The Eye of the Storm

London, 1962.

‘Have you ever flown in a hurricane? It’s like goin’ from day into black, black night. And the turbulence,’- Chuck clattered his teacup loud and fast on his saucer  ‘-  is something else. And, just as you think you’re gonna die,’ – he pronounced it daaaah,  –  ‘because your plane is gonna fragment on the eye-wall, you’re through. In the eye of the storm it’s totally calm, and you can see a blue sky, sun above. It’s like a bowl of clouds, all around you, the eye-wall.’

It was just after Easter, and a group of us students were in the canteen of the University College London Engineering Building. Grinning, Chuck Leitner relaxed back from the Formica table, and as he spread and rested his arms along the backs of the girls’ chairs, they shrank forwards, away from his space. With his neat hair, heavy framed glasses, white shirt and thin blue tie, Chuck looked too much like a scientist. He was a little too fat, too sweaty, and too enthusiastic, and he didn’t know it. He was a Fulbright Scholar at UCL. He’d talk about how great it was to get experience in – he’d purr the word – ‘Europe’. Yurrrrp..

‘I’ve never flown, Chuck,’ I said. ‘Not even on an ordinary passenger airline.’ In fact, I’d never been abroad, even by train and ferry. Chuck’s bespectacled, American stare met mine, still grinning, eyebrows raised.

‘You oughta spend a while with the NHRP, Paul. National Hurricane Research Project. It’d be great for you. You could work on the cloud seeding flares, they need engineers.’ It was true I needed a project to complete my M Eng. I’d been slow getting myself organised, and it wasn’t that long before we broke up for the summer.

‘That’ll never work, surely,’ one of the girls said. ‘How can sprinkling a little silver iodide on a cloud stop a hurricane?’

‘Anna,’ Chuck said, ‘what advances have there been, in just the last ten years, in science and engineering? The future is infinite. We, in the U S of A, have the capability now to understand, predict, and control our physical environment.’ He turned back to me. ‘Well, Paul?’

I wasn’t sure that the world’s most powerful nation would have a use for me, so I asked what I would be doing.

‘We need to measure the particle density in the air from the new flare system. We need a real fine suspension to get the clouds to make rain. I reckon we’ll get as much as ten to the twelve, maybe ten to the thirteen nuclei per gram with the new pyrotechnics.’ Chuck leant forward, and the girls leant back again.

‘Ground level testing is fine, but we need to get this apparatus up to twenty thousand feet and see if it works in hundred mile an hour winds, lightning, wetness, you name it. If it fails, we need to figure out how to fix it.’

‘I’ll think about it,’ I said.

‘I’ll write to Dr Gentry,’ Chuck said. ‘ He’s the director. There’s a lot of dollars going into the project. You could apply for a grant, get your travel paid for.’

In a few weeks, the arrangements were made. Belinda sulked when I told her. We were eating in Cosmoba’s, a long narrow restaurant with a line of tables covered in red check down one side, facing a bar with a huge silver Gaggia machine.

‘What’s wrong with London?’ she complained, as she stabbed her chicken Kiev, releasing a garlicky jet of butter. ‘Won’t you miss me? Our Saturdays?’

We usually spent our Saturdays browsing the bookshops on the Charing Cross Road, followed by a drink in the Cambridge, then a film in Leicester Square, during which she spurned my attempts to caress her.

‘It’s a fantastic opportunity,’ I said, refilling her wine glass.

‘I’ll have to go out on my own. I’ve even got tickets for Wimbledon. I’ll have to take my sister,’ she pouted.

‘I’ll be back by September,’ I reassured her, winding spaghetti round my fork. ‘I’ve got to get my thesis in by then, remember?’

‘Perhaps you could get a job after that, and we could settle down somewhere,’ she said, consoling herself with her bright engagement ring. It had been my grandmother’s, but even so, Belinda had said primly that we should wait until we were married.

