Wednesday, Sept. 12.
A week ago, I turned in a one-day vacation request for Friday, Sept. 14, planning to spend a three-day weekend in North Myrtle Beach with my lady, Penny.
Ironically, we had bought tickets to see a filmed stage production of "Moses."
A week later, I'm the one on the run - destination Greensboro.
I've never fled a storm before, unless you call leaving the house on the Neuse River a decade ago and heading to the Holiday Inn Express for 22 hours. That came at the strong urging of New Bern Fire & Rescue, who came through the neighborhood.
That one was rather simple. My late wife, Martha, and I gathered Katman into his carrier, threw some clothes in a suitcase and some snacks into a bag and made the four-mile trip. We were home by the next afternoon.
We thought about our belongings, but not about the house. It was a rental.
This time, to borrow a saying from my momma, I've been a ball of nerves the past few days.
It's been a tormenting decision on whether to stay or to go - a phrase I had viewed with amusement on Facebook until Tuesday. I'm not smirking anymore.
Cat 4 hurricane got my attention, just as it has much of the coastal population.
I've covered every hurricane since I came to the Sun Journal in late 1998, starting when Hurricane Floyd ravished the coast 10 months later. But, the thoughts of evacuating never crossed my mind.
Lots of things change in 20 years, like getting older and more cautious than with an almost-hurricane in the mid-1970s, when I worked here as a sports writer. I don't remember the storm's name, but it was serious enough that local shelters opened.
With all sports canceled, photographer Chuck Beckley and I headed to Atlantic Beach around midnight, talked our way past police at the high-rise bridge and ventured onto an abandoned island. He wanted some shots of waves. I was along for the ride.
We found lights on at a pier and a clerk who hailed from Louisiana. He explained no one had told him to close up.
Beckley and I ventured out on the pier, but after several walls of water crashed over the sides, we retreated to higher ground and he got his pictures. I got the fellow's story and the next morning, we turned in a story package that ran on the front page.
By the time the afternoon edition was out, the storm had dissolved into slow rain.
All these years later, as the owner of a 78-year-old house with massive pines already in saturated soil, fears of all sorts have scrambled my brain.
I began late-night store runs, gathering supplies like a survivalist, basically to hunker down, possibly without power. All those things on the hurricane checklists are true. I had no batteries for the lantern I didn't own, nor sufficient dry and canned foods, or an extra cell phone battery. Battling Walmart crowds is always hectic. Try going when they are as frenzied as you are.
Evacuation has been the talk, then the order. I wrote about it, and then realized it wasn't a third-person issue. It was first-person - me.
You don’t realize how many yard trinkets and toys will go flying until you inventory, dismantle a summer’s worth of work and store them away.
Too, I had to think of Penny's safety. Hailing from Kentucky, she recently bought an oceanfront condo. She's only seen hurricanes on TV and wasn't really concerned about this one until I convinced her hurricanes are the real deal and my house was safer than a fourth-floor glass view of the beach.
Sitting on the evacuation fence, I weighed life and death - one of those massive pines crashing through the roof. I've photographed a home split in half. Crank the nerves up a notch.
An early Tuesday trip to Lowe's provided plywood to cover the 114-inch front window, but the pine trees were still there.
So, I booked several nights in a Greensboro hotel late Tuesday, the best one I could reach on a tank of gas. I knew I couldn't leave Wednesday, with assignments, including a jaunt into Pamlico County.
Late Wednesday was like a snipe hunt for cash and last-minute supplies for holing up in a hotel room several days with only a tiny fridge and a microwave. Fellow shoppers were surprisingly polite, but obviously getting a little testy with Florence's arrival ticking in everyone's head.
Checklists and more checklists, loading the car. You want to take too much, but can't forget important items like the cell phone charger and refrigerated meds.
A thunderbolt thought crashed down on me like one of those trees when I realized that my check-in time and deadline for this story were both 3 p.m. Thursday. The hotel desk said I might get in early. But, I had to have a backup and I knew it would have to be the cell phone - with its dreaded little keyboard.
I learned on a manual typewriter in 1967. My thumbs only know the space bar. As anyone who texts me knows, auto-correct, along with my southern drawl and voice-to-text, creates some strange sentences.
Still, it may be the source of the end of this piece.
Time for bed and to await the new day and hopefully early access to the room.
Thursday, Sept. 13.
A restless night of sleep.
Florence was downgraded to a Cat 2 late night, but the rain and wind will still come and those trees are still perched on precarious soil.
Even though I knew Florence was still hundreds of miles away, my brain begged to open the front door twice after midnight and peek out; I had to make sure that none of Florence's Advance Team had snuck into town under cover of the curfew.
It was still calm at 6 a.m., with final packing and waiting to get an operator at the hotel and see about early check-in. Finally at 8 a.m. or so, the front desk answered and said "probably."
We hit the road, dropping Penny's vehicle off in the SJ parking lot. It has no pine trees.
The three-hour drive up U.S. 70 was uneventful, mainly my giving Penny geography lesson under gray skies. Traffic was light.
Misty rain began on the Beltline in Raleigh and the sun popped out amid blue sky nearing Greensboro. At the same time, a cell phone alert said that area was now under a state of emergency.
A missed exit in Greensboro led to an interesting tour of a rather sad looking neighborhood before arriving in the Coliseum area and the hotel shortly after noon.
A brisk walk to the desk and the big question followed,
"Yes, you can check in early." Best words I had heard in days.
But, more obstacles. No elevator and a second-floor room. I knew I brought too much stuff.
Only one challenge left - Wi-Fi. Needless to say, that wouldn't work, no doubt operator error, but the clock was ticking past 1 p.m.
Hot-spotted the cell and we were in business.
The hotel is full, with a lot of refugees such as me and Penny. I met Tim Smith from Holden Beach going up the stairs. I will get his story for a later report.
Meanwhile, I had to get this one in the system.
So, how's the rest of the day look?
Well, this hotel is not a getaway for the working homeless. They have a pool, but I can't swim anyway.
Hey, it's Thursday and I didn't get that vacation day. I've got to look ahead, as in filing the Week Events for Sunday's edition, Top 5 for Monday and starting on next week's Ticket section.
I hadn’t had time to check on how things were in New Bern as it neared 2 p.m.
Shortly after I felt fortunate as I began seeing SJ updates about power outages.
I hope everyone stays safe.
Don't wade where you can't walk.
Charlie Hall can be reached at 252-635-5667 or 252-259-7585, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Facebook at Charlie Hall.