It Was Just A Passing Hurricane


August 22, 1991|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Casco Bay, Maine -- Dawn came with an ominously heavy rain and we turned on the radio for word of Hurricane Bob coming up the Maine coast. What we heard, however, hadn't been predicted by even the most knowledgeable expert.

There was news from the East. Winds of change. The Soviet Union was suddenly as unstable and dangerous as any tropical storm.

In the cove, fishermen secured the last floats and dorries, working together in their deceptively unhurried way. On shore, we followed their lead, stashing the chairs and hammock in the barn, taping windows, pausing regularly to listen to the updates from Moscow as well as Portland.

The speculation about damage, the snippets of information mixed with opinion, the memories of past upheavals, came interchangeably from meteorologists and Sovietologists. There was more speculation from the Kissingers than the National Weather Service.

As we went about our business, moving the wood on our neighbor's porch, checking windows, bolting the door, we were mindful of the uncertainty of the world. Our double vision focused on Gorbachev and on Bob, on revolution and on the search for the hurricane lamp. Is this, we mused, what the environmentalists mean when they say, ''Think globally, act locally''? We dug out flashlights and candles.

By lunch the lights were gone, by 3 p.m. the phone was out. Our contact with the world off-island was down to one battery operating a single headset radio. Every half hour it delivered the news that Gorbachev was ''sick,'' that a ''committee'' had declared itself in command, that Bob would hit with the high tide. And that all we could do now at this shoreline was wait and see.

As the winds bent the maple trees as if they were bamboo, and the rain came in great sheets across the bay, I thought about that other sea change. I had been in Moscow just weeks after Gorbachev had taken power. The most remarkable images were brought into my hotel room and into Soviet homes by the evening news.

A new face, a man not yet familiar to the world, was strolling through the city square talking to ordinary citizens one night. The next night, he was in a factory, arguing animatedly and also -- this was extraordinary -- listening.

The Soviets I met those weeks, weathered and cynical, were not quick to believe in change or, certainly, in its permanence. Yet under this weary surface there was something akin to hope. Even my interpreter, the woman I came to call Anna the Flake because she made a farce of KGB efficiency, admitted that this man was different. After a string of old men propped into the president's chair, something new was happening.

Evidence of the Third World economy abounded. The hotel I was in served soft-boiled eggs at 7 a.m. and hard-boiled at 7:30 a.m. Buying a loaf of bread -- the one thing in abundance -- required standing in three lines before three surly workers. Those were ''the good old days.''

The most useful way for a beleaguered journalist to confront Soviet red tape was with one Russian phrase that means, ''this is crazy.'' Uttered in desperation to clerks, to bureaucrats, even to sociologists in Leningrad, it brought a knowing smile and help. Everyone knew the system was crazy.

So much happened in those years. So much more seemed possible. The world breathed more easily. Eastern Europe more freely. But in Russia, the system remained crazy. What happens now? There is no forecast to rely on.

Playing Scrabble at the kitchen table by kerosene lamp, we pass the news back and forth. The early word coming through the battery-powered headset is that ''hard-liners'' have taken over and that the seas are 20 to 30 feet.

We live now in these two worlds, one natural, the other man-made one as local as a single cove, the other as global as the satellite beaming its news from one continent to another. But our lives depend on both.

Swiftly the hurricane moved on, more gently now, to other coves. In the clarity of the next morning sunlight, we go out to assess its damage. The storm has picked the weakest branches. Chestnuts litter the ground. One pear clings to the tree.

Within another day, the coup would also be described as a dangerous gust. But man-made storms are rarely so selective or short-lived. Here at the eastern edge of the country, at the end of one storm, and still in the eye of another, the ocean seems deceptively peaceful.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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