The Joy of Thunderstorms
Sunday essayist Jim Dodson is off this week. This is reprinted from the June 2009 edition of PineStraw magazine.
Summer brings teeth-jarring thunderstorms. The bigger and scarier they are, the more I love them.
I’m not sure where this attraction to bone-rattling summer storms comes from, though it may have something to do with a peripatetic childhood spent living in various corners of the deep South before the widespread use of air conditioning.
After a broiling-hot day in which the very landscape seemed as sere and scorched as an over-ironed shirt, a sudden darkness on the horizon, a telltale rumble of thunder, a gathering of wind and the sight of boiling clouds unleashing forks of lightning upon the earth never failed to unleash something primal and thrilling within me.
Even then I knew a thunderstorm could flat kill you. As a small boy, I heard about my father’s second cousin who was casually standing in his barn somewhere in Orange County one hot summer afternoon watching an approaching thunderstorm, when a bolt took him home to Jesus.
One of my first memories of life is standing at the edge of our community pasture in the flat countryside outside Dallas, Texas, eyes glued to the sky, watching a vast bowl of peaceful pale blue turn to a blackened tumult in a matter of minutes. Things were flying through the air, the horses were heading for the barn, and my mother was standing on the back steps hollering for me to get my fanny back to the house fast. I was 3 years old, mesmerized by fire and rain.
Folks in Texas take thunderstorms seriously. That’s because they often bring deadly twisters, sudden death and utter destruction of property.
Our next home port was Gulfport, Miss., where my dad owned a small newspaper for a time. We lived in a weathered cottage directly across the state highway from a wide state beach where my mom and I often walked to an old jetty and the remains of an abandoned Confederate lighthouse in the light of evening, searching for interesting shells.
Ernie, the pressman at my dad’s paper, informed me that we lived in something called “Hurricane Alley,” which only enlivened my curiosity with fire and rain. Though we lived there only a few years, I never stopped secretly hoping we might have a real hurricane descend upon us. None came, alas — though some major league thunderstorms did.
My mother always hurried to shut windows and unplug all electrical appliances, fearing that electricity attracts its own kind. Nevertheless, I came to love sitting in the dark listening to the storm rage all around us, rattling windows in their casings, feeling as small as a bug under God’s thumb, every nerve ending tingling with the electricity of being alive and on edge.
Memories of Donna
I finally got my hurricane wish in Wilmington, where we lived the year before I started public school. At the end of August, Hurricane Donna came churning through like a runaway freight, its eye passing right over Wilmington’s Lake Forest neighborhood.
As the winds suddenly subsided and the sun bobbed out, my dad took my brother and me outside into a perfectly calm and sunny summer day. I climbed up in a cypress tree that had been nearly doubled over 20 minutes before.
A few minutes later, we felt the wind rising sharply from the other direction and saw the sky turn black again. I hated to go back indoors. As it scraped up the East Coast, wreaking havoc on coastal communities from the Carolinas to New England, Hurricane Donna did more than $3.3 billion worth of damage and killed an estimated 365 people. It was by far the most destructive storm of the season. Yet I dreamed about my face-to-face with Donna for decades.
Perhaps my favorite days of fire and rain happened at East Carolina in the mid-1970s, where I lived for a time on a Florida porch of a handsome old house on the banks of the Tar River.
Out of nowhere, fierce storms would appear and flood the streets and sometimes knock out the power grid, leaving the pretty college town dark and dripping in its wake. I came to love sleeping on a porch in the rain, watching the flickering blue light show as the storm ebbed away, leaving the air mercifully cooler, the world momentarily cleansed and peaceful.
Fierce storms teach us to honor our small places in the world. They force us to seek sanctuary, to pause and acknowledge how little control we foolish humans hold over this amazing and constantly changing universe we call home.
Our ancient predecessors always looked at the clearing or darkening skies for guidance, for inspiration and meaning. The Bible is full of roiling clouds, sudden storms that parted the seas and provided unexpected directions to lost souls. Without storms there wouldn’t be streams, and without streams there would be no rivers to drink from, bathe in, to wash away the grime of daily life — to baptize babies, to water the meadows, to make things grow anew.
In the end, bone-rattling summer storms remind us, mythically and metaphorically, what people have known since the beginning of our time on this planet: that we all are here only temporarily, brief occupants of this time and space, yet connected by some divine wattage of the now.
A Wedding Storm
A decade ago, on the lovely June morning when my wife and I got married in our backyard in Maine, a huge thunderstorm came up out of nowhere. It shook the mighty hemlocks of the forest that circled our property, it sent bolts of fire crashing to earth all around us. Just about every rose in my summer rose garden — and June is peak bloom season — lost its petals in that wild storm.
We all fled indoors and stood peering respectfully and a little fearfully out at the tumult — so many moderns huddled like ancient travelers in a cave.
A friend remarked, “My grandmother claimed rain on your wedding day means your marriage will be prosperous. It’s a good omen, a blessing.”
“In that case,” quipped my bride, “we’re going to be rich.”
Just as quickly as it came, the summer thunderstorm blew away. The sun came out and so did all the guests.
The bluegrass sparkled as if it had been washed by the waters of the Jordan River itself.
It was a fine wedding omen, after all. Our life since the advent of that unexpected June storm has been far richer than I could ever have imagined.
Award-winning author Jim Dodson, Sunday essayist with The Pilot and editor of PineStraw magazine, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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