Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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I was thirteen when my family took our new trailer on a summer camping trip to Missouri. We pitched a canvas awning over the picnic table at our campsite to create more sheltered space for the seven of us.
One day we were caught in a storm. We didn’t know it was a tornado until after it had passed. My father and I ended up standing on the picnic table desperately clinging to the aluminum pole that held up the awning as lightning flashed all around us. Gusts of wind actually lifted us off the table, and there was hail the size of golf balls. I’d never heard my father gasp in pain — and, it occurs to me now, in fear — as he did when the hail hit his bare legs. I was wearing jeans and shielded him with my body.
Afterward, my father told me I’d become a man that day. I swelled with pride and embarrassment as my sister laughed. “You’re not a man,” she said, “you’re only thirteen!”
I love the irony that I became a man in my father’s eyes by nobly protecting him while we did something totally stupid.
My brother and I were making hay about a half mile from home. Paul was driving a tractor hooked up to the baler, and I was catching the bales as they came and stacking them on the rack. It had been hot all day, and we’d been at it since the dew went off that morning. Paul caught my eye and pointed. I looked up and saw that the whole western sky was turning black and moving in on us. We both made the speed-’er-up-and-go-for-it sign. He grinned and pushed the throttle up a notch.
He was pushing the baler as hard as he could, and I was making a tight, high load on the wagon. Then the sun was gone and the hot, sticky air went cool. The wind came up across the fields. The hay was starting to get tough from the dampness, slowing us down, when I jerked the last bale out of the chute. Paul jumped off the tractor, raised the pickup attachment on the baler, and backed the pickup to it. I jumped off the hay wagon to connect them, and he roared away across the field, driving like Dad never allowed us to, the baler bouncing behind him.
I ran across the field to the other tractor, then drove it back and hooked it up to the hay wagon. I didn’t look up until I made the turn on to the road. The storm was leaning over me, cracking with lightning. I shifted into road gear and opened the throttle all the way. I was driving to beat hell down the gravel road, dead ahead into the storm, when I saw the rain break out of the trees ahead and start across the cornfield. I kept her wide open until the last second, then pulled back the throttle, dropped her into third, swung into the driveway — engine bellowing, belching black smoke — and drove up the hill past the house. My sister heard the tractor and ran into the yard to watch, waving her arms and yelling, and I grinned back.
Paul had just backed the baler into the shed and was running toward me with the canvas. I pulled in next to the barn and jumped down. We threw the canvas over the load just as the first big drops pelted us. Then the storm hit, rain pounding our heads and arms, and we were tying the canvas down in the gale, laughing like wild men, feeling alive and strong and clever and damned lucky all at the same time.
St. Paul, Minnesota
Diamond Jim and I were sailing his twenty-one-foot sloop three days after graduation. The boat had taken years to rebuild. Jim was a skilled boat carpenter and sailor, and a mathematical genius. He could demonstrate complex geometrical proofs without referring to the text and had won a prize for developing the most elegant proof in geometry. He had been dubbed “Diamond” for turning a profit from beer runs to campus.
We were to sail June through September from Maryland to Maine. But just hours out of Annapolis, a stupendous storm cloud slid silently over the clear sky. When it was directly overhead, the first stirrings of air brushed my face, and I wondered how a cloud could get so large and so black. Suddenly, like a colossal hand, the wind grabbed and torqued the rigging. Jim sent me out of the cockpit to reef the mainsail, but I panicked and let the halyard slip from my hand. The mainsail fell onto the boom, and the halyard ascended the mast. We were disabled in the howling wind. By now the water was whipping us with a violent chop. Everything was flying, unraveling in the wind. The loose mainsail clapped like a cannon.
Jim rushed to the mast, dismissing me to the cockpit. He climbed the mast, straight up into the storm, shirtless, silhouetted against the gray, torn sky. He returned to the deck with the halyard in hand.
We managed to scurry to a marina, where we holed up in the sloop’s tiny cabin for two days while the storm blew wind and rain and darkness. This was our initiation from late adolescence into a time of loss and suffering. That summer would mark the transition between college and more college for draft avoiders like me, and between college and the void for the more honest and faithful, like Jim.
Twenty-six years later, most of our classmates reunited to perform a memorial service for Jim. We mounted a plaque on the door of his boathouse, inscribed: James R. McClintock, Mathematician, Boat Builder, Teacher, Lost in Vietnam, Remembered by his Classmates.
Sometimes I see Jim lying in the jungle dirt, his entrails spewed out of the grenade wound in his side, his great, bulging eyes throbbing for lack of wind and water, for lack of sense in his landlocked death. And sometimes, when I can stand the intensity, I see Jim ascending the staggering mast. Shirtless, his legs are thrown out from the mast by the force of the wind. His hands part from the rigging. For a moment he hovers in the din and turbulence. Measured and frozen in the straight lines of the rigging, arms and legs outstretched, he is Leonardo’s geometrical man, the perfect form. He wheels, slowly at first, and soars into the churning void until he’s vanished to a point, the perfect point in a sea of chaos.