I considered asking her to come with me to Miami, but didn’t want to be accused of interfering with her work. Belinda had a degree in English from Birkbeck, a foothold in a publishing company, and a bedsit in Bloomsbury. With her Jacqueline Kennedy haircut and simple geometric clothes, she was the ‘girl about town’, and I couldn’t see her ever leaving London.

In the National Hurricane Research Laboratory, the striplights were on, even in the daytime. Chuck motioned for me to go in ahead of him. The walls were of painted breezeblock and the sash windows, half open, let in the Miami heat, and the presence of traffic. Outside it was muggy and dull. There were clouds outside and clouds inside, the research team were intent over long sheets of aerial cumulus photographs, half curled like giant ticker tape, measuring, recording. The men wore suits and the women wore cotton short-sleeved dresses with full gathered skirts. Coffee cups lay abandoned on heavy oak desks, under desk lamps with round metal shades.

I noticed, for the first time, Deborah, over by the window. She was reaching for a box file on a high shelf, and her silhouette as she stretched up, outlined against the window, was gorgeous. Her blonde bouffant gleamed in the dull daylight. In a few steps I was at her side.

‘That looks heavy,’ I said, ‘may I help you?’ I partly wanted to help, and partly to make an impression.

‘Hey,’ she remarked, effortlessly lowering the file. ‘An English accent!’ Despite her smile, she reminded me of an eagle. She had striking eyes, very pale, and piercing, slightly hooded, under black eyelashes. She said that I must be Mr Mason, then, the engineering student from London.

‘Call me Paul,’ I said.

‘Hey, Debby,’ said Chuck. She ignored him and smiled at me.

‘Well, I’m Deborah Sterling – your project collaborator.’

My heart gave a little leap then, part anticipation and part fear. But I shook her hand with my own sweaty paw. I mumbled something about being over for the hurricane season to collect data for my thesis.

‘So, you heading down to Roosey with the team today?’ She pronounced it ‘Rosey’. I looked blank.

‘Roosevelt Roads Naval Air Station, Puerto Rico. It’s our base for the southeastern Caribbean. We’ve got a tropical cyclone coming off the Atlantic in the next few days, to be caught before it makes landfall.’ She explained that to seed a hurricane it had to have a low chance of making landfall within a day, it had to be within flying range, and it had to be an intense storm with a well-formed eye. I stared at her pale blue bird-of-prey eyes, trying not to let my glance stray.

When we landed at Roosey, it was raining. Not the cool, gentle rain we get in England, but a warm, drenching, vertical rain, like being in the shower.

‘Don’t worry!’ yelled Deborah as we scuttled across the concrete runway, ‘it’ll be sunny again in an hour.’

And it was. Outside the oblong barracks where we had been assigned rooms, the puddles on the concrete steamed in the heat. Supper was in the Chow Hall, and we sat together, with our aluminum trays piled up with beef-burgers, fries and salad. I looked out across to the distant hills where the next brigade of cumulus clouds hovered on the horizon.

Chuck looked over at Deborah with a worried frown.

‘Hey Debbie,’ he said, ‘you OK?’

She stared down into her food. ‘I’m just remembering my Dad,’ she said.

‘Guess he used to take off from here, huh?’ Chuck’s grin faded as he realised he had said the wrong thing.

Deborah glanced over her shoulder and out of the windows, at the declining sun gleaming on the oil-slicked puddles on the runway. She turned to us and forced a smile.

‘I’ll see you at the briefing,’ she said, and rose abruptly, leaving her meal half eaten. We watched her marching away, her straight white dress flattering her slim figure. Chuck slumped a little in his chair.

‘Her Dad flew a C-119,’ said Chuck. He saw my blank face and added, ‘Fairchild C-119 flying boxcar, military transport plane. He crashed on a training exercise.’

‘What do you think of Deborah?’ I asked, conscious of an undercurrent. Behind his glasses, Chuck had brown, sad-dog eyes.

