A Memorial to Captain John M. LeCato
May 13, 1917 to July 27, 2004
The photograph above shows Captain John LeCato standing in front of his desk, among his collection of books, paintings and train memorabilia that tell the story of his colorful life. He and his wife, Maurine, met aboard the passenger steamer, Berkshire, in 1939, and they have shared a remarkable life, full of love, fun and adventure. They chose Charleston as their home prior to his retirement from the command of the U. S. Naval Ship, Victoria, in June 1973.
The Captain generously shared his life and time with others. As Editor, for almost a quarter of a century, of The Best Friend, the newsletter of the Charleston Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society, he wrote of his adventures with the charming ease and sense of humor which so well describe him. From his days as a young boy on his family farm near Baltimore, playing with his Christmas trains (an American Flyer electric train with three Pullman green cars), to his 35 year career in the US Merchant Marines (that included, in 1942, “The Murmansk Run”), to his beloved train trips in the US and abroad (one such trip described in a newsletter in terms of instructions given to the passengers to keep their luggage closed to avoid “a furry surprise” upon their return home, from the mouse that was seen running loose on board), he lived the life he loved.
In his later years, the Captain gave unselfishly of his time and experience in providing education on the history of railroad transportation and especially in honoring the Best Friend of Charleston by greeting visitors to the Best Friend Museum. He often visited local schools where the children delighted in hearing of the adventures and misadventures of “the little train that would.” He laughingly told of one child who said of his talk, “You should have heard what that old man told me!”
His sense of humor always came through, no matter whether he was writing about his railroad china collection or his daily life as a devoted husband. He referred to his home, which contained some valuable and some not so valuable railroad china, as the “pigeon loft.” “Pigeon”being the term applied to an antiques collector who buys a worthless item at a high price. Of his marriage, he once wrote, “Mrs. Editor has taken a tumble . . . Mr. Editor has become ‘second cook and baker.’ ”The Captain’s military career and accomplishments are documented in many newspaper accounts, but the insight contained herein is one of respect and admiration for the man who shared his passion as a true rail fan in the pages of his newsletters. We, of the Charleston Chapter, have long been blessed.º M. Lehr
in recognition of his efforts on behalf of the Merchant Marines.
Captain spends some time with children at the Best Friend Museum.
Photo from the Best Friend brochure.
September 21, 1989
I am going to try, while events are fresh in my memory, to write down my own experiences in Hurricane Hugo which struck Charleston on the evening of Thursday, 21 September 1989. Winds are said to have exceeded 130 mph and tidal surge at least 10 feet.It is my custom during hurricanes season to maintain a storm plotting map, along with navigational tools and a NOAA weather radio, on my drawing table. I commenced a plot on Hugo about four days before the storm became a menace to this area but I was no more prepared than anyone else for the storm to hit just where it did. i have a fair amount of experience with hurricanes and typhoons, but, in this case, many of the classic signs were not apparent, the dull bronze look to the sky, the oppressive feel in the air, and as long as I had time to watch it, the rapid fall of the barometer.
As the weather reports grew more ominous, everyone in Charleston began to prepare emergence plans, to leave or to stay, to take pets or leave them to shift for themselves, to carry valuables upstairs against floods, or to keep them below as a protection against damaged roofs.In our own case, we had several problems. Our dearest friends, living just across the street, tried to work with Maurine and me in preparedness plans. Of our group of five, only three could be considered reasonably able bodied, Maurine, Dottie and me. Kit has suffered a paralysis of her legs for several years and depends upon a walker for mobility. Harriett had just been released from the hospital after major abdominal surgery and was forbidden to lift, climb stairs or exert herself in any way. We also had to consider the welfare of two Maine coon cats, Abbie, A golden retriever, and our own Fedders, a snowshoe Siamese. For those who do not know us, I might add that the “so called” able bodied three were all in their seventies. Maurine’s vision is very poor in dim light.
As it began to appear that rising water might be an even bigger hazard than wind, we decided to gather at the home of a neighbor who had been carried off to Columbia by her daughter’s family. This was a great brick, ante-bellum mansion which seemed as secure as anywhere. For soap opera buffs, it was Grandmother’s house in Laurelton on “General Hospital” a few years ago.
Maurine and I spend a couple of hours trying to move valuables to the safest places, nit knowing if we would lose the roof or have windows break in. As it turned out, we saved the best of our things, the paintings, books and a lot of household appliances, enough that we can live for a while in comfort, it not luxury.
When we were all together in the big house, we started to work out a pattern for living. Maurine, Fedders and I took the third floor. Kit and Dottie and their cats took the second. Harriett bedded down on a sofa in one of the drawing rooms and Abbie, the golden retriever, patrolled at large. Since our friend, Pat Robinson, had given us shelter, we felt as much responsibility for Pat’s things as we would have for our own.