After several months of travel in Asia, I signed up for a ten-day silent meditation retreat in Thailand. But I had always found meditation difficult, and as I tried to be mindful of my breathing, I was plagued by distractions: maddening mosquitoes, the rumbling of my empty stomach, remembering the large scorpion in my cot the night before.
A sudden crack of thunder made me start. A storm had moved in; I could see the menacing black sky through the wide windows. Sizzling lightning bolts zigzagged across dark clouds, followed by earsplitting thunderclaps.
Having grown up in the mild climate of southern California, I rarely encountered violent storms, and they thrilled me as dramatic evidence of a spirit force in action. It seemed sacrilegious to sit with my eyes closed while nature displayed such an awesome spectacle right outside. But nobody in the room moved, and I wondered if their minds could possibly be as still as their bodies.
Finally the gong rang, signaling time for the walking meditation. A monk told us to choose two trees in the coconut grove and walk very slowly between them, keeping our minds focused on our breath. “Be careful of falling coconuts and poisonous snakes,” he added, as we moved into the torrential downpour.
Within thirty seconds, I was soaked. Blinking raindrops out of my eyes, I found two trees about ten yards apart and checked them for loose coconuts. I saw a lightning bolt zap a spot on a hill about a quarter of a mile away, then jumped as a crack of thunder exploded.
“This is insane,” I thought, but took a deep breath and began walking slowly across the muddy earth toward the other tree. Keeping my hands clasped in front of me, I squeezed them in anticipation of the deafening booms that closely followed each flash of lightning.
I was excited and terrified. The world around me was erupting in chaos, but I forced myself to focus all my attention on my breath. As I walked from tree to tree, my mind gradually calmed. My breathing and footsteps became slow and regular. Soon, all that existed was the mindful setting of one foot in front of the other, the inhaling of breath followed by an exhale, in the midst of nature’s frenzy.
My grandmother was terrified of thunderstorms. The first rumble would send her scurrying from the second floor to the cellar with barely a word to those she passed. The moment we heard the first footstep on the stairs we knew our fate for the evening — cards in the basement with Grandma.
As a child I did not understand her fear, as I loved the intensity of storms and would have preferred to sit by the window and watch them come in. But as a family, we would not leave her worrying alone one floor below us; we would join her as a reminder that we were in a safe and loving place where the storm could not harm us. Cards were played, laughter was heard, and another storm would pass.
My grandmother died when I was eighteen, with her family by her side, during one of the worst thunderstorms of my life.
Nicolette R. Blanco
Lightning flashed in the distance. The thunder was still rumbling when Mother called me into the house and sent my playmates home. Grabbing my hand as I came through the door, she dragged me with her as she dashed from room to room, madly closing windows and drawing the blinds. In the living room, Mother sat on the couch and pulled me onto her lap. Her voice trembled and cracked as she started to pray. Then, lifting me off her lap, she told me to stay on the couch, and she hurried into the kitchen. I heard her rummaging through cabinets and drawers. She returned in a few minutes carrying a small, white candle in one hand and shielding the flame with the other. With shaking hands, she put the candle on the coffee table. It looked just like the candles I had seen in church by the statue of the Virgin Mary.
As the storm neared and the lightning intensified, Mother prayed more desperately, and tears ran down her cheeks. With childhood bravado, I tried to comfort her: “Don’t cry, Mom. It’ll be all right.” She told me I was too young to understand. Lightning had struck her house when she was a little girl, and it was the most terrifying thing she had ever seen. I knew she was afraid that lightning would strike our house. Her fear was contagious, and soon I was crying and praying too.
We had been sitting there only a few minutes when Dad came home from work. Lifting me from the couch, he said, “There’s no reason to be afraid. Let me show you how beautiful lightning can be and how much fun it is to watch.” He persuaded me to go onto the porch with him. Sitting beside me on the porch swing, his arm around my shoulders, he told me to try to enjoy the beauty I was about to see. Lightning flashed and thunder crashed all around us. At first I jumped at each bolt and resounding boom, but Dad’s arm around my shoulders felt comforting. He pointed out that each flash was different. Some were fat and determined, speeding from the clouds to the ground in a split second. Others were spidery thin, dancing from cloud to cloud. At times there would be three or four parallel streaks in rapid succession. I became so fascinated watching the changing patterns that I forgot to be afraid.
Dad and I watched many thunderstorms together after that day. Mother’s fear of lightning lessened over time but never completely went away. Occasionally she’d join us on the porch to watch the first few minutes of a storm, then go inside.
Dad died nearly thirty years ago, but I think of him whenever I see lightning flash or hear thunder rumble across the land.
P. J. Wagner
Startled by the rain, I wake up to a familiar terror: I’m afraid the window will smash and fall onto my head. I turn around so my feet are next to the window. Unable to sleep, I recall the night eight months ago when Hurricane Andrew struck, the night I woke to my mother’s yelling as a tree did break through the window. I ran to my father’s room, leaned over his wheelchair, and urged him to move away from the window above his head. He spoke calmly, assuring me that the screen would protect him by catching the glass. Later, he soothed the rest of us with jokes that eased the crackling tension.
