Thursday, April 13, 2017
DISTANT THUNDER AND FEAR OF FEAR ITSELF
We recently had our first spate of wet weather for the autumn season here in Andean Patagonia. Summers are typically dry, as are the early weeks of autumn. But then you start getting shifting winds and warmish wet weather rolling out of the northwest across the Andes from the Pacific or cold, bone-chilling rains blowing up “from down below”, as they say here, meaning out of the southeast, which is where a lot of the heaviest snows come from in the wintertime.
I keep my eye on the sky at this time of the year to make sure I get in plenty of dry firewood before the season changes completely. That usually happens in late May and June, when two or three weeks of heavy rain at a time are not uncommon, giving way to snow in the high country, which eventually falls lower and lower on the mountainsides until we, down here in the foothills, get our share of white stuff as well. This year, I was johnny-on-the-spot and already had over six and a half cords of excellent firewood cut hauled and stacked under cover by the end of March. In other words, I’m set for winter whenever and however it comes.
But I digress. What I was going to say was that, with the recent first rainstorms, we had abundant electrical activity. Anybody from my native west-central Ohio would say, “So what else is new?” But here, thunder is an oddity—something about the tall mountain peaks attracting opposing charges first and grounding out the lightning bolts at high altitudes, so that they seldom strike in the lowlands. I don’t know. I’m not a meteorologist, but that’s what they tell me. When I first moved down here to the mountains nearly a quarter-century ago, hearing thunder was even more rare than it is now (sometimes you’d go a few years without hearing even the most distant thunder). And that was something I missed from my Midwestern childhood. Because there was a point in my childhood when I grew fascinated with storms and, to my mother’s dismay, wanted to go out and play in them, to walk in them, to feel their power. But I wasn’t always that way—as you’ll soon see.
So anyway, the other day, which seemed like a perfectly nice day, if a little muggy and with a treacherous little gusty breeze kicking up, it suddenly started getting dark, with black clouds rolling in from the invisible Pacific, over on the other side of the cordillera. “It’s going to rain,” I thought. But thought no further, as I was sitting at my desk working and knew my firewood was all well-covered and tied down. Suddenly, however, a thunder clap that seemed to happen right above the house, shaking its timbers and setting every dog for miles around howling, scared the bejesus out of me. It was kind of like somebody rolling a howitzer up behind me and firing it with no warning. It’s natural. You almost literally jump out of your skin.
It was at that precise moment that a distant memory leaped to mind and started running in my head like an old movie that I’d filed away for future reference, only to have it “come onto the screen” accompanied by the exact same feelings and sensations of that far-off time and place. It was the precise moment at which I first became actively aware of thunder. I was, perhaps, three and a half or four years old. I know this because my little brother didn’t exist yet. It was just my sister Darla and me. We were sitting on the couch (which back then we called “the davenport”) in the living room of our house on Defiance Street in Wapakoneta, Ohio. Whitie, my dad, was working late and Darla and I were sitting on either side of Reba Mae, our mother. I don’t know what time it was, but it was already dark out. Reba Mae had invited us to sit there with her for the ostensible purpose of her reading us a story “so we wouldn’t be afraid of the storm.” But the truth was that she was reading to us to calm herself down because no one was displaying greater fear of the veritable symphony of lightning bolts and thunder claps outside than Reba Mae.
Her panic was, of course, infectious in children so small. There was a feeling that if we felt always safe and protected under our roof and with the adults in our lives, this thunder and lightning thing must be something against which our home, our fortress, had no special powers. If Reba Mae was quite clearly scared silly, invincible as we believed her to be, then this outside force must be something very major indeed.
So we hunkered close to her as the storm raged outside. I was so impressed by her fear, rather than by what she was reading, that, for this reason only, I recall exactly which stories she read us from the Childcraft Collection. They were both fables, one about a dog proudly carrying a prize bone in his mouth as he crosses a bridge over a brook, only to look down and see another dog just like him and carrying his very same bone in its mouth, and in response he barks, dropping the bone from his mouth into the brook, where it is lost forever. And the other one about a stork who offers a fox a drink from a long-necked jar into which his muzzle would never fit and how the fox repays the stork by offering him a drink from a flat shallow pan from which the stork’s long pointed beak could never extract a single drop.
But in my child’s interpretation, the image the dog sees in the brook is at night and reflected in a terrible lightning flash and the stork and the fox are only accidentally sheltering together in a cave in order to stay out of the storm and that’s why they end up at the mercy of each other’s irony. Because if it weren’t for their fear of the storm, they would simply have gone their separate ways and gotten a drink of water elsewhere. The stories stick in my mind because I hear them being read in my mother’s tense, brave but quaking voice and I can still feel my cheek pressed against her arm and the piece of her sleeve that I’m gripping in my hand.
Eventually, she gave up trying to deal with her fear and, in an exaggeratedly cheerful voice, she said, “Come on, kids! Let’s go to Max’s for an ice cream cone. We’ll take Grandma!”
Even though it was clearly bedtime, she bundled us into the car, drove us to her parents’ house on the other side of town, picked up her mother, and off we went to Max’s Dairy Bar for a custard ice cream cone which we ate in the stifling car with all the windows rolled up as the storm continued outside. And then it was back to Grandma’s, presumably until time to pick up Whitie from work. But by then, I couldn’t have cared less. Grandma Myrt spread a couple of her lovely handmade patchwork quilts on the rug in the front room for Darla and me and covered us with a light blanket. At last, I felt, we were safe. No bad voodoo was stronger than Grandma. She was a giant-slayer. I dozed off contented and safe.
It wasn’t until many years later that my mother explained to me how her irrational fear of storms stemmed from a childhood experience. A day when she and her little brother Kenny were on her pony, out on the land where he father was a tenant farmer, when a storm blow up suddenly and, in the interest of being the protective big sister, she could think of nothing better to do than to shelter under the only tree in a very large field. A bolt of lightning—with the deafening thunder that accompanied it—struck the tree and split it down the middle. Reba Mae and Kenny narrowly missed being killed.
Nowadays, her abnormally heightened terror of storms would probably be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder and therapy would be prescribed. But back then, if you were a tenant farmer’s daughter, you sucked it up and moved on. And you didn’t tell your father about it because he was likely to “give you a good lickin’” for being an idiot and standing under a tree in an electrical storm.
For a brief time, I was as frightened as Reba Mae was of thunder and lightning. As soon as the first great clap sounded, I would begin to tremble and start looking for a place to hide. Until, that is, I was home alone with Whitie once during a thunderstorm. He found me cowering behind the davenport and, in a rare moment of patience, he said, “What’s goin’ on, bud?”
I told him I was scared of the thunder. He invited me to come out and talk about it. He sat down and I climbed up on his lap. He told me there was nothing to be scared of. That thunder was nothing more than a noisy upstairs neighbor. It just so happened that we lived right under the kitchen in Heaven, and that every time I heard that rumbling sound, it was just the cooks pouring the potatoes out of their sacks onto the floor. That sound was just the spuds rolling around. Lots of them, because there were a lot of folks up there in heaven that needed feeding. Soon he had me laughing and saying, “There go them spuds again, Daddy!”
“Yeah,” he’d say. “Gonna have to go up there and tell those guys to hold it the hell down!”
After that, I could never again, as a child, hear thunder without thinking of big sacks of potatoes spilling across a wooden plank floor. In fact, I still can’t.