Just to know what to care for first was a fearful challenge. pat’s late husband, Emmett, had left a quantity of original work, paintings, prints, carvings, theatrical designs which we felt must be safeguarded. There were curio cases of Oriental and Egyptian artifacts, jade, bronze, silver, precious stones. Much of the furniture was of museum quality, great polished tables, sideboards, pianos, portraits of Pat and Emmett by world famous artists, a tremendous library. One object that did not seem in danger of being blown away was a life sized marble bust titled”Colbert.” I once asked Pat if he was an ancestor and she lightly replied, “Oh, yes, you remember, he was Secretary of Finance to Louis XIV.”
As the day ended, a light rain began to fall and by dark there was a steady downpour. I figured that I would do well to take a nap to prepare myself for a busy night. At about eleven, Maurine called me to say that things were getting bad. Windows were rattling and the wind was howling and the general din of nameless object being hurled about. Electric lights were soon gone, but we had a plentiful supply of flashlights and candles. Maurine found a French door had broken open in Pat’s second floor snuggery. Dottie and I were unable to hold it against the force of the wind. We dragged a heavy library table, but this was soon pushed away and the wind and rain poured in again. Dottie found a torso of Jesus which Emmett had carved from a single log, it must have weighed well over a hundred pounds, but it was able to withstand the force. Finally, we dragged up a bronze statue of the Budda and this ecumenical barricade held. Somebody located a huge supply of bath towels and we went about blotting up leaks, covering broken panes and trying to protect things in any way we could.
I am not too clear as to the passage of time, but the eye of the storm passed sometime around midnight. We all knew enough to expect a return of the wind which indeed occurred. once I looked out and there was enough light to see about five feet of water flowing up Ashley Avenue like a mill race.
The wind abated rather quickly and I told the others to get some rest. Nobody wanted to be in that huge, strange house in the dark, so we placed candles about in strategic locations. Harriett was already sleeping, with candles at her head and feet, looking for all the world as if she were on her bier. I wandered about until daylight, checking on candles, emptying overfilled drip pans and trying to shift drop cloths and plastic trash bags to the best advantage.
I cannot remember what we had for breakfast but Pat’s refrigerator and pantry were stocked plentifully. I do remember heating water for instant coffee in a silver chafing dish and toasting slices of bread over a sterno flame. Everyone was up early and Dottie and I set out to survey the damages to our own houses just around the corner. As we stepped out the door, the devastation was unbelievable. We could scarcely get down from the piazza as the steps were almost blocked by a fallen tree. Dottie’s car which she parked behind the house had been filled to the roof with water.
We picked our way along the short block to Gadsden Street. Our path was repeatedly blocked by tree limbs and even huge fallen trees. Sheets of metal roofing, often ten or twenty feet square were everywhere, along with shutters, window frames and other architectural debris. mangled cars lined the curbs or rested at odd angles on the sidewalks. Almost every house was missing part of a roof, a chimney, patched or siding or sometimes as entire room. underfoot was about an inch of puff mud from the tidal marshes, a revolting dark gray substance which stuck to everything it touched and was as slippery as lard. The only secure footing was provided by a layer of roofing slates, asphalt shingles and fallen leaves.
As we rounded our familiar corner, we paused and clutched one another in disbelief. Access to our houses was blocked by a great fallen tree, lying clear across the street. When we managed to clamber through the branches, we saw that all the houses along the block were at least standing, most without major exterior damage. Just beyond the big tree, a large sailboat lay thwartships across the street, still on the trailer to which it had been secured. My driveway was blocked by a large chunk of metal roofing, probably from Kit and Dottie’s roof. A multitude of pieces of wood, garbage cans, yard furniture and all the usual artifacts of family life were strewn about in haphazard fashion. The ubiquitous pluff mud covered them all.
One look inside my house revealed total disaster. Water had filled the entire lower floor to a depth of about three feet. Aside from the dining room table and the living room corner cupboard, every piece of furniture and the kitchen appliances had floated to odd positions and, in most cases, capsized. The refrigerator lay on its back, atop my bicycle in the kitchen. The dining room hutch lay on the floor, but the antique china displayed on its shelves was all intact. Water had filled the the cabinets under the book shelves, yet not a single book was dampened. Above the water line, not a thing was disturbed. Most disastrous was the effect on our old pine floors which Maurine had carefully scrubbed and hand waxed and polished only a few months before. About a four inch ridge ran laterally through the house, where the boards had pushed up by expansion or the force of the water underneath. Once more, pluff mud coated everything and even made walking about a perilous task.
We had removed our paintings, a few favored books, our best china and a few other treasures to the second floor, fully expecting that our old asphalt shingled roof would give way. Nothing up there was even damp and we have enough of our characteristic pictures, the Chinese Export painting, the Lambinet and the Gould puffins to make our home identifiable wherever we may have to relocate.
