Saturday, March 9, 2024

Hurricane Nurse

By Joan Sargent
(pseud. Sara Jenkins Cunningham), ©1962 

A hurricane in Miami draws a cautiously mixed assemblage to the Flamingo Elementary School for shelter. Among them are: Donna Ledbury, red-haired school nurse, the current girlfriend of the school principal. Hank Fincher, who, according to the school grapevine, had a new girl each year, and who had just jilted Mary Hendley, first-grade teacher, who still carried a torch for Hank; Cliff Warrender, a “gangster” lawyer in Donna’s opinion, but whose worse fault was in defending the oppressed whether they were in the right or not; Melissa and Jack Hartson, whose first baby was destined to be born in the cafeteria of the school, with the aid of Donna and Baby LaRue, an ex-strip-teaser, now in her seventies, who welcomed the hurricane season as a relief from the humdrum of life; Old Dr. and Mrs. Ward, gentle people whose greatest fear was of dying and leaving the other alone—a fear that was never to be realized because of the hurricane; Dusty Hosey and his leather-coated gang of teen-agers, who came looking for trouble, but found their match—and incidentally, friends—in the school nurse and Cliff Warrender. There were others, of course, at the schoolhouse during those three days of the storm, but how the lives of these people were changed by a cataclysm of nature makes an exciting and intensely human nurse story.


“You’re polite enough for a divorced couple meeting for the first time in public.” 

“Nothing draws two people together like a common dislike.”

“Wouldn’t it be painful to be the complete lady all the time?”

“New lipstick had made the menace of the storm seem less imminent.”

“Even if you haven’t been here but a month, surely you have heard of hurricane parties? They’re one of the nicest features of our fair city.”

You’d think a major hurricane bearing down on a school full of frightened Floridians would make for an interesting book. Though there are quite a few adventures in this Hurricane Nurse (see also Peggy Gaddis’ version with the same title), unfortunately the story dwells mostly in stupidity—and the primary sinner unfortunately is our heroine, Donna Ledbury. She is a 22-year-old school nurse about to experience her first hurricane, which she did not realize means that she has to ride out the storm at the school with whatever refugees show up, though that seems an important part of a job description to neglect to mention to your new hiree. She’s not alone, though; principal Henry Fincher is there to lend a hand. He’s a rather hot guy, and the pair have dated a few times—and “she liked Hank. She always had fun when they went out together. But was that love?” Well, a hurricane is certainly just the ticket to help her figure it out!

So off she goes to the high school, unfortunately accompanied by Cliff Warrender. “He was a lawyer, not the sort of lawyer she wanted to know. ‘A mouthpiece’ they called his sort in gangster novels. He had got Genio (the Ox) Alcotti off from a bookie charge. She didn’t want to be friendly with Cliff Warrender.” She’s even scornful of the fact that he is well dressed, though “there was nothing garish about him.” The problem with him in my view is that he comes on too strong, constantly saying things like, “This is my girl, but she hasn’t caught onto it yet,” adding that he’s going to win her over despite her prejudices. She snaps back, for some strange reason, “If you are implying that red-haired girls are man-crazy—”. But Cliff just helps her into the car and off they go to the market where he purchases lots of helpful supplies, and everyone greets him like he’s their best friend. But she’s angry that he’s going to defend a woman who was arrested for shoplifting, even though the woman told him she did it. “She was disgusted with him,” we are told, but the sad part is that Cliff never is allowed to explain to this moron what defense attorneys do, that they are there to keep the system honest and keep people from being given unfair sentences if they are convicted. So her prejudice against his occupation is never dealt with in any satisfactory way, just swept under the rug.

Over at the high school, people show up—even after the hours after which the staff is supposed to turn away anyone seeking shelter, like that’s a good idea? There’s a 90-something couple married for 65 years, each expressing privately to Donna that they can’t imagine how the other will survive after the other dies. There’s a gang of “smart alec” “young squirts,” initially sassy to Donna, but quickly brought in check by Cliff, before he takes off on a run to the hospital to obtain medical supplies that Donna never thought to bring. Baby Larue, a 70-year-old former stripper, shows up in a tiny dress and three-inch stilettos, and carrying her mangy parrot, which Donna stuffs in a locker in the dispensary and promptly forgets about.

