By Dorothy Pirovano
Floridians are pretty blasé about hurricanes. The season, now just underway, starts. Threatening warnings. Storms grow in intensity and velocity. Evacuations are suggested, then recommended, then insisted upon and… poof… Charlie or Irma or Michael or Matthew changes course and annoyed residents turn their cars around to return home.
How could I take the hurricane warning seriously in 1992 since it seemed no one else was? I was finishing up at the Chicago White Sox spring training camp in Sarasota, had my little compact white rental car and needed to get out of town to see my Dad an hour-and-a half north in Seminole. I was going to spend a couple days there – just him and me since Mom passed away. He said he’d planned a “fun day” for the two of us – mimicking the fun days I always planned when they came north for six weeks each summer. Mom was always ready for any adventure. Dad would seemingly grumble at being dragged to a museum, the zoo or a tour of the Joliet or Chicago neighborhoods where he grew up, but I knew he enjoyed the outings, especially if they brought back lost memories. Him planning and calling it a fun day confirmed it.
Getting across the parking lot to my car was an unexpected hurdle. It took all my strength to drag my little suitcase through the parking lot against the wind. I was soaked in seconds. But in the car I felt insulated from danger and the radio seemed to confirm that while this hurricane had potential, its course was undecided and evacuation not necessary – at least for the moment.
I knew the route, having taken it for the past several years when my assignment at the training camp concluded and I could go see my folks. A simple straight shot down I-275 almost all the way. Easy except for the Sunshine bridge – two bridges actually. The small one gave me butterflies, having had an irrational lifelong fear of bridges. I had to hold my breath and not look anywhere but forward crossing the big one – more than four miles long and soaring 430 feet into the air before it descended steeply back to earth. It was spectacularly terrifying butalternative routes would take two to three times as long making this the best way to get from here to there. Let’s go girl. Just do it.
The radio was warning about this and that being closed but since I had no idea where this or that were, I decided to plow on, reasoning they wouldn’t allow me to cross the hated bridge if it were dangerous. The lady at the toll booth took my money and suggested I do two things – hug the right shoulder of the bridge and keep the accelerator to the floor the entire time. Obedient and reinforced by the fact that she waved me on, I ventured out, noticing that I seemed to be the only car on the road – at least the only one I could see through the deluge. Thirty minutes later I’d managed the first two miles and was at the peak of the swaying suspension bridge, my car rattling, my teeth clenched in disbelief, too afraid to hesitate, to stop, to cry, so close to the right side I was afraid a gust would blow me up and over. The sharks were likely circling. The descent was no better. What normally took a few minutes was another half hour, accelerator to the floor, hands frozen on the wheel, my recitation of the 23rd Psalm drowning out radio warnings.
The man in the toll booth at the end of the bridge came out of his little house, stared at me and yelled something unintelligible into the wind as I crept by, shaking, breathing deeply, trying to regain control after what was seemingly a near-death experience. The ride to Dad’s was comparatively uneventful – some downed trees, blocked and flooded streets, lightning flashing through the pitch dark mid-day sky.
Dad was anxiously looking out the window when I pulled into the driveway, braving the storm to retrieve me, both of us dripping from the 20-foot race into the house. A vision of calm and serenity, I smiled brightly, hugged tightly and agreed with him that it would have been absurd – suicidal even – to take that fool bridge here. Who on earth would even think about it?