Local Weather Stories: What We Used to Not Know Gave Us Peace of Mind

On the last Saturday afternoon in February, the clouds darkened over the stadium at the Daytona 500 and an announcement came over the loudspeakers that due to severe weather, including an official tornado warning for Daytona, the stadium had to be evacuated. At the time, the drivers were in the 38th lap. Yellow flags came out, and then red. The race was halted and the drivers ran for cover. The announcement continued. All 150,000 people out there in the open should leave the stadium in an orderly fashion and seek cover, and when the danger passed—if the danger passed—there would be a future announcement about restarting the race.

People were terrified, but without panicking headed for the exits in an orderly fashion, and many went down into the bowels of the stadium while others went out to sit in their cars in the parking lot and pray.

Nearly six and a half hours went by. The National Weather Service lifted the tornado warning, and the loudspeaker announced that everyone could return to their seats and, if there were no further problems, the race would be restarted from where it left off.

Many people had driven off in their cars, but others returned and watched the conclusion of the race as the skies cleared, which was, in the end, won by Dale Earnhardt Jr., driving at an average speed of 145.29 miles an hour, a speed lower than would have been tallied if the storm and tornado warning had not happened.

If this had happened at Daytona in the 1950s or 1960s, with the darkening and the wind blowing, the drivers would have kept going, the people in the stands would have zipped up their jackets, and, maybe 50 laps later, the sky would brighten and everyone would have gone on to cheer the exciting finish to the race without having been scared to death.

What is different between then and now? Today, the weather is being forecast down to the slightest detail, is front and center in the news every day, scaring the daylights out of everybody. Back then, we had, well, whatever happened.

Those were the days, and I miss them. I was at one such Daytona 500, way back then. I remember it well. Back then it was the Daytona 800, because men were men and cars were cars and there were no wimps out there to tell us that 500 miles was as far as a racecar driver could go without possibly hurting himself. It was also the time when championship prizefights went on for 15 rounds, instead of the 12 rounds they are now.

As for the weather, who knew? We had forecasters, but at least two out of three times, they’d get it wrong. It was sort of a joke.

“They forecasted rain for today,” someone would say, shading his eyes from the bright sun.

“Yeah, what do they know. Nothing.”

I need only remind you—and this was way before my time—that the Hurricane of 1938 hit Westhampton Beach without the slightest warning that it was coming. About 800 people died. Too bad. That’s how we saw things back then, when real men grew hair on their chests. You got what you got. You dealt with it.

How did we forecast the weather? Well, back then, we had these proverbs. I remember all of them. Funny, the things you remember when you can’t remember what restaurant you ate at last night.

Bobby Van—the real Bobby Van, who owned Bobby Van’s restaurant in Bridgehampton—had two weather proverbs. “Clear moon, frost soon,” was one. “Rainbow at noon, more rain soon,” was the other. He composed music to accompany them when he sang them.

The late Nick Monte, who owned Gurney’s Inn in Montauk, had his own weather proverbs. “The darker the wooly caterpillar’s coat, the more severe the winter will be.” And he had another. “The higher the clouds, the better the weather.”

Richard Hendrickson, the 101-year-old farmer in Bridgehampton who is still around observing the weather today for the National Weather Service, had three. “When ants travel in a straight line, expect rain; when they scatter, expect fair weather.” He also had “If cows lie down and refuse to go to pasture, you can expect a storm to blow up soon.” And the third, which was “If the cat washes her face over her ear, the weather is sure to be fine and clear.”

There was Ma Bergman, who owned the Italian restaurant where Nick & Toni’s is now. She said “Rain before 7, fine before 11.” And “When a rooster crows at night, there will be rain by morning.”

Now that I remember, she also said “When chimney smoke descends, our nice weather ends.” And also “Three days rain will empty any sky.”

Mostly these proverbs were about as accurate as the National Weather Service in predicting things, which is to say they were not so accurate. But every once in a while, somebody would go on a streak of three correct in a row. When that happened, everyone ran to them and asked for what was coming next, and then walked off only when their predicting powers failed.

I recall Phin Dickinson, the rancher out at Deep Hollow in Montauk, getting the trifecta with “If birds fly low, then rain we shall know,” then the next day “If sheep ascend hills and scatter, expect clear weather,” and his grand finale, “When grass is dry at the morning light, look for rain before the night.”

Out at the Montauk Fishing Village, there were some famous fishermen with predictions. One was Captain George Glas, who said “Cold is the night when the stars shine bright,” and “A ring around the sun or moon means rain or snow coming soon.” He also said “Bees will not swarm before a storm,” which every time turned out not to be true. But then he very accurately predicted “Trout jump high when a rain is nigh,” and “Red sky at morning, sailor take warning; red sky at night, a sailor’s delight.” You could absolutely depend on these.

Then I remember Carl Darenberg warning about hurricanes. “When fish eat rocks, expect a hurricane soon.”

Even Herb McCarthy in Southampton, who owned Bowden Square restaurant, had weather proverbs. “Birds on a telephone wire predict the coming of rain,” he once said.

Then there were the Bridgehampton farmers. It was the late Red White, I think, who said “Pigs gather leaves and straw before a storm,” and “Catchy drawer and sticky door, coming rain will pour and pour.” And “When the ditch and pond offend the nose, then look out for rain and stormy blows.”

Then there was something about mackerel. “When mackerel fly…” No, that’s not it. “If mackerel jump at sunset…” No, that’s not it, either. Only wish the fellow who told me that, I forget his name, were alive today.

In any case, back then, whatever we got outside when we woke up was what we got. One winter we had 40 inches of snow, just like this winter. I remember it well. “Wow, look at that,” my best friend, Mark, said. “I had to let my dog out the door on the second floor, the snow drifts were so high.” And “This is GREAT for sleigh riding.” He also said “A year of snow is followed by a year of plenty.”

Or in the summer, after a misty rain we’d see a beautiful rainbow and say, “Wow, look at that.”

We had lots of other things to do other than worrying ourselves sick and terrified about every little blip on the radar, like we do today. It was three months ago that the weather service changed all their alarm messages. We get alerts and warnings and emergencies and sit in a chair with your head between your legs this very instant and so forth almost every day. And it is all very depressing.

Did I ever tell you how successful the Shinnecock Indians were in the old days with their rain dances?

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