It feels like a moment ago … as I watch the reportage on Hurricane Irma and my heart goes out to all those suffering from its vast effects physically, emotionally, financially and spiritually.
Then I see it all again — the Category 2 hurricane that hit New Jersey when I was growing up with my parents and younger sister, in a small northern New Jersey town not far from midtown Manhattan.
My dad, along with his parents, survived horrific turn-of-the-20th-century hurricanes that hit New England’s coastal areas when he was a child, teen and young adult. Hurricanes weren’t named in those early days — but by the time my dad started working for insurance companies as an adjuster in the late 1940s and early 1950s, hurricanes were accorded female monikers for identification and chronicling purposes.
Yet as a survivor of the Great Depression of 1929 and as a World War II veteran, my dad couldn’t abide the dictates of any employer or carrier who preferred to deny legitimate claims of loss following hurricane damage to the insured.
So he set out on his own with a fledging staff, and he lucked out to help — the helpless — through hard work and determination. He made hurricanes his specialty, so when a flurry of hurricanes beset New Jersey and New York in the mid-’50s to early 1960s, as he was the CEO of a successful firm of independent insurance adjusters, his name became synonymous with dedication to citizens who dutifully paid their monthly premiums for any worst-case scenario.
In this way, my dad became known as the man who wouldn’t back down against the mighty powers that be, no matter the odds.
Even though he’s recently passed on, 98 years old, it’s all coming back to me as clearly as today’s TV footage of Hurricane Irma. Especially because I know the endgame …
I was just beginning my seventh-grade fall term of junior high school in the early 1960s when Hurricane Donna hit New Jersey. My mom dropped me off at my dad’s suite of offices to meet him for lunch. His secretarial pool was busy typing away — papers piled high everywhere. And his insurance adjusters were running around, barking out orders, while juggling car keys to set off for their next claim.
My dad’s office manager, a wonderful older woman who handled all the telephone calls, was my favorite because she shined with warmth and humor. I remember asking her, “How is Dad doing with this hurricane?”
She smiled, then chuckled, “Well, he’s very busy, but he hasn’t started whistling yet.”
“Whistling” was a code. It was my dad’s way of expressing frustration right before his own storm hit of justified outrage at injustice.
I sat outside his office when I heard him pick up the phone. He put someone on hold for a moment and walked around for a bit, but he was whistling — whistling louder than I’d ever heard before.
When he returned to his desk and the call, at first I didn’t hear him say a word except one, loud and clear: “No!”
I scurried over to the office manager and asked what was going on. She explained that an elderly lady in Newark, New Jersey, was being denied her claim for a total loss on her apartment, even though her insurance carrier was the most expensive and top-rated company in the nation.
Wanting to hear more, I sat outside his office again. This time, I heard every word he said, including some I knew were bad words (I was still a kid, after all). He boomed into the phone, “I don’t give a damn if we lose you as a client. Listen, laddie — no threat is going to make me say this loss isn’t a valid claim. She’s paid in for decades. And the damage wasn’t just flooding. The wind broke every window! I’ve got the photos, the layout of the building, and one way or another you will cover this claim!”
And, ultimately, they did.
Nonetheless, my dad lost this prestigious carrier as a client — which meant the loss of a lot of bucks. Still, every year at Christmas the woman from Newark sent my dad embroidered handkerchiefs with his initials.
Today, people say, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.”
But sometimes, “the small stuff” is all that matters.
The author, a retired attorney, is a published poet, writer, and columnist based in Arizona.