Friday, July 12, 2002

Herb. The voice of the National Weather Service Radio Warning System

In my entry the other day recapping the MDI extravaganza, I neglected to tell you something about how incredibly stupid I sometimes am. The National Weather Service announcements on the NPR radio stations would come on periodically when a thunderstorm was approaching, and would say, for example:

"The National Weather Service out of Caribou has issued a severe thunderstorm warning for Southern Hancock County and Southern Washington County including cities of Bar Harbor, Machias and Calais. A severe thunderstorm is categorized by frequent lightning, possible hail and and high winds. The storm is moving North East at 9 miles an hour and will be over Ellsworth at 9:29 p.m. Residents are encouraged to seek shelter.


The National Weather Service out of Caribou has issued a severe thunderstorm warning for Southern Hancock County and Southern Washington County including cities of Bar Harbor, Machias and Calais. A severe thunderstorm is categorized by frequent lightning, possible hail and and high winds. The storm is moving North East at 9 miles an hour and will be over Ellsworth at 9:29 p.m. Residents are encouraged to seek shelter."

or something along those lines. You get the drift.

The voice sounded to me like an older man, one who took the job of reading these ominous announcements very seriously. His pronunciations of "Caribou" and "Calais" and "Aroostook" were stinted and not comfortable. The way he'd say "Repeating" at the end of the first statement was so official, so strong. His accent was unique. To me, he sounded like a French Canadian Mainer, perhaps... probably lived west of Caribou out on a lake.

I grew to imagine the man behind this voice, see him in my mind, listen to the series of beeps and squaks that came before his official, very serious announcements...

I said something to Doug and Aaron and they just about laughed me out of the campground.

Aaron told me, "That's a computer generated voice!" and laughed hysterically at me. Imagine my sadness, if you will. A computer was saying Calais and Aroostook. It wasn't the voice some old salt from the hills of "The County" who has worked for the NWS since retiring from the Army, has a wife and three kids, and bow hunts in the fall for food rather than schlep to the market all winter long.

Michelle laughed at me. Everyone laughed at me. And rightly so.

I'm so used to thinking that there is a human behind everything. Rampant automation of things such as emergency announcements is something that isn't part of my world view.

He sounded friendly enough though... and over the few days we were, even though I knew he wasn't human, I continued to build a mental picture of "Herb," as I called him. And this is his story.

Herbert Xavier St. Germaine was born in 1935 in St. John's NB, Canada on a dark and stormy night. Ever since then, weather has been a life long obsession. Herb is pictured here with his father Francois JeanLuc St. Germaine in August of 1935 when he was four months of age.

As a child, he would run through the hills chasing clouds, watching them transform as afternoon thunderstorms began to cook up in the summer heat. In the winter, he was in his glory with all the deep snow, ice and freezing rain the region would receive. He'd forecast how much they were expecting, set up a weather station to monitor wind speeds and temperatures, and would track snowfall in a notebook each year, running annual averages and tracking trends.

Herbert, who prefers to be called "Herb," speaks fluent French because his French Canadian parents relocated to central Maine to work in a paper mill in Mexico Maine when Herb was a very young boy, along with many other French Canadians of that period.

When Herb was a young man, he became the first ever in his family to graduate high school and go to college. In 1953, he went to UMaine Ft. Kent on full scholarship, majored in Meteorology and dreamed of being a Television Weather Reporter, TV being a hot new commodity.

After his graduation in only three years, 1956, with honors I might add, he packed up his car and drove to New York City to seek employment with the CBS-TV. He auditioned, and was brilliant, but the news director could not hire him with as thick of a Maine accent as he had.

A kind hearted receptionist at CBS referred him to a speech therapist who worked with celebrities. It was her cousin, and she put in a call to ask for his help because she thought Herb was cute and had made such an effort. Thankful to the receptionist for all her effort, he made and appointment and ended up staying with the speech therapist in his Brooklyn apartment. He received elocution training and worked for a local newspaper writing weather information articles for a little while to get rid of his thick accent.

