Flying billboard of death

It was the summer of 2005, two months before my wedding. My buddy Greg had gotten involved with a group of people who were organizing a summer English program for elementary school kids in a suburb of Wenzhou called Liushi, a few hundred kilometers south of Shanghai across the yawning mouth of Hangzhou Bay and the eastern coast of Zhejiang Province. It was supposed to be an eight-week camp, and paid a thousand dollars, which was a not insubstantial sum at that point in my life. I needed the money — I was about to become a family man, after all! — and I wanted to help Greg, so I agreed to do it. We took a bus from Hangzhou, arrived at a hotel in town, met the other teachers that had been recruited for the program, and set up camp in a couple of rooms on the top floor.

The first week went well enough. The kids were fun, and young enough to be adorable annoying rather than surly annoying. Each morning we took little three-wheeled mototaxis from our hotel to the school, ate lunch with the kids, then went back to our hotel in the early evening. We attracted a decent amount of attention as pretty much the only foreigners in town, but people were nice enough, somewhat belying the reputation that people from Wenzhou have elsewhere in China.

At the end of the first week, though, one of the organizers — Pinky, we called him, because he wore a light pink polo shirt each of the five days we’d seen him that week — told us to take care with the typhoon coming over the weekend

The typhoon?

Apparently there was a typhoon headed right at us. As mentioned previously, I’m from Florida, as is Greg, so neither of us were very concerned by the typhoon itself, but rather more concerned that nobody else in town seemed to give a shit that they were living right in the middle of the probability track cone for what seemed to be a pretty significant tropical cyclone. I learned later that this is par for the course for predictable natural disasters in China — people just don’t worry about them until they absolutely have to, and that’s generally the minute the army shows up to evacuate them to a safer locale — but at the time it seemed incongruous with our experiences preparing for Atlantic hurricanes in Florida.

Not knowing what we should do to prepare, we went to the supermarket and stocked up on the essentials. Potato chips, bottled water, and a few cases of beer securely squirreled away in our hotel room, we waited for the typhoon to arrive.

And arrive it did, but more slowly than we thought it would. We’d started drinking sometime not long after breakfast, and by the time the winds really picked up, but before things became apocalyptic, we ran out of beer.

Greg and I went downstairs to the lobby to assess our options. The supermarket we’d gone to originally was a 20 minute walk away, and even in our inebriated state we didn’t think that would be a good idea. The restaurant directly across the street, where we’d eaten dinner one night the previous week, was still open, though.

They must have beer.

So we made the only reasonable choice available to us. Greg and I ran headlong across the street, the rain knifing horizontally into us, driven by hurricane force winds. It hurt, and we were soaked ten steps into the dash, but we made it. The waitresses greeted us with bemused smiles — stupid laowai — and were more than happy to sell us two cases of beer. We thought about buying more, but decided that getting back across the street with a case each was going to be a feat in itself, and that maybe we shouldn’t push our luck. After all, we could always come back later if we needed more.

Saying our goodbyes to the restaurant staff, we dashed back across the street, this time already soaked and slowed down by a case of beer each. Out of breath — marathon drinking sessions had done little for our aerobic fitness — we made it back to the lobby of the hotel to the cheers of our fellow teachers. We were heroes.

We’d just handed the beer off to our friends when we heard this strange wah wah wah wah sound growing louder and louder behind us. We turned in time to see the aluminum backing of a billboard go down the road we’d just crossed, propelled at maybe 50kph by the increasingly strong winds. It was almost vertical when it passed the hotel, then one end caught the ground and the whole thing crumpled into twisted mess of metal, like aluminum foil’s angry, steroid-ridden cousin, before finally crashing into a parked car and coming to a rest.

Missed us by maybe 15 seconds.

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