‘I’d lay down and die for her,’ he said. Daaah.

My BOAC flight across the Atlantic, tended by air-hostesses, and the short flight from Miami to Roosey, had so far been my total experience of aviation. Dad had flown in the RAF during the war, but never spoke of it. But, at five the following morning, I was crossing the floodlit concrete runway to a DC-6 that was going to fly me into a hurricane. The propellers were already spinning, and the engines roaring, as I boarded the plane in my red cotton boiler suit. The plan, explained in the previous evening’s briefing, was to seed the hurricane and obtain before and after readings of position, wind speed and direction, temperature, humidity, and pressure.

We took off into darkness, but as we headed southeast, the sun rose over the horizon. I looked ahead past the shoulders of Bob, the pilot, and Chuck. Above and below the windshield the grey metal dash was plastered with dials. There were a few clouds, and the sea below looked calm. The engines droned steadily, propellers beating the air. It was hard to believe we were headed towards a storm.

‘We have a great picture of the eye on the radar,’ said Chuck. ‘We got an eye head around forty miles across, it’s huge.’

I looked at the fuzzy white spiral, like a swirl of coffee cream on the screen.

‘It’s about hundred-eighty miles south-south-east,’ said Bob, his big hands resting easily on the control wheel. He was a long-nosed, square-jawed man, who had, so he had informed me during the briefing session, flown ‘boxcars’ ‘over the hump’ to China in ’42, in the Berlin Airlift in ’48 −’49, and in the Korean War, ’50 − ’53. Now he flew for the Weather Bureau.

Behind me, Deborah was unpacking a large crate.

‘What are those?’ I pointed at a couple of two-foot-long metal cylinders, each with a bundle of cloth attached at one end.

‘These are dropsondes,’ she explained. ‘I’m going to set them up and then we drop them into the hurricane to get meteo readings – temperature, pressure, humidity, wind. They send out radio signals. They have a little parachute at one end, see?’ I watched her as she worked, her bird of prey face intent on the feeding of the young.

We circled just outside the eye wall, waiting, silver iodide canisters in their flare racks, wing-mounted and ready to go. Would we get the go ahead from the Weather Bureau? Was the hurricane within the parameters? We were in severe turbulence, and I was beginning to feel sick. I felt I couldn’t stand the roaring of the engine, the jolting of the aircraft, and the rattle of the interior fittings. I wondered if the aircraft was breaking apart.

‘Please God, get me out of here,’ I prayed nauseously, as lightning engulfed the aircraft in a white flare, and we fell out of the sky. It was like being on the Big Dipper at Battersea Park, in the moment it plunges down the track, accelerating, and your stomach ties into a knot. But instead of bottoming out, this ride kept on falling. I nearly lost consciousness. And then, over the whining of the engine, I heard Chuck giving a whoop.

‘Whew! That was a good one!’

Deborah looked at my pale face and laughed. The plane levelled out in the eye of the storm. Suddenly it was calm and bright, and I was looking out over a serene cloudscape. Below us, flocks of sea birds wheeled in the still air, keeping out of the wind.

‘We’re at a thousand feet! Hey, we just fell nine thousand feet!’ Chuck yelled, and started laughing insanely. I reached for a paper bag, and vomited. Then we received a Morse code signal from the control centre. The radio operator spoke into his headset.

‘They want us to begin the seeding’.

‘We’re too low,’ said Deborah. ‘We need to be back up as high as possible in the cloud formation. Take her up in the eye. You OK for fuel, Bob?’

Bob grunted and started the DC-6 climbing again and, still fighting nausea, I started to re-check the instruments.

Somehow I got through the rest of the flight, the operations were completed, we rode the roller-coaster back to Roosey, and landed with a thud on a rain-wet runway. The weather was closing in. When I finally stood on solid ground my legs were trembling and the runway tilted around me. Even Deborah was silent, only Chuck was ebullient, and annoying.

