It’s been the week for late afternoon thunderstorms around here. The last four days, around 6ish in the evening, thunder starts growling around and the wind picks up. Eventually, a log-floating, frog-choking deluge descends from the sky. The whole affair lasts about an hour to 90 minutes from beginning to end and when it’s over, the air outside is either much cooler or much more humid depending on the whim of the weather gods. It’s the price we pay for living in the South.
I hate it.
I am irrationally, completely, and utterly terrified of thunderstorms. As far as I know, I always have been. I don’t really know why. I’m intelligent enough to know how they start and what they are going to do. I know that thunder’s just a noise; lightning does the work. Doesn’t matter. Storms put knots in the pit of my stomach. It’s not the lightning or the rain. It’s the wind. I don’t mind lightning streaking everywhere and I can tolerate huge booming rounds of thunder.
I don’t do wind.
Once the trees start swaying, I look for a place to hide.
Of course, it would stand to reason that some of my most vivid memories from childhood involved storms of one caliber or another. I recall sitting by candlelight when I couldn’t have been more than four or so. The storm had knocked out power to our trailer. I remember standing outside with Papa Wham when I was still in single digits and a massive streak of lightning turned night to day for a brief second. I remember a little grey tree frog that rode out a particularly nasty storm squatting firmly on one of the sticks we used to hold our trailer windows open. I remember Mama trying to calm me down by singing “Keep Me Safe ‘Til the Storm Passes By.” Lots of storm memories. Two stand out incredibly strong.
I was four or five and playing in the backyard at my great-Aunt Betty’s house. As usual, I was completely oblivious to my surroundings until I looked up at the cotton field and saw Uncle Raymond coming down the dirt road leading out of the field like all the imps of Hell were behind him. He skidded the old red and white Ford truck to a stop in a outburst of dust and pebbles and when he jumped out, he was running and shouting, “Shannon, get in the truck quick.” I got scared for three reasons. One, Uncle Raymond NEVER came out of the fields before near dark. He always worked a full day as a sharecropping cotton farmer. Two, Uncle Raymond NEVER ran. A fast mosey was his normal top speed and he didn’t hit it often; and three, and most worrisome to me, Uncle Raymond NEVER called me by my given name. He always called me Cottontop or little man or some other pet name. Never “Shannon.” I didn’t have time to wonder much as I climbed into the truck because Uncle Raymond was already on his way back with Aunt Betty in tow. He was explaining as he hurried her along, but all I caught was one word — tornado.
At the time, I had no idea how he knew a tornado was coming, but I found out later that one of the “big men” who owned the field and drove the big cotton harvesters kept a weather band radio on loud at all times. Storms come up quickly in these parts and the last thing anyone wanted was to be caught in the middle of a cotton field with lightning striking everywhere. Lightning tends to strike the tallest object around and if you’re a six foot tall man in the middle of an open cotton field, guess what the tallest object around is?
We took off in the truck and Uncle Raymond drove us to a culvert or tunnel under the highway. He parked in the middle and I guess he could tell I was terrified, because he patted me on the head then he fixed my “linus blanket” over the back of the seat like a tent. From inside that tent, I heard the twister pass over us. You’ll hear people say a tornado sounds like a train rushing by, but that day, it sounded like the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. After about an hour, we went back to the house and other than a few limbs blown down and a shingle or two off the house, everything was fine. Uncle Raymond dropped Aunt Betty and me off and went back to the field like nothing had happened. Like he ran his family from tornadoes every day.
My second storm memory involves Daddy. I was ten, maybe eleven, and he and I were out on Lake Moultrie fishing for catfish. He and Teresa, my stepmother, took me to the Santee-Cooper lakes every summer on a fishing trip for about six or seven years that I remember. Usually, all three of us went out fishing. It wasn’t unusual for Teresa to outfish us all. This particular run, though, she’d stayed in the room at the landing.
If you’ve never seen Lake Moultrie, it’s basically a big, deep bathtub. Lake Marion, at the other end of the Diversion Canal, is bigger in area, but it has a lot more islands and is generally much shallower. We were in the middle of Lake Moultrie and I couldn’t see any land. Anyway, Daddy and I were having a good afternoon of fishing and I was enjoying one of the rare occasions of him and me just being together.
All was well until Daddy looked behind us. After he did, he turned around to me and said, “Shannon, put your life jacket on.” I usually asked many, many questions, but, like Uncle Raymond, Daddy never used my name. He mostly called me “Son” if he called me anything. I put my life jacket on before I turned around to see what Daddy saw. It was a squall line all the way across the sky. In front, the sky was robin’s egg blue, but behind, it was black. Really black.
My Daddy is, and always has been to my knowledge, utterly fearless. I’ve never known him to be scared of anything. I’d never even seen him acknowledge a situation might require a little worrying. Well, I still don’t think he was scared and if he hadn’t had me with him, he probably wouldn’t even have been worried, but he knew that I hated storms and tended to panic AND he knew that I swim like a 1940 Packard Super Eight Touring Limo. I wasn’t panicked yet. I was with Daddy and Daddy wasn’t scared of the Devil, much less a puny storm . . . that was already making whitecaps on the lake’s surface. I did get a little concerned, however, when Daddy put his OWN life jacket on. It was the only time in my life I’ve ever seen him do that. Still, I was with Daddy and he was just being cautious. What he did next though, pushed me right to the edge of meltdown. He cut the rope off the anchor and lashed one end around his waist, then he took the other end and tied it snugly around my right foot.
The wind and whitecaps were picking up when Daddy started the 70hp Johnson outboard and spun the boat around. Luckily, we were running before the wind. It helped some. Daddy never drove the boat fast as a general rule, but this day, he had the throttle wide open. We were aiming at for the Diversion Canal, which was very sheltered. We’d get wet, but we wouldn’t have to worry about capsizing or hitting anything and we’d gotten wet before.
It had been a ten minute boat ride out to where we were fishing. The race to the canal took twenty, even with the wind at our backs. The last little bit, the rain hit us and, if you don’t know, raindrops feel like BB guns shooting you when you’re in a boat moving 30mph. We made it to the mouth of the canal, though and as soon as we got about a hundred yards in, the water smoothed right on out. It rained buckets and we got soaked, but we were safe. I knew the danger was passed when Daddy reached down and took the rope off my foot and smiled at me.
So there you go. I hate storms. Panic in them all the time and I’ve gotten to panic a lot lately.
Love y’all. Sorry this one was so long. I got carried away since Budge isn’t here for me to talk to!
Take care, and wash your feet, but not in the tub if it’s lightning outside!