Three Coins in a Fountain
by Ute Carson

As Hurricane Rita took a bead on Galveston, we followed the advice of our foresightful mayor, filled the tanks of our two cars, secured the house, took jewelry, photo albums and old records and headed north. We had already had our two horses transported off the island. Our trek started at 5 a.m. with a packed lunch and water. We expected it might take all day to get to Austin in heavy traffic. Cecile and Jeff had driven down to help us load.

The exodus began smoothly with a misty sunrise, followed by a flaming fireball foretelling what lay ahead. Once we arrived at the 290 junction our confidence flagged. That's when we realized that all roads were clogged, restaurants and gas stations closed. The call for evacuation had worked like clockwork but left a highway horror in its wake. The state opened the contra-flow lanes too late and fuel tankers arrived only after tens of thousands of people were stranded on the banks of the freeway and in parking lots. The peaceful, courteous departure turned into chaos as motels locked their doors, food and drink ran out, and gas needles plummeted.

When stripped to bare necessity our humanity mirrors back colors and shades variant from those of ordinary life. Flip a coin and it falls, heads or tails, topsy-turvy in strange configurations. So it was with the travelers fleeing Hurricane Rita.

Like a dragon spewing fumes from every scale, half a million cars crawled at snail's pace. Drivers turned off their air conditioning and opened their doors, all the while inching forward, the pavement sizzling in the 100 degree heat. Back in Galveston, an 87 year old black lady with an indomitable will defied the odds. Her deeply furrowed face was as calm as the surface of the Gulf before the storm. She sat on her porch and rocked to the rhythm of the wind. "I'm staying. My mind is in this house. I won't go to no shelter." Thinking of her, we had moments when we regretted our decision to evacuate.

Frustration mounted as drivers cut in and out of the lanes and criss-crossed the median. But we observed much helpfulness as well. As we came to a standstill in the snarled traffic, a dog collapsed by the roadside and people rushed to its aid with wet towels. A Mexican American lady got out of her truck and moved along her family caravan, pouring water over the heads of the youngsters. At one point an old woman leaned through a car window, tilted her head forward like a graceful gander, her bountiful gray hair cascading down over her face. She too got a good dousing.

Eighteen hours later, we arrived at The Woodlands. We had driven 86 miles. It was time to pull into a parking lot and sleep a few hours. "No Availability" signs loomed large at every motel and entrances were locked and manned by security guards. For a fleeting moment, panic gripped my growling stomach. Any minute it could storm. A riot could break out and people would demand to be let in. Cecile asked a deputy where we might fill our empty water bottles. "You're on your own" was his gruff reply. "Find a spigot." We retreated quietly, remembering that after Hurricane Betsy President Johnson asked local soft drink bottlers to make their inventory available to the thirsty.

We needed something to drink soon. In search of water, we came upon a bucolic scene. Two old trucks with their hoods up were parked nose to nose in a V-shape on the grassy median. A group of Mexican Americans sat in a circle, talking quietly. Between them, on outspread quilts, several babies and children lay curled together, all fast asleep. In the midst of veiled panic, the comfort of rest reigned there.

Necessity generates ingenuity. Jeff collected our quarters and found a boardedÐup filling station where he was able to get water from a hose used for replenishing overheated radiators. We drank our fill.

"All I want is a room somewhere," I hummed that tune as we returned to our cars and stretched out as best as we could. Mosquitoes attacked my bare feet, dangling from the open window. A full moon, round as a pumpkin, illuminated the humid night. I remembered camping under clear, star-filled skies in my youth. These soothing thoughts must have lulled me to sleep. When my daughter woke me three hours later, she teased, "You were totally out, Mom." I glanced at my husband beside me and for once his snoring filled me with tenderness.

Running on near empty as the sun rose brilliantly forecasting another steaming hot day, we arrived in Huntsville. And joy of joys, Wal-Mart was open. There was still some food on the shelves. And they were expecting a fuel delivery!

That's when my husband spotted a little boy swinging a beat-up gas container.

"Want to buy it?" the boy yelled.

"How much?"

"Ten bucks."

"You got it."

Wal-Mart was a beehive of activity. And there were bathrooms. I waited patiently for over an hour in line when a large wheelchair-bound white woman rolled in and begged, "I need to go number two and I can't straddle the toilet. Can someone help?" Most of the toilets were clogged. A smartly-dressed black teenager in low-cut jeans and a fancy silver-buckled belt offered to steady her and hold the broken door shut. Modesty had long gone by the wayside on the road, but here one woman provided privacy to another.

There were scuffles at the pumps. After the first several rows of cars had pumped the reserves dry, the rest had to wait again. Tempers flared and people on foot with containers pushed and shoved. But then one man with a full five gallon container shared with a fellow holding an empty gallon milk bottle, and it caught on. No different here than anywhere else in everyday life.

"Lovely Rita, meter maid..." She empties the coins and, different in shape, design, wear and tear, heads or tails, they fall, unpredictable as fortune.

We were lucky to find a motel room in Austin where the beds and the shower were heavenly. But not everyone had a place to lay their head and many could not have afforded a room even if they had found one. Disaster makes the discrepancy between rich and poor more glaringly apparent. Privilege glitters like a diamond in the desert. Life shortchanges the multitude under good conditions and bad.

Rita reminded us that we are social creatures. We need each other, and can take care of each other if we will. A horse related incident brought that truth home to me.

Before we left the island a horse transport was to pick up the four remaining mounts from our pasture. Spunky young Romeo and my middle-age mare, Pandora, loaded without a hitch. Next came my 36 year old mare, Pegasus. She had trouble steadying herself on the ramp but we managed to get her aboard with the help of two tough, kindhearted cowboys. Poco is Pegasus' shy, adopted grandson. Even in the pasture he is nervous if she is out of his sight. But Poco is terrified of trailers and once before the owner had to ride him to our pasture because no coaxing or whipping could convince him to venture into that monster of a trailer. This time he acted up as before, rearing, kicking, snorting. Suddenly Pegasus whinnied, once, twice and then again softly. And Poco jumped right in behind her, shaking uncontrollably. He had taken a leap of faith to be with his trusted companion.

After a stressful odyssey we returned home safely. We'd used up our lucky coins.

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