Typhoon Neoguri in Japan this week had me thinking of Hurricane Charlie which swept through Kingston and Jamaica in 1951. Why? Because talking to Eddie “Tan Tan” Thornton, the great Alpha trumpeter two years ago when researching my book on Don Drummond left me with a vision so real that every time I hear of a tropical storm I am reminded of a young Don D. and a young Tan Tan caught in the middle of that ferocious hurricane that spared their lives.
Tan Tan told me his memories of the pre-ska days at the Colony Club performing with the Eric Deans Orchestra and that night that Hurricane Charlie came to pass. “Eric Deans was society. No poor people could come there. It’s just the lawyer, barrister, and tourist, mostly tourist. It’s an exclusive club. You have to have money to go in it. We used to play six nights a week—Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday. A lot of American tourist used to come there, every night. In those days a lot of American tourist used to come. It’s the club they come to first, they go to Glass Bucket after. Eric Deans was the best band in Jamaica and we play the same music that was played in America—Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Harry James, everything. The music we played is America music. There was no ska in those days. Nobody know what was ska or reggae. There was the storm in 1951 in Jamaica. We went to work at the club and we knew the storm was coming. They say, okay, there is no club tonight because the storm is coming, to go home, right? Then we were riding, coming down South Camp Road to go home and then the storm gets worse, but we were lucky, it was just coming, so he ride over to his house and I ride to Alpha.” Not wealthy enough to have phones to notify them not to venture out, both were fortunate to survive the wrath of the deadly storm that killed more than 250 people. The storm even destroyed two buildings at the Alpha Boys School and four students there died.
If you have memories of Hurricane Charlie or thoughts on this event, please comment below—would love to hear input.
The following is an excerpt from the Daily Gleaner, August 20, 1951, which gives an account of the wrath of Hurricane Charlie–pretty dramatic writing too, if I might say:
First positive information of its near arrival was the gentle west wind which blew up at about 9.15 Friday evening. Only A few minutes it blew. Then it drifted away. Fifteen minutes later the hurricane came. It hit with full fury from the very first. It pounded with sudden force unleashing all its power with one huge roar which levelled Port Royal and destroyed the Palisadoes Airport installations as it pushed its way across the leaping mountainous sea to crash through Kingston, ripping roots, uprooting giant trees, snapping steel and telegraph posts like so much matchwood. Ten minutes of such ferocity was sufficient to paralyse the city, knocking out electric and communication, blocking transportation. And while the headwinds rushed across and out of the near devastated city touching points here and there in St. Andrew to go pounding through Sp. Town and on across the countryside, the circular winds came in to throw ships off their moorings and up against the Palisadoes road and the airport runway and to complete the damage that had begun.
The hurricane reached its greatest intensity in the first forty-five minutes then kept a sustained and always dangerous strength for the next three hours. After 1.30 on Saturday morning the winds lessened appreciably but the driving rain increased the horrors of the darkened storm-lashed night and women and children huddled screaming in rain-washed wall corners, some thinking of those whom they knew to be dead, while others prayed for the dawn.
The Palisadoes Airport was levelled and such eastern Kingston and lower St. Andrew districts as Springfield, Bournemouth Gardens, Mountain View, Eden Gardens, Blown’s Town, Passmore Town, Franklin Town, Rollington Town, and Vineyard Town were so badly mauled that it appeared as though a giant hand had moved among them during the night ripping the roofs from off the houses and crumbling the weaker ones.
But all other sections of the city from east to west, below and above East Queen Street stretching north to a line passing through Cross Roads from Cockburn Pen to Mountain View Avenue and Old Hope Road there was a concentrated damage which made it impossible for comparisons to be drawn between any sections of the city.
Only in central lower St. Andrew in an area running just above Half-way Tree was damage kept to a minimum. In all other sections of the Corporate Area, few buildings escaped damage and the loss in furniture and home furnishings cannot be estimated.
Most of those dead were killed by collapsing buildings but seven were drowned on land and 16 in the harbor.