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Memoir: “Swimming in a Hurricane”

Project Description

Jane was motivated to write her life story, in part, to honor her beloved father. While many books have been written about Jane’s maternal ancestors, who settled Rhode Island in the 1630s, nothing had been written about her father, who rose from humble beginnings to become a prominent political leader in her home state. Jane also tells her own story of triumph, which includes founding an organization that advocates for the rights of people with intellectual handicaps.

“Swimming in a Hurricane”

In September 1938, with one week left before it was time to go back to school, I bicycled down on a lovely fall day to the Dunes Club for one last swim. Everyone had gone back to work or to school so no one else was on the beach at ten o’clock in the morning. The waves were enormous and challenging, and the skies along the horizon took on a strange, ominous mixture of pink with layers of orange and gray.

Swimming in a Hurricane

It had been a wonderful summer and having turned the age of fourteen that year, I had become quite a proficient swimmer, so I could hardly wait to fly up on those big waves and ride down from the dizzying heights, up and down, up and down. It was not an act of bravado that impelled me to run into the surf, but it was a desire to be carefree and a determination to explore the high waves, these bigger than ever!

As I ran into the surf, I stepped on something soft and unrecognizable. I reached down and brought up a dead seagull. Without a thought, I tossed it aside and rode up on that mammoth wave, down again, and then up. The next wave crashed on me, sweeping me further and further out into the swells. With the following wave, I was swirled, almost weightless, along with sand and shells, into a green room under the sea. Fighting for a breath of air, I struggled to the top, caught again by forces beyond my control. Unbeknownst to me, my friend’s mother, Mrs. Dawley, was standing on the lawn of the Dunes Club watching my white bathing cap heading further and further out to sea. She hurried inside and called the nearby Coast Guard station in Point Judith, who, fortunately, was monitoring the storm. They saw me, came after me, caught up with me, and dragged me over their gunnels and into their boat, minus bathing suit and cap, thoroughly chastised.

The Hurricane of 1938 was very unexpected; nobody was warned that there would be such a powerful and horrific storm at that particular time. Millions of trees were knocked down, thousands of homes destroyed, and in Rhode Island alone, nearly 400 people lost their lives. In downtown Providence you can still see plaques on the sides of buildings showing where the water reached a height of eleven feet. Everything was awash—all the cars and all the signs.

The Dunes Club was totally destroyed. There was nothing left of the buildings but piles of sticks. Later we found our little beach cabana tossed on its side, nearly a mile away on Narrow River. The interesting thing was that the mirror was still on the hook! And I had heard of someone from Watch Hill who rode out the storm on a door torn loose from a house, and he survived. It just shows you how some things can manage through wind and storm.

There was no warning in advance of the approach of this hurricane and I was fortunate to survive this experience. To tell the truth, I still remember the exhilaration and bravado as an adventurous teenager riding up and down on those enormous waves until the unhappy recognition of my plight became obvious. I have always been adventurous and independent, but this experience has engendered a gratitude to God that knows no bounds.

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