Friday, June 18, 2010

Stormy Weather

When I moved to BG in 2003, I lived in a hotel for about two weeks before I could move into my apartment (thanks to screw-ups with the moving company) and for those two weeks, the tornado siren went off nearly every day. Unfortunately, this resulted in some complacence among my my fellow hotelers and myself, as we would peek outside our doors to see if we could see the tornado once the sirens went off. There was once that a few of us stood in the parking lot, watching a funnel cloud descend and go back up. And now that I've moved from BG, storms seem to be bidding their own farewell: a day or two after I moved, an F4 tornado ripped through Wood County, killing twelve people and destroying more than simple property. It takes away a little bit of the excitement for red on the radar, as it should. I've got memories of other tornadoes: the tornado that ripped apart Gustavus Adolphus College when I was a freshman at Concordia. I went down to help clean up. There is nothing in the world like the aftermath of a tornado. No destruction can even come close. It's fast, it comes out of nowhere, and there's absolutely no rhyme or reason to what gets broken, what gets saved, and who loses their lives.

Since I've moved, the storms have followed. For the last week, we've had thunderstorms here every night, but I don't really consider them storms, since they haven't woken me up. Last night, the storm hit before I went to bed and it was a delightful little mix of thunder and lightning, nothing for me to get too excited about--but no, that's not true either. I get excited about storms of any type. And then I have a moment of "I should not be excited for these storms--look what they've done!" and I'm so conflicted about whether or not I should be excited that it makes me dizzy.

But my father called last night, as he and my mother were spending the night at my grandparents' Cabin, which doesn't have TV or internet, and he wanted to know what the radar looked like. The whip of the tail that Nebraska was getting, the head of it was up in Minot and curled around nearly to Duluth, through MInneapolis, and down to Nebraska and Kansas. My parents had already seen their storm of the night and wouldn't get anymore, so the radar said. I hung up with him and hopped on Facebook, where my friend J,, with whom I worked at camp for several years in college, made a mention of the resort she was staying at said they could go for shelter into a conference room (where there were large windows...) and she laughed. We traded memories of bad weather at camp, getting all the campers into the basement in the middle of the night, wondering if we should go get them from campouts, calling the National Weather Service in Grand Forks and being told to call Duluth and Duluth telling us to call Grand Forks (where we were was about where the satellites overlapped), and many more.

I remember, another summer, another camp, sitting with C., on the steps outside the dining hall, with the campers and counselors safely in the basement. We noted the difference in thunder: rumbles that sound like marbles on a hardwood floor, bass drum booms, and cracks that sound like the sky is being cracked like an egg. With the phone in hand, the National Weather Service on speed dial, we would watch the clouds rotate, rating the thunder on a scale of 1-10, often heckling, “Come on, God, just one funnel cloud—is that too much to ask?” We didn’t want a tornado. We’d seen the ravages they’d left behind. But we wanted to see, really see, the power held in that water and those clouds. There's only been one time where I've gone myself into the bathroom, tossed the cats in there with other important things, and this was a storm when H. was two weeks old and LC was alone in the house with her newborn baby. That was a touchy situation. Memorable.

This morning I woke up, checked CNN as I always do, and there was an article about last night's storms: three killed in MN. Tornadoes touch down in Wadena and Albert Lea. I called my father to get the scoop and he said that their friends' daughter and granddaughter were in the path of the tornado and their four-plex was flattened. They'd basically lost everything they had, but they were okay.

The humility of storms is something I'll never get used to. It's hard not to get wrapped up in the excitement of the thunder and the lightning, the energy in the air, because that energy is really there and it has to go somewhere. There's something wonderful--if only wonderful in a terrible way--about seeing the power of nature, that no matter how hard we try, we can never control it. But then I think of the storms in Wood County and the lives affected there, the lives affected in Wadena and Albert Lea, and it's also hard not to feel guilty about remembering the excitement I feel every time the radar turns red.

It's a tough thing, but it also brings to mind the power of memory. Storms--no matter how destructive they are--always remind me of what's really important and that memory is more valuable than rooms full of stuff. My two favorite storms of all times remind me of that. The first Best Storm award goes to the storm at Glendive, Montana, when we were camping west once. We were in our 1972 Starcraft pop-up and the storm was incredible. Lightning, thunder, rain. The campground's flagpole was within view of our camper and we watched it whip one direction for a while, then the wind would switch and it would whip in the other direction. The best part of the night was not that Dad drove us the short distance from the camper to the bathroom in the Suburban because the water was too deep (and the storm, naturally, dangerous to walk in), but that our father, who loathes board games and things like that, actually played games with us as the storm raged. We set the dinette up into a table and the five of us had a great time, playing whatever it is we played. In the morning, it was like nothing had ever happened. The ground had soaked up all that rain and the sky was as clear and blue as we'd ever seen it. Our camping neighbors would tell us they wondered about us, in our pop-up, when they were nervous in their Class A's, but it never occurred to us kids to be afraid.

The second best storm of all time happened on another trip, this one in 1994, east to Washington, DC. The heat of the city was tremendous and we were Minnesotans, used to excessive heat and humidity. A hundred degrees, a hundred percent humidity. The heat was enough to induce nausea when we moved from the outside to the air-conditioning of the museums. It was also the only time in my memory that our mother bought juice packs--to keep us hydrated. But on this day, we went to see George Washington's house at Mount Vernon. It didn't look like a storm when we got there, but once we got into the house and started touring, the clouds gathered. I remember standing on the main floor, where the windows faced the river, and it was at that point that the storm lost its temper. One minute we could see the river through the drops and in the next minute we couldn't. It took several very large men, pressing against that wind, to get the doors closed--and even then, the water was coming underneath the door. When you're a kid, it doesn't occur to you to be afraid unless other people around you are afraid, and nobody was. The storm didn't last long, but it was potent enough to make it onto my list.

I haven't had many storms in my Scamp, just the one in Lincoln a month ago with my mother, where I discovered that the windows still leaked--and it's really loud in there, the rain on the roof. But part of me still is looking forward to the next one.

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