Hurricane Ike, Key West, and My Brain

This from a report in today’s New York Times:

Edward Koen, 87, sat in his wheelchair outside the center Sunday in the shade, staring up at the blue, sunny skies, waiting for the bus.

‘Why should I be nervous, because of a hurricane?” Koen said. He’d rather stay put. ”My gosh. I’ve been living here all my life.’

Ohhhhh …. that comment brings back an important memory:

I’ve written three books and the inspiration for each came from some deep place in my brain — as in, my brain said to me “HERE. This is what you should write about.”

That’s what happened one day in the fall of 1998. I was living in Mobile, Alabama, where I taught at a university. A few weeks prior to this particular day, I had decided to leave academia to write history for a popular audience. This was a major life change and I was figuring out what this would entail and how to start this new career.

No surprise, a large part of my brain was occupied with the most important question: What should I write? What topic would I use to launch this new part of my life?

On that particular day, I was driving home from playing golf (which, full disclosure, I played badly and which I can’t play anymore because of my shoulder). The radio was on. Hurricane Georges was on the prowl and a reporter for NPR was in a place called Key West.

At the time, I had no idea where or what Key West was, although I gathered it was somewhere near Florida. The reporter talked to a 92-year-old woman who told him that she wasn’t worried about the hurricane. She’d lived in south Florida all her life and lived through a worse storm in Havana in 1928.

Although I wasn’t sure where KW was, I knew something about the history of south Florida. Enough to know that if this woman had lived in Florida her entire life, she came nearly pioneer stock. (South Florida was settled relatively late; anyone who was there in the early 20th century was there early. ) And the idea of Havana in 1928? That sounded … romantic.

That interview hit a nerve that I didn’t know I had. “Wow,” I thought. “That sounds … fascinating. Maybe I should write a history of Key West.”

So I did. And that’s what hurricanes and Key West have to do with my life. So, to my pal George, who has a house in Key West, and to everyone else on the island: Be safe!

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