As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, September 16, 2018.
My mother didn’t watch much television back in the early 1970s; Dad, meanwhile, on his Saturday visits after my parents’ divorce, often called our 19-inch TV “the idiot box.” So that usually left my brothers and me in charge.
We tuned in re-runs of “Gilligan’s Island,” “Hogan’s Heroes,” and “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show,” and loved it whenever our Zenith set’s tin-foil-wrapped antenna delivered a Red Sox or Celtics game.
However, on a single Sunday evening each year, Mom ruled the channel dial. She would sit down in the den with a cup of tea just as the NBC announcer informed us that the “first 22 minutes of this program will be shown in black-and-white.” At our house, the subsequent 90 minutes were in black-and-white, too – a color television wouldn’t arrive until I was in junior high. But that didn’t matter. Even with a monochromatic Munchkinland, “The Wizard of Oz” was a marvel.
In the pre-cable TV era, the annual broadcast of the film was a “television event.” The first nine showings each garnered at least 49 percent of the national viewing audience; one network executive reportedly said, “That picture is better than a gushing oil well.”
Judy Garland, who plays the movie’s lead character, Dorothy Gale, was my mother’s favorite actress and entertainer. At first, I thought that was why Mom loved the film so much. As I got older, though, my understanding of her connection to “The Wizard of Oz” deepened.
Dorothy’s epiphany at the end of the movie aligned with my mother’s don’t-go-chasing-rainbows sensibilities, which visited themselves on my brothers and me often. “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own back yard,” Dorothy tells Glinda, the Good Witch of the North. “Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.”
And then, many years later, I discovered another reason why “The Wizard of Oz” resonated so powerfully with Mom. After turning 70, she started writing sketches and poems – she called them memory pieces – and one of them, titled “Running Home,” provided me with new insights.
Rhode Island’s most violent hurricane in three centuries hit on September 21, 1938, when Mom was in first grade; she and her classmates were dismissed from Nelson Street School shortly before the worst of the storm struck. The hurricane left several hundred dead in its wake, many of them in Rhode Island.
According to state government archives, Block Island was “almost completely underwater.” Off the southwestern tip of Jamestown, Walter Eberle, assistant keeper of Whale Rock Lighthouse, lost his life when ferocious winds and waves decimated the 73-foot metal structure. Eberle had six children; his body was never found. In Providence, as the storm surged northward through Narragansett Bay, more than 13 feet of water flooded downtown, drowning several motorists in their marooned cars.
Prior to the surge, about two miles northwest of the State House, my mother raced up Smith Street. Years later, in her poem, she noted the gravel underfoot that “jumped to life, stinging the back of my legs.” She remembered “bare tree branches reaching out in fright.” She recalled having “only 10 houses to go. Run faster!”
No wonder Mom identified with Dorothy. At the beginning of “The Wizard of Oz,” the Kansas farm girl flees ahead of a tornado, only to find herself (and her dog, Toto) locked out of her aunt and uncle’s storm cellar.
My mother was more fortunate. Her father had built a sturdy brick home for his family off Smith Street on Modena Avenue, into which one terrified first-grader dashed during the Great Hurricane of 1938.
Looking back, Mom wrote: “It would be a year before ‘The Wizard of Oz’ made its debut, but as I burst through my back door, I already knew: there was no place like home – in a hurricane!”