Although I spent quite a few summers during my youth visiting my grandparents in Florida, I was never actually down there during a hurricane. My grandfather often told me stories about the “mean season,” and I became fascinated by the tales of these powerful storms. We didn’t have hurricanes in Illinois, but there were a lot of tornadoes to worry about in the spring and summer.
Many years later, when I was a cop in the southern suburb of Chicago, I was working when one of those tornados touched down. “Touched down” proved to be an accurate description. I was in the station putting my squad in the computer when the dispatch center advised that a funnel cloud had been reported in the area. Suddenly, the emergency sirens began to wail. I glanced out the window and what had been a sunny sky had been replaced by an ominous darkness with tinges of strange green and red colors. Moments later the wind smacked into the building with a resounding slap. The view through the windows now looked like the glass porthole of an active washing machine
The power went out, and the emergency generator kicked in. As the lights flickered back to florescence, I hurried to the rear door and looked through the small window. The radio crackled with calls of emergencies—trees down, people trapped in cars, power outages, accidents . . . I made my way outside, expecting to get drenched, but instead found the wind and the rain had vanished. The blue sky was back and dark sky was retreating southward. It seemed over, except for the radio calls that kept being broadcast. I jumped into my squad car, activated my emergency lights, and began proceeding toward the nearest reported emergency. But the streets were impassable. Fallen trees were everywhere. I tried to find ways around them, attempting to get to the people purportedly trapped inside their vehicles. Strangely, some of the streets were completely untouched. On others, cars were overturned, trees were down, and buildings and houses were in ruins.
I told the dispatch center to have the station call the night shift in early and requested assistance from neighboring agencies, the county, and the state police while I continued my search for the injured survivors, hoping there wouldn’t be too many fatalities. All the while, I kept receiving radio calls from my squad on what they were finding. After a couple of hectic hours, we managed to get things under control. The fire department was conducting a house to house search in some of the devastated areas. One thing that struck me was the episodic pattern of damage. As I said, some areas were unharmed, while others nearby looked like they’d been flattened by an enormous sledgehammer. Much later, when we reviewed the dash-cam video from my squad car, it became apparent that the term “touched down” was grimly appropriate. Imagine a huge, powerful fist hovering above, smashing downward and then randomly moving to another spot, blocks away, before smashing down again. I never forgot the speed with which the tornado moved or the randomness of the strikes.
Years later I was watching the news reports of a hurricane working its way toward the eastern coast of Florida and it brought back those unpleasant memories. At least they have some warning, I reasoned. The tornado had come out of nowhere, like rocket attack. But I knew the thought of sitting and waiting for the storm to arrive would bring an equally eerie feeling. Those thoughts put me in the shoes of those first responders down there who were placing themselves in harm’s way. That’s one thing about being a cop or a firefighter—you never know when danger is going to engulf you, but you’ve got to confront it just the same.
I wanted to capture that suddenness, but also the foreboding sense of an approaching indomitable foe, and I got the idea for “Waiting for Godot.” I remembered reading the play in college and being exposed to the theater of the absurd. In my story, “Godot” is a child’s mispronunciation of “Gordon,” the name given to the approaching hurricane. In tribute to the bravery I’d witnessed countless times on the part of all the first responders I’d stood beside when our backs were against the wall, I wanted the protagonist to be one of them. In this story, he’s a fireman/paramedic. Naturally, I put some coppers in there, too, as well as a slew of bad guys. But it’s the slow approaching hurricane that’s the ultimate foe. Hurricanes often spawn accompanying tornadoes, like an evil giant sending forth his minions to wreak more unexpected havoc. As I said, I had to toss in some man-made human conflict, too, with an assortment of good guys and bad guys.
And then there’s the matter of communication.
My Spanish teacher in college was a Cuban and he labored incessantly to help me master what I could of his native language. I put his teachings to good advantage. I can remember numerous emergencies, as well as arrests, where I was able to communicate in Spanish to both victims and offenders. Imagine the terror of being injured in a traffic accident or some dire situation and not being able to tell the first responders what was wrong. I wanted to put this into my story as well.
And so I did.
I hope you enjoy “Waiting For Godot.” It’s my fourth appearance in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and I am honored and excited to be in this prestigious publication.