Dottie and Kit’s house is a little higher than ours, but they still had over a foot of water inside, plus what came through the roof.
The girl’s losses included a great deal of family memorabilia and scripts, photographs and other material that they had from their work in the theatre. Along with this, their car was a total loss, as is the heating and air conditioning system.
Harriett lives alone, some blocks from the rest of us. I managed to make my way down there, found her floors covered with mud and a lot of roofing missing. Her two pussy cats were safe in the upstairs sanctuary that she had arranged.
The more one moved around the city, the more damage became apparent, trees, walls, roofs and, in some cases, whole buildings were displaced. A large sailing yacht sat squarely in the middle of Lockwood Drive, a principal thoroughfare. Other boats and assorted marine debris was to be seen blocks from the water. Church steeples suffered badly, some losing siding and ornamentation, others having their crosses askew at crazy angles. Our theatre, the Footlight Players Workshop, came off well. It leaks in any rain and the half built set for “the Pirates of Penzance” which is to be the opening play were not harmed.
We learned later that there had been an early wave of looting taking advantage of broken shop windows in the retail area. It was curbed by massive police deployment which became even more active when our black police Chief Reuben Greenberg took personal charge, issuing his now famous order, “Don’t arrest them, just beat them, the jail is full.” I think a lot of the officers who were fed up with reading obvious criminals “their Mirandas” and then seeing them out on bail, made the most of the opportunity.
In the public mind, it seems that the Chief and his boss, Mayor Joe Riley, were the heroes of the day. Certainly, they got a lot of press coverage, but for a couple of days, they were busy enforcing laws, arranging for food rations, whatever was needed.
To return to our own little group, Friday, after the storm passed and it was calm and sunny, we went through the house emptying trash containers, taking sodden towels on to the piazzas to dry, generally feeling that, despite our own losses, we had done a good job for Pat. We had neither electricity nor water, but we sat down at a ,long mahogany table, lighted by many branched porcelain candelabra, dining off Pat’s spode china and eating a very tasty hobo stew which Dottie had cooked up in a large silver chaffing dish.
Our euphoria was unhappily, short lived. The next day, Saturday, was damp and gloomy and we had more time to assess our own situations. We continued to raid pat’s larder and found more than adequate supplies which Dottie stewed up in the chaffing dish. There was an adequate supply of gin, vodka, scotch and brandy to keep everyone in a mellow mood. As Maurine said, “We kept our sense of humor, Thank God.” And I will add that we saved one another.
As I write this, nearly a month after the storm, I think that most people are still in a state of shock. With massive amounts of clean up still ahead, we do not work to any purpose but wander about from job to job, tinkering with a pair of rusted pliers while a half fallen tree menaces anyone passing or standing gossiping on the side walk with neighbors who also are faced with more work then they can handle in a year.
Speaking of neighbors, we have certainly been blessed. Besides Kit and Dottie who shared house and food and car with us at the worst of things, Doug Sass, next door, came over with a couple of buddies with chain saws and largely chopped out the fallen trees, besides offering free use of washer, dryer, fridge and phone. Allen Gibson, across the street, also participated in a tree cleaning effort while his wife, Wendy, helped Maurine with linens and took her shopping. Ann Welch and Billie Hall offered refrigerators, washers and dryers.
The fact that our phones were out for so long increased the apprehension of distant friends and relatives. Ed Minor, in Hawaii, finally tracked me down through an old shipmate. Maurine.s sister in Virginia Beach offered to send her husband down with a truck. We were offered living accommodations by friends and relatives, including a condo in Point Pleasant, New jersey.
Captain Tim Pickton, son of an old friend, drove up from Ft Lauderdale, just to assure himself and his recently widowed mother that we were safe. on his first try immediately after the storm, the police turned him back at the state line, on the second attempt, he got through, spent fifteen minutes hugging Maurine and shaking my hand, found we needed no immediate help and headed back.
Another friend, Ann Christman, widow of an old shipmate of mine, did more than we could have asked for, sending three “CARE” packages, one after the other. The contents were carefully thought out to require no cooking, yet provide nutrition, canned hams, baked beans, coffee, desserts and other things. the final package was of a more frivolous nature, including cocktail snacks. So lavish were her gifts that we were able to share some with people more in need.
All in all, it was quite an experience and definitely not one I would wish to repeat. Impressed as we were by the power of the storm, I think what we will remember longest is the kindness and concern of friends and relatives. We received calls, letters of sympathy and offers of help from as far away as Hawaii and Paris and many places in between.
When the work eases up, I hope to write everyone a proper letter. In the meantime, this will have to do. I may even send a snapshot of myself with my beard which I started on the day of the storm, there being no time to shave.
THE PASSING OF THE TRAINS…