Many of you may have heard of and/or possibly even seen the Saratoga Lights. This is a different sort of story, in which I personally saw a light at the end of a very long, dark, and lonely road. Rather than the ghostly tales you may have heard in the past, my Saratoga light took the form of a divinely cool coincidence.
On the long road to Saratoga, once darkness had fallen upon our procession of worried and weary travelers, there was a sense of isolation, amidst a sea of people and their escape vehicles. I had been on the road eighteen hours with one quiet man and two anxious dogs, for a trip that would normally have taken less than two.
It was September 21, 2005 and we were among the thousands of people who had thrown their most treasured belongings into their automobiles and fled their homes along with their pets, children, and family in an effort to escape Rita’s wrath. Every escape route from Galveston and Houston inland was a chaotic and anxious scene. With the traffic moving about a quarter mile per hour, would we get out in time? There was not one gas station in Southeast Texas that had not run out of gas. Would we have enough gas to make it to our safe haven, or would we find ourselves stranded on the side of the road as Rita unleashed her violent wrath on everyone who dared cross her path? Many had reached the end of their patience threshold and had started doing crazy things, only to ignite anger in their fellow escapees and leave me to wonder, “Where are the police when you truly need them?” Talk about a major need for crowd control. Few things are more dangerous than a panicking pack of people, or any other sort of animal. At times, I truly did feel like we were trapped by a pack of wild animals.
Now that I have fully entertained myself by trying to create a mini-thriller for any of my readers who are not from Southeast Texas, I should probably pause a moment to explain who, or what, Rita is. Rita is not an alien spacecraft, a monstrous abomination, or some strangely named military force. Though many of us might believe Rita was indeed a monstrous abomination, she was actually one those very powerful hurricanes that wracked the Gulf Coast in 2005. According to Wikipedia, she was the fourth most intense Atlantic hurricane ever recorded and the most intense tropical cyclone ever observed in the Gulf of Mexico.
Evacuating at the last moment, we spent the night on a very dark road in the rural community of God only knows where, taking turns at trying to get a little sleep while the other driver kept vigil, moving about fifty feet an hour. Even though we were surrounded by hundreds of people, a deathly stillness filled the air. The only sounds experienced were the howling of the residential hounds in nearby homes, or were they coyotes trying to steel themselves with enough confidence to attack this band of weak and weary travelers?
We made it through this chilling night, and I called to check in with my Mom. Mom also lives near the coast, about seventy-five miles east of us. My Stepfather was working in Kuwait at the time of the storm. Terry’s mom had offered her home as a safe-haven and Mom agreed to join us there. While I wanted to meet Mom at her home so that we could caravan to the east Texas community near Nacogdoches, traffic and road closures would have made it impossible, so we agreed to meet in Saratoga. There was concern that we might go through lengthy dead spots in our cell phone coverage, but none of us knew the community well enough to make arrangements for an exact rendezvous. Should we lose cell phone contact, we would simply have to rely upon fate to bring us back together.
As we approached Saratoga, our truck’s gas tank indicator showed that we were on empty!!!! As luck would have it, there was a large gas station sharing a mega market style grocery store parking lot, and they were actually still pumping gas! Whew! The line to the gas pumps was at least a quarter mile long, and we held our breath as we inched towards the pump over the next hour and a half. Would we reach the pumps before our gas tank ran completely dry? When we got to the pumps would there be any gas left to pump? One by one, as we made are agonizingly slow approach, we watched, in horror, as the attendants placed plastic bags over empty tanks!
Meanwhile, our cell phones had indeed reached the limits of our coverage for that area, and I found I would be unable to call Mom. I was hopeful that she would have chosen this particular Saratoga landmark to begin her search for us. Mom had worked with a local grocery store chain for well over thirty years and I was banking on the notion that she knew my brain well enough to know that this is where I would expect to find her. So, I left Terry and the anxious little doggies, waiting in line for gas and began my quarter mile hike to the grocery store. Upon approaching my temporary destination, I spied a pay phone. Since there were about five people waiting in line, with the hope of reaching their own loved ones, I decided I would first conduct a preliminary search for my missing Mom. I searched the parking lot and every public area of the Mega Store, to no avail. So, I walked to the pay phone in the hopes that Mom’s cell phone had better coverage than mine.
Great!!!!! No line!!! Alright!! I only needed to wait for the rather robust and oblivious woman who was currently using the phone to complete her thoughtlessly lengthy conversation and surrender the phone to me. It became quite clear that she would not be surrendering the phone any time soon, as she thoughtlessly visited through the receiver over mundane gossipy issues, at a time when people were anxiously trying to connect with their loved ones. I noticed that the community center was just across the street and there was a lot of activity surrounding it, so I hiked to this little hub, hoping to find help. They were busy and would not allow me to use their phone. As I contemplated walking to a nearby park to see if I could find Mom there, I met a sympathetic man who understood my anxiety over the separation between Mom and me. Since he was fortunate enough to still have cell phone service, he offered me the use of his phone. I accepted his kindness, of course, and dialed Mom’s number with no luck. Apparently, she had lost service, as well. I thanked the man, as he expressed his sympathy and concern, but he had really done all he could to help me. So, I headed back to the store.
Can you believe it?!? That woman was still on the phone!!!! After a few minutes, she reluctantly ended her marathon rap session, and relinquished her confiscation of Saratoga’s seemingly one solitary pay phone. As I tried to reach Mom, I sensed that a very impatient woman had just joined me. It seems I was not moving quite quickly enough in my failed attempts to reach Mom. I turned to apologize and to assure her that I would only try once more. As I felt her walk to my other side, I turned and we both experienced instant relief and recognition. It was Mom!!!!! She only seemed impatient because she was so anxious to reach me that it seemed this unidentifiable woman hoarding the telephone was taking an eternity to relinquish her hold on the most valuable piece of property in Saratoga! What are the odds that, in that sea of anxious people, Mom and I would stop at the same store and try to use the same pay phone at precisely the same moment!?!
We met up with Terry just as he had made it to the one gas pump that was blessedly still yielding precious fuel. Then, we began our caravan, making it to our safe-haven just in time to ride out the storm, as the relentless Rita had followed us to the very location in which we had taken refuge. You might also find it mildly entertaining that the name of Terry’s oldest sibling is Rita. She had not joined us at our safe haven as she and her family were safe at home just a few miles further inland.