The story wasn’t nearly as glamorous as he thought.

The floodwaters of Hurricane Beulah flood the streets of McAllen.
The floodwaters of Hurricane Beulah flood the streets of McAllen.

IT HAD NOT BEEN the best of days.

Or nights.

And it wouldn’t get any better.

A hurricane came roaring out of the Gulf of Mexico, its fierce winds stormed ashore across the restless dunes of Padre Island, and it angrily battered the shoreline of Texas.

Hurricane Beulah was what the weathermen called it.

Big storm.

Category 3.

It hammered the coastline with winds stronger than a hundred and thirty-five miles an hour and spawned tornadoes that spun off in all directions at once. Homes came tumbling down. Towns perished.

The reporter drove south out of Corpus Christi.

Long drive.

Wet roads.

Wreckage everywhere he looked.

It was his first major story for the Fort Worth-Star Telegram, and his nerves were on edge.

This was his chance.

This was his big beak.

There would be big headlines all over the front page with his name attached.

He left Fort Worth as an unknown.

He would return a star.

He couldn’t help but grin.

The grin didn’t last long.

The skies were black with turbulent storm clouds.

They turned purple.

The rain was relentless.

And the road washed out somewhere just north of Rio Grande City.

The reporter parked on the side of the road and hoped his rent car would still be there when he got back.

He grabbed a small suitcase from the backseat and walked a hundred yards before glancing back over his shoulder.

The car was gone.

Maybe the surging water took it.

Maybe it was in the hands of somebody tired of walking.

The water was up to his ankles now.

All he heard was thunder and sirens and the relentless pounding of the rain.

He walked into the little border town, and so much of it was gone.

He wandered among the ruins.

The homeless stood on the sidewalks.

He tried to talk to them.

Their English was bad.

His Spanish was worse.

Their homes were gone.

Family members were missing.

Some were crying.

Their family members were gone.

Death.

And devastation.

The storm had taken them all.

The reporter talked to firemen and police and soldiers from the Salvation Army. He had his story and began frantically looking for a pay telephone.

The lines were down.

The lights were off.

The town was dark.

And the water was up to his knees.

Where’s a phone?

It was the last question he asked.

A little lady pointed to the far end of town.

She held up one finger.

The town had one phone.

The reporter struggled down the street and found a long line as refugees trying to call out and get word to relatives.

They had nothing.

The storm had ruined them.

But they were alive.

The messages were all alike.

He stood in line for three hours and sixteen minutes.

He heard people laughing and crying, and some were screaming.

The night had grown cold.

The winds rubbed his face raw.

The rains had a vicious chill.

Water was up to his waist.

He watched the rushing water as it whipped past him, and it was filled with rattlesnakes swimming toward higher ground.

Cold.

Rain.

And snakes.

They were close enough to touch him, sliding past, as brown as the muddy water.

All he had to do was get to the phone, call in his story, and find a dry place for the night, provided, of course, any dry places existed.

The state editor would be working all night.

The state editor was expecting the call.

At last he found himself at the front of the line with a phone in his hand.

He dialed long distance.

The line crackled and popped.

He thought he would lose his connection at any moment.

Nine times the phone rang.

At last the state editor picked it up from his cubbyhole in Fort Worth.

He had probably been sleeping.

His voice sounded so far away.

“Would you like some information on the hurricane?” the reporter asked.

Pause.

No answer.

The reporter bellowed into the phone: “Want my information on the hurricane?”

The state editor was calm and collected.

He spoke softly.

“No,” he said. “We have our own reporter in South Texas.”

He hung up the phone.

And the only thing blowing harder than the wind was the rain.

Caleb Pirtle III is the author of Secrets of the Dead.

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  • What a punchline for a shaggy dog story.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Alicia, I was working at the newspaper at the time, and it was one of those hysterical and memorable moments none of us ever forgot.

      • Were you the reporter in the story?

        • Caleb Pirtle

          No, but he and I were sometimes running mates.

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