobby towards the ballroom, a horrible, soul-crunching noise echoed from somewhere far above us.
"What IS that?!" I asked no one in particular.
A wizened old man replied, "That's the screws in the tin roof. The wind's pulling them out."
I picked up my pace into the ballroom and staked out a spot as far from any exits as possible. It occurred to me at that point that I had not brought a blanket. A kind family from Wisconsin offered me their extra comforter, and I huddled up against the wall with it in true Linus fashion.
The wind got louder and fiercer, even as we shut the heavy ballroom door. No sooner had everyone settled into the room and heard a shouted message from the hotel manager than a terrible smashing crush echoed through the air. Someone decided to be the Sheriff of Ballsville and open the door to the lobby.
The floor of the lobby was covered with what looked like rough diamonds. They had fallen all over everything, from the potted palms to the sedate furniture, and they were quickly being drowned in sheets of rain. The entire glass atrium had blown in. And the wind was still growing louder.
We all waited pretty quietly after that, just listening and talking in low voices, until the winds outside sounded like a freight train was about to charge into the ballroom... and then there was nothing at all. We were in the eye of the hurricane. It was like the eerie silence in a horror movie, when you know the monster is on the other side of the door -- you can see his shadow on the floor -- and it's only a matter of moments until he lurches forward and swallows you whole.
Thinking about the clearly evil, all-seeing eye of the storm itself, I half-expected Sauron and an army of orcs to creep around the corner, but figured that they were probably too busy razing EPCOT to the ground.
One bit of hope clung to my hurricane-addled brain, and that was the knowledge that as soon as the hurricane's eye passed over us, the winds and rain would start to gradually decrease. The worst would then be over, and I had managed to not be in the glass lobby when it exploded. When the winds came roaring back with a vengeance and nothing collapsed on me, I sighed with relief and prepared to hunker down in my makeshift bed for the night. However, it occurred to me that my poor family had no idea what state I or the building surrounding me was in at that moment, and I ought to find a way to let them know that I was still breathing. I tentatively approached the kindly Wisconsinites who had lent me a blanket, when I saw cell phones in their midst.
Me: Um. Could I maybe use your phone? My mom is in Ohio, and she probably thinks I'm buried in rubble.
Kindly Wisconsinian: Aw, shur! Go right ahed noh! (hands me her cell phone) The cell toher might be dohn, tho' -- there seems to be a layg in the signal.
Me: Thank you. Um, a what in the signal?
Kindly Wisconsinian: A layg. Like when yoo talk and it echoes in the phone.
Me: Oh, a lag! ... I'll watch out for that.
I called my mother and quickly told her that I was alive ("Are you OKAY?! The IDIOTS on the weather channel said Hurricane Charley was POUNDING Orlando!"), that the eye had gone over us but I was all right ("The EYE?!?"), and that I would call again as soon as I could, considering that there was no electricity and thus no land line phones ("Okay, but call SOON!").
As I closed the phone and handed it back to the kindly Wisconsinites, I saw that it was 12:23am. The eye was long gone, and the winds no longer sounded like Mother Nature wanted to heap destruction and misery upon us. Friday the 13th was over. I snuggled under my borrowed blanket on the hotel ballroom floor and thought quietly about what might lay ahead in the next four years of college. Would UCF be everything I hoped? Would the people be nice? Would my classes be difficult? Would Cinderella Castle rise from the orc-savaged ashes?
Years later, I can say that UCF was everything I had hoped for, that the people were very nice, that my classes were appropriately difficult, and that Disney World was (miraculously) spared by Hurricane Charley. After that first night and the initial move-in as I waited (for four days) for the Orlando Airport to open and receive my mother, college seemed almost easy by comparison. That first night might have made me wary of Friday the 13th, but it sure gave me a heck of an introduction to self-reliance.