Probably the closest I've come to actual danger was a Texas flood that my family was caught in when we were on a car trip across the country back in 1981. I was thirteen years old - grown-up enough to sit in the front seat while my mother dozed in the back with my little sister. It was dark and we were still a few hours from the motel we had booked for the night. We had stopped a few times to see if we could get another room, but there weren't any vacancies. The rain was strong and steady, but the roads were flat and wide, so we decided to push on.
We kept the radio on and drove slowly - the visibility was terrible but there wasn't much traffic. There was a flash flood watch in effect, but we were on the interstate, with steep embankments on each side and miles of asphalt in either direction. It seemed unlikely that rising water would be a problem for us - we were more worried about traffic hazards or car trouble. I kept an eye out for exit signs and my father drove slowly through the sheets of rain. I remember thinking it was like a drive-through car wash gone out of control.
Everything was fine until we got off the interstate. In those days before gps and map-quest we had find our own way with fold-out maps from the triple-A. We followed the main road to the one leading to our motel, driving further into residential neighborhoods. We were only a few blocks from the turn-off to the motel when we saw people running towards us. My memory confuses the scene with a night of trick-or-treating. I'm sure there weren't any costumes, but it had a similar quality - families out in the dark together, moving slowly cross the street and holding hands. We didn't know that we were following a creek, that the creek had jumped the banks and was flooding the homes on that side of the road. But we knew something was wrong, so we stopped.
My mother had woken up and was shaking my sister. There was some kind of quick argument about whether we should just go on or get out of the car. I think we were going to try to keep going, but when my dad tried to start the car the engine was flooded. We could see the water rising as if it were a playback of time-lapse photography. In the time it took to figure out if we could manage to take anything with us the water started to come in the the car. When I opened the door it was so heavy I thought I would have to go out the window, but as I pushed the current flung the door outwards.
We only had to go about fifteen feet to higher ground. All of the yards on that side of the street rose up steeply to houses with lights on, silhouettes of people moving in the curtained windows. Some of the people who had been wading from the low side were being welcomed into a nearby house, so we tried to make our way there, too.
The minute I stepped out of the car my feet were swept out from under me. My mother later said that if I hadn't grabbed the car door she would have had to let herself be dragged after me in the hope that the current would carry her to find me. (To this day that is the single most maternal thing she has ever said to me.) I had already let go of whatever I had been carrying - I think it was a little blue canvas zipper bag with a rainbow sewn on the pocket, although honestly it could have been something my parents told me to carry. My shoes were swept off my feet, which somehow made it easier to walk through the rushing water.
I tripped on the curb, but the lawn rose so steeply that I more or less crawled up onto it, and suddenly I was safe. My mom was leading my sister towards the house with all the people on the porch, and my father was looking back towards the car, which was slowly heading off down the road without us. I never saw that car again, but when my father found it the next morning everything had been washed out of the interior - the seats, the steering wheel, the radio. All of our luggage from our trip was gone. My mothers purse, my rainbow bag of lip glosses.
For me, everything changed that night. It was the first time I had ever known real danger, felt at risk of something more than a scrape or a scolding. Before that I had felt that danger was something you prepared for - we did duck-and-cover drills in school, and I knew where to go if there was a tornado watch - but I hadn't realized life could change in an instant, just when you least expect it. As an adult, I realize that the most change is often catastrophic and unexpected, that the changes you plan and work for aren't so much changes as evolutions.
I've been checking on Hurricane Ike all night, thinking about that Memorial Day trip and hoping that all is well in the morning.