‘Hey old buddy, how was that for a first day, huh?’

I smiled weakly. ‘That was an experience,’ I said.

Later that night, Deborah drove me in a jeep to the black shore of Officers Beach, the engine chugging and wheezing as it rocked slowly along the bumpy track. The headlights shone on white sand. Hermit crabs scuttled across it, leaving the comical trails of their claws. A mother turtle dragged herself heavily ashore and started digging. The foam of breakers glowed and the warm wind surged past us, rattling palm fronds. The hurricane was coming. Deborah turned off the lights.

‘Guess you were scared today, huh?’ she said. I looked at her profile in the moonlight. She was smiling, her lips sharply sculptured, with the superiority of the brave.

‘I thought I was going to die,’ I said.

‘Poor li’l English boy,’ she murmured, and turned to me, as to a frightened rabbit. I had never made love before. There in the dark, as she extinguished the engine, I kissed her, briefly at first, and then deeply and prolonged. I never forgot the suddenness of it all, the hot night, her urgency and the hardness of her lean body on the sand. I don’t think either of us was in love. It was something to do with still being alive.

The next morning, the cyclone had veered east of Puerto Rico and was heading up towards Bermuda.

‘I’m going up there again today,’ Deborah said. ‘I have to. Our data last time were incomplete, we didn’t go high enough. Dr Gentry says we should take the WB-57, we’ll be able to get higher. We have to prove this can work.’ Her tone of voice was defiant against my protests, my feeble English caution. Chuck supported her.

‘Paul, this is all about being at the cutting edge. We can show the world how it’s gonna be.’ He was sweating. Was it the humidity, or was he just going to the edge of the knife for Deborah? I chickened out. Deborah’s eyes lay cold and contemptuous on me, denying the lovemaking of the previous night.

The WB-57 Canberra could get to 40,000 feet, almost twice the DC-6. I watched it taxiing along the runway, with the unnatural B-flat note emitting from its twin jet engines, two piercing lights shining underneath. I watched it lift easily into the rain. Then I waited in the Chow Hall, staring through the windows as the storm came in, sweeping rain in shovelfuls across the runway, the whining gale bending the palms sideways, a cardboard box lifting into mid air. Darkness came in the mid afternoon, the lights of the airstrip blurred by the water-filled air. The aircraft were already jammed into the hangars to prevent damage. And somewhere up there, Deborah and Chuck were floating, tiny in a little plane. I hoped they had found safety in the eye of the storm. But they never came back.

After that, Dr Gentry suggested that my readings could be completed on cumulus clouds. I stayed another month at Roosey, and then went back to Miami to start analysing my data. I worked at Deborah’s old desk, wondering about the woman who had occupied the same chair, remembering her blue, predatory eyes.

I forgot the Charing Cross Road, and walked Biscayne Boulevard in the midday heat, with Chevrolets and Oldsmobiles rolling noisily beside me between the skyscrapers, stopping at the traffic lights that dangled so precariously from wires above the intersections.  I ate to excess in the diners, listening to Elvis, and the Everlys, plenty of coffee, no alcohol on a Sunday, I got used to it. Sometimes I would see a woman who reminded me of Deborah, with a sunlit blond bouffant and a white dress. But if I got a closer look, the eyes were never the same. I went to watch films on my own.

By the end of September, it was time to submit my thesis. I wondered about posting it to my supervisor at UCL, because somehow I didn’t want to go back to Belinda. I met with Dr Gentry in the Aviation Building to go over my data. When he had finished, he grinned at me.

‘We could have a job here next year for you,’ he said. ‘We need someone to work with the China Springs team on flare design and testing. Put in a grant application, and you’re virtually guaranteed it.’

I paused for a moment, then took a deep breath.

‘I’d like that,’ I said, ‘I’d definitely be interested in that. Yes.’

This story is available in my anthology:
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© M Wallis 2020

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