Storm of the Century

The Clarence White Martin was not played for a couple of years, and there’s a story behind that.

I visited Tony and his third wife, Pamela Hodges Rice, in Florida, during the winter of 1991. He picked me up at the Tampa airport late on the evening of November 8. We drove to their home in Crystal River, on the Gulf Coast in the southern Florida. Tony said he lived right on the water, but when we pulled in it was too dark to see much of anything. They put me up in the guest bedroom. I was pooped from a day of flying and logged off instantly.

The next morning, the sound of a diesel engine coughing to life outside the window, woke me up. I thought, OK, there’s a trucker got his rig parked next door in the driveway. He’ll pull out soon. Sure enough, after he’d warmed up, he pulled out, only it wasn’t toward the highway. Near as I could tell, it was toward the water. It was early, I was still dazed … so who knows? I went back to sleep. Two hours later, I got up. Pam gave me a cup of coffee, and Tee took me around outside. We went out the living room door to a gently downward-sloping lawn. Twenty feet out, at the edge of the lawn, was a five-foot drop to water and Tony’s runabout.

We walked to the rear of the house. It was on the water too, maybe ten feet from the river. Then we went around to the back of the house, the side where I’d been sleeping and where the trucker had parked his rig. It was on the water too, fifteen feet away. It wasn’t a diesel truck; it was a commercial crab boat pulling back in as we walked around.

Tee’s house was on a small peninsula, a spit rimmed by water on three and a half sides. Only the driveway connected it to land. At that moment of low tide, the waterline was maybe ten feet below the floor level of Tony’s one-story house.

We boarded Tee’s runabout and jammed towards the Gulf of Mexico. He was wearing a sport coat and pressed slacks, not ex- actly seafaring clothes. He drove standing up, at full-throttle, exceeding the speed limit, if there was one. Soon, the Coast Guard stopped us. Maybe the Coastie knew him, because after glancing at Tony’s I.D., he let him go without so much as a lecture.

As we pulled away, again at full throttle, I asked, “Aren’t you concerned about flooding here?”

Tony said, “No way, Wild Bill. It’d take a once-in-a-century flood to come up to the house.” It was prophetic.

A year and four months later, in the dawn of March 13, 1993, the “Storm of the Century,” as it came to be known, swamped Crystal River as it swept from Cuba to Canada. In Florida, record low barometric pressures produced a squall line ahead of a cold front that in turn produced a serial derecho – a straight-line wind- storm – with wind gusts of more than 100 mph. Supercells within the derecho spawned eleven tornadoes in the state, three of them in Crystal River. The ensuing record storm surge (twelve feet at nearby Pine Island) flooded the Gulf Coast so quickly that many folks were awakened that morning by the sound of water washing into their homes.

At five in the morning, the fire department cruised Tony’s neighborhood and ordered an evacuation: Get out now. Go!

Tee split immediately in his runabout, empty-handed except for his dog, Tipper. He left his guitar on his bed, Ron Rice said, thinking the water would never get that high.

But it did. Three hours later, Tony paid $60 – the amount varies from one telling of this story to another – to a shrimper in a motorboat to go over to his house and fish out the Martin. The man said the water in the living room was neck-high when he went in. He found the guitar after a few minutes. The renowned 1935 Clarence White Herringbone Martin D-28, coffined in its Leaf case, was floating in the floodwaters, a few feet above the bed.

Tony was on a bender when the storm hit. He’d been drinking, he told me – “all night” – and was hung over – “probably still drunk” – when he evacuated. He suffered guilt over leaving the Martin behind.

Tee said he got advice from the Martin Guitar folks on drying out and restoring the instrument and they volunteered their assistance. But he opted for the services of legendary luthier, Harry Sparks.

And that is a story for another chapter.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top