In the future, when taking stock of history's biggest letdowns, Hurricane Floyd will head the list, leapfrogging over Scarlett, Biosphere II and Capone's vault.
The Big Tease was said to be stronger than any storm in 80 years. It was spread wide enough to make Larry Flynt blush. It covered so much area that every TV weather map looked like a Rothko painting. Then ... nothing. Floyd rocketed northward like a Pong ball hit right in the corner. Bink! We were in the clear.
It was as though the guillotine blade got stuck halfway down and, while we had to endure the pants-peeing terror of being on the chopping block, we walked away fully headed. The wind and rain wouldn't be pleasant, but it was no longer Armageddon.
Floyd continued to slouch northward at 14 miles per hour. (With 140 mph winds, why did it go only 14 mph? My mom is 75 and can ride her bike faster than 14 mph. Well, she can if you tell her there's a snake by her ankle.) And what did we do? We continued to stare at the TV and worry.
Alice Walker once noted that, deprived of high art as an outlet for their imaginations, the women in her family turned to things like quilting, gardening and insanity. Large minds confined to small places will cramp, scrape and turn on themselves. That's what worry is. Perhaps that's why, confined to cubicles and lives of quiet desperation, our imagination thrills when we hear, "It's comin' straight at us!" Seeking an outlet for our primitive fear impulses, we ride roller coasters, watch horror films and, when a hurricane comes through, no matter how severe or benign, we sit in front of the TV like kids around a ghost-story campfire. Floyd represented the stalker with the glinting hook-hand, no longer a threat but clinging to our imagination like barnacles on the strength of "could be."
It could be heading north. Or it could be turning east. It could bring tidal waves, killer flooding, bacteria from poor countries you've never heard of and can't pronounce. You could end up homeless, water-logged, disfigured and bored. Decide now: Should you take the cyanide and die with dignity or live as a freak in a world abandoned by God, hope and cable?
This is not to knock our local coverage, which kept everyone fully informed of every eventuality, open shelter, blocked highway, preventive measure and drop of rain that did or didn't fall over a period of about 36 hours, doing a job that makes the average ant colony look like a bunch of pot-smoking slackers.
But bearing in mind the fact that we kept sitting there watching even after we fell out of harm's way, what we really need, and perhaps want, is an entire "could be" network. We are far more entertained by the notion of impending disaster than anything that has already happened, so this is one of those shoe-in business ideas that an enterprising person would actually put into action instead of just writing about (but then, I prefer "could be" as much as anyone else).
Both local and national newscasts have laid the foundation for this idea. Especially on the network level, you'll notice that any major story from Columbine to Kosovo comes with a buffet of trendspotting, expert opining and speculative odds-making, usually long before all the facts are in. Locally we have the "Central Florida spin," in which every story ever broadcast has some miraculous Central Florida connection. If we shot off a manned rocket to Mars and built a 7-Eleven there, the story would be tagged with, "A Central Florida man thinks he's from Mars and hangs out in front of the 7-Eleven. Here now with the story ...," and then we'd get to look at some crazy bugger who's receiving transmissions of lotto numbers from the Great Kadoo through the plate in his head. Between that and the network penchant for analyzing us all into a state of neurosis, the "could be" network can't fail.
In addition to reporting whatever filmy facts of the case are available, CBN, the Could Be Network, would tell you how serious the situation could be, produce people who could be experts telling what could be behind the story, dig up some file footage of stories that could be related, if not now then someday, and show, through dramatic re-enactments and computer fakery, how it could be happening in your own backyard.
Take, for example, the teen-Satan-worshippers story that pops up almost every sweeps week. Some yokel traipsing through the woods finds some ashes, a chicken bone and a bunch of beer cans -- clearly all signs that area teens are rotten with the devil. The ashes are probably from cigarettes, but they could be ritualistic; there could even be special ritualistic Satanic cigarettes out there. Someone who could be an expert, because they have a website, will be called upon to corroborate this in serious tones. This could be an epidemic. Footage of anonymous teen-agers wearing black concert T-shirts and gnawing on Popeye's wings will be flashed as evidence of the connection. One of them could be sitting next to your kid in algebra and forgodsake, haven't you noticed a KFC cup in your Geo Metro? Someone from Condé Nast will be interviewed to verify that Satanists have really crappy taste in clothing (capes, headbands with horns on them), which will make you cast a narrow eye on your freak progeny's ugly wardrobe. Concluding that he or she could be consorting with the devil, you will watch with earnest eyes as a Catholic priest is interviewed concerning the convenience of do-it-yourself exorcisms. But before he can even produce the Super Soaker he's filled with holy water for the demonstration, he will be run out of the studio because he dresses all in black and knows a little too much about religious matters and, therefore, is himself a Satanist. Or could be.
Nowhere but CBN could you go for stories such as: "A mosquito carrying the dreaded encephalitis virus was found in a Lake County home today. Encephalitis causes a swelling of the brain and ends in agonizing death. If your child has a head, or if you suspect he does, rush him to the nearest area hospital right away." Or, "President and Mrs. Clinton seemed in good spirits today as they toured their new home in New York. But they could be fighting like gamecocks when the doors are closed. Here with a re-enactment are Punch and Judy."
If it isn't airing on Fox, it could be.
The other amazing thing about Floyd was how all this "could be" affected our rationale. Not one person I spoke to was happy that it didn't hit us. Yes, our bodies, our property and the people we loved were all left largely intact. But we went out and bought all that plywood! Surely for the effort it took we could have at least thrilled to the sight of someone's Airstream hanging from the power lines like a Christmas ornament. What kind of god would have let this happen?
But if we saw nothing else in Floyd as it skittered up the coast like the Four Horseman ringing the doorbell and running away giggling, we should have seen a reflection of what a bunch of strangely spoiled brats we can sometimes be.
After all, think about what could have happened.