Once the storm gets underway, the hijinks ensue! A bunch of middle-aged men show up with cards and whisky, and spend about two solid days gambling, only to take a break for a knife fight, which Donna treats with a tourniquet. Later Donna hears loud voices in the hall and “resolved to do nothing about it.” It turns out it’s a married couple and the husband is beating the wife. With a crowd watching, the man “hit her with his fist with force enough to lift her from her feet. She fell several feet away, whimpering, accusing, begging somebody, anybody, to save her from being killed. None made a move. They only stood.” When Hank finally steps in and is knocked unconscious, Donna, too, just stands and watches. “She did not move to Hank’s side”; only Hank’s wannabe girlfriend comes to his aid. Which is appropriate for a woman who’s always saying that she’s not allowed to do anything unless a doctor tells her, but still!

Then one of the women staying there is robbed of $100, and one of the male refugees is found to have given the kids marijuana. But Donna, now back in her manic phase, insists that everything is fine: “We haven’t had any crime, not really,” she insists, “still argumentative.” “And we haven’t had a death,” she adds—but she should be careful what she wishes for, because while having cake with the old couple, a palm frond comes flying through the window and whacks the old lady on the head, killing her instantly—and her husband has a fatal heart attack at exactly the same instant. Donna’s first words after this calamity, interestingly, are, “I’m glad,” because now they won’t have to be alone. Awww.

You will not be surprised to learn that as soon as the lights go out, though, Donna falls apart. Her hands start trembling, and she’s convinced that everyone in the place is going to die, especially a young woman in labor who can’t walk from one building to another, yet is “pacing up and down, flinging her arms about wildly, moaning and muttering” during her contractions, wailing, “Why doesn’t my mother come? She would stop all this hurting. I want my mother.” Donna is equally helpless: “She had a sudden picture of the girl dying because she was inept, because she was ignorant, because it was dark.” Soon it’s “time for her to grow more nervous, to feel more helpless.” As Cliff heads off to let her deliver the baby in peace, she’s “fighting off the desire to cling to his arm, to beg him not to leave her alone with the responsibility that was hers.” Everyone really needs to pull themselves together! But Baby Larue shows up with some whiskey, gets the mother-to-be drunk—with Donna’s permission—and stays to help, proving to be of far more worth than Donna: “Baby had a good deal of practical experience with the work in hand. And best of all, she remained self-confident and cheerful.” In the next sentence, the baby is born, and now Donna starts worrying that the baby is being held by too many germy people. “I do hope she’ll stay well. We haven’t been able to keep her in sterile places, and she’s already been handled by unsterile people.”

Now one of the young kids in the place gets sick, and Donna promptly starts obessing again: “She fervently prayed that it would not turn out to be acute appendicitis, with an operation indicated.” Guess what? It’s not! But what is it? “Polio? Scarlet fever?” As more of the kids start dropping with the same symptoms, she spends literally two days worrying about what it might be—until the first kid gets a scarlet rash, and now she’s so relieved, because it’s just measles! Even though most of them have gotten their vaccinations!

Between caring for sick kids, she’s starting to flirt more with Cliff, who again and again proves himself to be useful and reliable. But “she didn’t believe that Cliff was the man for her. She honestly couldn’t approve of his idea of the practice of law. He spent most of his time defending criminals. The right sort of lawyer would defend the law, not support those who broke it.” Then, in a very bizarre scene, Donna joins the teenagers dancing in the gym and completely loses control while dancing with one of the hoodlums. When the dance stops, “she saw disapproval in hard adult faces,” and she’s pretty much shunned—Principal Hank even suggests that she may lose her job after such a shocking loss of decorum. “She had made a spectacle of herself. She felt shamed by the scorn of the older faces,” and for the rest of the book she’s apologizing for disgracing herself and the school. But what she’s really upset about is that Cliff had gone off to talk to another woman while Donna was dancing, giving her “a feeling of being lost in the great reaches of the universe, as lost as a child who knows not where to go. Somehow it was in the midst of that feeling of being lost that she knew she was in love with Cliff Warrender.” But wait! Two sentences later, “I can’t be in love with him. I have more sense than to get a crush on a stranger. Even a crush. Certainly I wouldn’t fall in love with one.”

Again and again while reading this book I was overcome with the desire to slap Nurse Donna Ledbury silly. She is badly trained and without the disposition to be caring for a complex group of refugees with few supplies and even less sense; she’s frequently telling everyone that she does not have the authority to dispense medicines, bandage wounds or practice any kind of medicine apart from taking temperatures—but she can’t sterilize the thermometers, so there’s only so many times she can do that. “Nurses don’t give whiskey to patients except on order from a doctor,” she says, after she’s already gotten the mother-to-be drunk. She is a complete disaster as a nurse and as a human being, and I could only feel pity for the man she ended up with. I don’t want to have to pity you, too, so take my advice and run for shelter if you happen to encounter this appallingly awful Hurricane Nurse.


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