Skip To Content
The Hurricane of '38 | Article

Benedict Thielen

 

Hurricane_thielen.jpg
A house becomes submerge. The Standard-Times

 

In Chilmark, on the island of Martha's Vineyard, Benedict Thielen and his wife watched as water began to trickle into their summer home.

Benedict Thielen: We watched the hesitant, then rapid, then pausing, then flying-forward, yellow flecks of foam. It looked like the vomit foam of a sick animal. Finally, the water for which we had been waiting, came. ...A dozen narrow threads of water were running across the sand on all sides of the house. ...But it was only an inch or two deep, and we knew that, since the house was built high, even a few feet of water passing beneath it would do no harm....

Benedict Thielen: And it is the slowness that stands out. There was no sudden crash of overwhelming waves but only a gradual drop-by-drop addition to the volume of the waters....

Benedict Thielen: The water still was deepening only slowly, but there was a sense of increasing strength, and the sound of it was different from any we had ever heard before. It was then we decided to leave — reluctantly, because we felt it was like deserting a ship in distress.

They dressed in warm clothes and boots.

Benedict Thielen: We stepped off the back porch into a foot of water and began to wade towards the high ground beyond the shore. Virginia went ahead, and I followed more slowly, holding our cook [Josephine] by the hand. It was not difficult, although by now the water was flowing fast and you had to brace yourself against the wind. We took five or six steps in the shallow water. But now the tempo of the sea and tide changed. There was no slow, gradual increase of the water. There was a swirl and a noise of rocks, and splintering wood, and the water was up to our waists. There was a second wave and it was up to our necks. Josephine could not swim. I held on to her. Something huge rushed from the beach, and the water rose above our heads.

Benedict Thielen: Up to a point you can describe things consecutively, but beyond that there is no sequence. ...The mind is impressed by a series of images which in themselves have no logical connection but exist only as isolated, unrelated phenomena. ...There is a kind of eerie surrealist dream quality about it. It is like this:

Benedict Thielen: The poor frightened black face rises, then disappears in the gray whirling water. Above it is a blue felt hat with a green feather pointing upward. An immense surge of current sweeps in from the sea. But I am a very good swimmer. I was brought up by the sea, and I have always felt that water was my natural home. I still have her wrist tightly in one hand, but my boots are filled with water and I can't kick to swim. My sweater is like lead on my arms, and my oilers are stiff and heavy with the cold. Also, I am looking for my wife.

His wife was on the last spit of land. Thielen told her to swim toward the shore of the pond.

Benedict Thielen: There is a screaming in my ears of this sinking woman [Josephine] and the wind blowing at ninety miles an hour — across this water where there was once land. I know about lifesaving and try to swim backwards holding her with one arm on my chest. I cannot move my legs with their water-filled boots. To get them off, I must submerge completely, lean down, and pull at each one with both hands. I must let got my hold on this dark reaching hand. ...I dive under, twice, once for each boot, then undo the buttons of my oiler and then go under again to pull off the trousers and thief tangled braces around my shoulders. I see my wife swimming slowly ahead of me. The other face is gone. A woman's hat with a green feather is floating, spinning slowly around in the water. ...

Benedict Thielen: I lean back for a moment to float and rest before swimming to the pond shore, but when you lean your head back the wind drives the spray with the force of a vaporizing gun down into your throat and lungs.

He managed to reach his wife, and they swam together.

Benedict Thielen: The only color anywhere — in the water and in the sky — is [a] smear of dirty yellow. Everything else is in chased of gray and white, like a movie.

Thielen and his wife managed to approach the shore.

Benedict Thielen: Some cows stand shivering in the spray — looking strangely firm and secure on the ground. Moving slowly in the heavy water, I know what the bushes at the water's edge will feel like in my hands. They are wild rosebushes and briars and bayberries, hard and coarse and thorny. They are just beyond the deep slime and tangle of mud and grass and broken roots. Then I feel them, the hard thorns, the gnarled stems, strong and tough against the hands, like rope by which you can pull yourself up from a deep place.

Benedict Thielen: Then, to get warm, you can drink all the rum they hand out to you and you can get drunk on it, but it won't make you sleep. The wind cries all night long around the house, and every time you close your eyes you see the immense slavering arch of the oncoming wave, the yellow spittle dripping down, and a dead face in the sullied waters.

Mrs. Josephine Clarke of Jamaica was the only reported death on Martha's Vineyard.

Support Provided by: Learn More