After four months, he headed back to re-audition for the job. CBS execs were impressed with his efforts, but whenever he spoke of local Maine towns or counties, the accent would creep right back out. Reluctantly, the news director sent him packing. A crushing blow for Herb.

It was something he never could get over. His dreams of being chief meteorologist for Bangor's Powerhouse TV conglomerate WABI (A CBS Affiliate) or any other TV station in America were dashed. Herb had grown close with the receptionist, her name being Myrna Williams, and when he informed her that he was going on home to Mexico, Maine, she was crestfallen. She'd grown to be madly in love with this sweet northern prince. He couldn't leave without her, and asked for her hand in marriage in 1957. They moved back to Maine together, back to his parents' home. But they didn't stay long.

Herb enlisted in the Army, quickly proving himself not just a fabulous soldier but a great asset for his weather knowledge. He was promoted to the Weather Forecasting Division, and stayed in the army from 1958 to 1976.

His proudest days were when he served in Viet Nam helping the United States Armed Forces know when tropical weather was going to cause problems. He felt he was preparing the troops prepare for the worst by giving them a heads up when a thunderstorm was churning up, or when a nasty cold front was moving down from Central Asia.

Herb was well liked, received many awards and commendations and was shipped all over the world where weather needed tracked and forecasted. Sometimes the kids and Myrna would come with him, and they had many adventures and saw exotic locations! Myrna is pictured here waterskiing off the Baja California coast in 1964, when Herb was on Hurricane Tracking patrol.

Eventually, in the mid-70s, Herb retired from the Army and decided the family should settle back in Maine, his heartland and his home.

Myrna and the kids were happy to do so, and they found a lovely little place west of Caribou. Herb's retirement was restless though. He returned to bow hunting, the way his father had taught him, and greatly enjoyed fishing on Aroostook County's many rivers and lakes. He even joined his oldest son in hiking to the top of Mt. Khatadin one beautiful summer day and fell in love with back packing and hiking. A view of the weather from on high was something that called to his heart, and he returned to mountain tops many times over the next year.

Then, a friend informed him that the local NWS was looking for someone like Herb to do weather announcements when inclement weather was approaching. Herb's attention was piqued. The job was based in Caribou, and would require him monitoring weather movement on Radar and Satellite Technology.

Because of his extensive and decorated Army resume, Herb was more than qualified. He was hired immediately. And ever since then, Herb has been the voice of the NWS out of Caribou, telling North Eastern Maine when to duck and cover, and how hard the wind may blow, and to watch out for dangerous lightning and hail. Herb is now a proud grandfather. He and Myrna have seen their share of hard times, but the kids have grown up good and all live in Maine still, all within a four hour drive.

Thank you, Herb. Thank you for all the work you do. Without your voice, your accent, your experience and history, Down East Maine would be in weather hell. You are a true American Hero. Bless your soul.

(The Army picture is Al Gore and I couldn't resist. Please don't tattle on me. I think it fits nicely. The waterskiier is Ann-Margaret, the famous actress, and the older man at the bottom is philosopher/anthropologist Gregory Bateson. I thought he looked like Herb).

In other news, we've got drywall getting delivered today. The dogs both are going to the vet, Kinger is getting some shots updated and Jack needs a distemper booster. The kids are playing Sonic, the dogs and Doug are napping, and it isn't even noon.

I agreed to work for cateringman tomorrow morning and am rethinking it now that I know we're getting the drywall this afternoon. Shit. What was I thinking??!!! I'm thinking of a way to get rid of both kids at a friend's house or something tomorrow afternoon so Doug and I can both do this work and not have either of them under us. We shall see.

Well. I'm off to fold laundry. Take a shower. Pay bills. Mail mail. Funny how that is both a verb and a noun, eh?

Have a great day.

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