When I was a kid, I used to lay on the front lawn and stare for hours into the blue. I don’t remember how old I was, Cub Scout age probably. The vastness of the sky above me fascinated me. I believed in God then. I thought of the great hosts of heaven as depicted in the catechism. I don’t know that I prayed. But I talked as if I was having a conversation with the Almighty.
There was one occasion when I watched gray, boiling clouds intruded on my scene of blue wisped with white. The wonder of the storm rolling in above me captivated me. I felt the grass against my ears. The air shifted. The wind picked up and it smelled of rain. The clouds eventually covered all the blue. The day dimmed and the sky turned green.
I thought maybe I ought to get in but didn’t want to get out what I was caught up in. I felt a peace I never had before or couldn’t remember. When the lightning started, the thunder reverberated through my chest again and again. Suddenly, the sky opened up and the rain came down in curtains. It was warm and exhilarated me. The depression I was laying in began to fill. Soon, I had a freshwater pool all to myself.
When the rain let up to a light shower, I began to feel chill. When I dragged in, finally, I expected a good cuffing for played out in the rain. But the house was a quiet and the living room was dark. My mom and siblings were in the family room watching television. When I realized no one had missed me, I thought I’d gotten away with something grand. I walked without a sound to the hallway and then to the bathroom, where I wrung my clothes out in the tub and hid them in the bottom of the dirty clothes hamper. When I came into the family room, no one noticed my air was wet.
Since then, rainstorms do two things to me. On the one hand, they instill a kind of calm in me. The sound of rain on a roof or eave settles the uneasy electricity in my head. My heart slows down. I don’t feel pressure to produce or compete that I do all the time. It’s almost as if nothing can break my spirit or move me to anger. I get melancholy and thoughtful. I remember the poignant moments of life.
On the other hand, a good storm excites me. There’s danger in the air. I can never know where the next bolt of lightning will strike. I don’t know what happens to a body struck by lightning but I’m afraid of it. The excitement of a good thunderstorm can make the dreariest moods ebullient. I revel in nasty weather. I love it.
Two events come to mind that illustrate the bipolar nature of my feelings toward rain and thunderstorms. When I was a Boy Scout, we drove down to the big summer camp one spring. We set up our tents in an area set aside for wilderness survival merit badge training during the regular summer sessions. An expanse of meadow flowed out of the forest all around. Toward the center of the clearing stood a screened-in cabin of the kind that leaders stayed in at the regular camp.
We had just started the fires so ubiquitous to scout outings when the sky clouded over. When the rain began, most of us retreated to our tents. But a jumble of us, five or six, stayed out by the fire. The rain was gentle and steady, a warm light rain, almost like feathers falling. We took off our shoes and put them away so they would be dry for later.
We frolicked. Rain and wet grass let us take off at a run and slide like we were on ice, the grass smooth and slick beneath our shorts and bare feet. The more it rained the more frogs came up from wherever they were hiding. We caught frogs by the dozen and loaded them into a quart milk carton we’d retrieved from our trash pile. A slithering mass of feet and eyeballs.
We ran to the cabin, spilled the frogs out on the floor, and goofed around inside for a while before going out into the rain, leaving the door open for the frogs to escape. For some reason, the scout leaders didn’t bother to call us in. They didn’t chide or scold. I don’t remember when the day ended but it seemed we were out in that gentle rain for eternity.
Later, when I was 14 or 15, I spent the summer caddying at a posh country club. It was four miles from our house and I had to walk back and forth every day if I was to make any money for myself. With the round trip and two loops on the course, I put in about 16 miles of walking every working day and Saturdays. For one long day, I earned ten bucks.
One day, I’d been out with some really bad golfers who took all late afternoon into the evening to play the course. I headed home as the sun was setting. I’d made it about a mile from the course when a squall busted in from the west. It grew dark as if night had fallen. Lightning began to climb the hill and the time between a flash and a clap grew less and less.
At first, I was thrilled. The wind had kicked up so hard that I had problems standing up in it. When the rain began, the nickel-sized drops were hard and sharp as knives. But I was thrilled. It was cold and within a minute I was soaked and my shoes sloshed. The lightning started to strike close, the thunder coming simultaneously with the flash.
My excitement turned to terror. I was in the middle of a biblical maelstrom. I kept thinking, someone at home ought to know to come get me. But no help arrived. It poured in a way I’d never until then experienced. When I finally drug in, I was exhausted, as much from the day’s exertions as from the confusing mix of excitement and terror I’d felt the last three miles home.
I’ve since been in bigger storms. When I was walking to Montana years later, I witnessed lighting strikes on the ground less than 50 yards away, the thunder deafening me for hours. I once watched a storm come in over the Missouri when I was canoeing back home from Montana that raised waterspouts from the reservoir that stretched out before me.
I’ve also spent long weekends inside a tent with the rain pittering on the canvas. I’ve thought of lost loves and deaths of friends. I’ve written poems and spent the day under a gentle rain just letting my wind wander. These rains, these small storms, open ways into the silence where I can just about hear the god I used to believe in.
While I love the dead of winter, when all is brown and waiting for light and warmth, I ache for days in spring that start dark and stay that way until the sun sets. I look for the severe storms that send people to their basements and me to the end of my driveway.
And I think back to those days when I used to stare at the sky. I was hopeful then. I had something that the years have taken away. I remember it, a kind of innocence I experience when it starts to rain.