When it grew light enough to see the stooped trees and flooded streets, a tiny, remote voice on the radio said it was almost over. We crept outside in the ferocious, icy rain that soaked through my nightgown and stiffened my nipples. A neighbor I had never seen before emerged from his house, and we called to each other, “Are you all right?” I suddenly felt a kinship with this man who lived less than fifty yards away in a concrete block house like mine, and whom, like most of my neighbors, I had never bothered to meet.
That was the beginning. I took washcloth baths with polluted water by candlelight. I ate countless cans of donated soup, washed dishes with a cupful of water, and slept in the nude to escape the oppressive heat. One day someone brought us ice, and we rejoiced like it was Christmas.
The new sign of affluence was a roof. The common greeting of “How’s your house?” could be heard while standing in lines for water.
Eight months after the hurricane, there are still shingles and glass on every roadside, skeletal houses unclaimed by their inhabitants, an endless drone of electric tools, and a million stories that ache to be told.
Young we were, waiting tables and living in a trailer at the edge of a marsh.
She had an abortion in the morning. We drove home from the city to find a hurricane coming toward our inlet village, all the businesses shut down, and everybody scared. We had been too preoccupied in our sadness to notice the preparations.
A wind came up, followed by driving rain. By the time we got to the trailer, the salt marsh had disappeared and the hungry ocean lapped at our yard, twenty feet from the picture window. We sat in the little metal house while the wind rocked it so hard that glasses fell and the large aquarium imitated the motion of the sea. We secretly believed our anguish had caused the storm.
She noticed our neighbor’s boats breaking their moorings in the wind and floating slowly out to sea. Our neighbor depended on his boats for his livelihood. We opened the door and ran out into the water, soaked by the rain in the first few steps. For an hour we waded and swam after boats and hauled them ashore. When our neighbor returned, he wouldn’t let us go back to the trailer, and we waited out the storm in his low concrete house, drinking whiskey at a table by the window.
That was twenty years ago, when we stood in the heart of God while She bathed us in Her terrible tears.
Chatham County, North Carolina
I set sail from San Francisco Bay for Mexico and the Caribbean in my twenty-four-foot sloop, Love’s Philosophy. Mainly because I lacked female companionship in my encroaching middle age, I had not cared much recently whether I lived or died. I was willing to risk the dangers of solo ocean sailing.
One night, I was anchored near a small island twelve miles from the coast of Mexico. I awoke at dawn to frightening news on the radio of an impending gale. I put on a life jacket and prepared to sit out the gale in the scant protection of the tiny island.
The wind grew stronger, the waves higher. Soon, my anchor was dragging and I risked being dashed against the island’s high rock walls. I decided to sail south through the storm toward the Mexican shore.
I hoisted my small storm jib and set out, buffeted by twenty-foot waves. I sailed all day through the storm, in constant fear of capsizing. When I was about half a mile from shore, a gigantic wave, at least twenty-five feet high, rose and crashed down on top of me. Suddenly, I was trapped under the capsized boat, certain I was going to die. Then another huge wave hit; when I came up, the boat had been righted but its mast was lying beside it in the water. I barely had time for a quick gasp of air before another wave pushed me far down underwater. When I came up again, my boat was nowhere to be seen.
Wave after wave drove me down. I would surface for just one quick breath of air before I would be driven underwater again. To try to swim was useless. I was tossed and yanked into somersaults, flailing every which way, like a toothpick in a washing machine.
After about ten minutes, an even larger wave crashed down on me, and I was driven so far underwater I didn’t know which way was up. Suddenly I was completely out of breath and seemed to be blacking out. Feeling horribly nauseated and hopeless, I was certain I was going to die.
Miraculously, a few moments later a strong crosscurrent of water brought me to the surface. Huge waves drove me closer and closer to shore. Finally, I felt one foot touch bottom. Then I clawed myself up the sloping sand against the strong outgoing currents.
I was on a wide beach near a tiny village. Through the darkness I could see a rocky headland several hundred yards to the south. I was lucky. If the huge waves had driven me against those rocks I would have met a horrible death.
A kind Mexican family put me up for the night. The next morning at dawn I found a couple of oars and a few other things from my boat that had washed ashore, but the boat itself was gone. I felt so lucky to be alive that I didn’t spend a second lamenting the loss of my boat; I had never before felt such a reverence for life. I knew now that I would never again engage in self-pitying thoughts of suicide. I wanted to live as long as I could and savor each instant of life.
As I made my way north on a bus toward home, I began to think of my life from that day on as a miraculous bonus. Even if I should end up in prison or be killed while fighting for a good cause, in a sense it wouldn’t matter because this was really a second life.
Now, with these renewed inner resources, I am working to form an organization to end the brutality of the landlord system and see that everyone has a home or the land on which to build one.
I’m in sixth grade, on a school camping trip, and the most significant thing is that there’s no TV for a whole week. At midnight, they rouse us out of bed because there’s a tornado warning, and they take us to the mess hall to sit on the floor and wait. The college-age counselors are all jittery and grim; they wish this wasn’t happening on their watch. The mess hall creaks and snaps through the night. The constant wind makes a layer of sound like a cushion your thoughts can ride on, almost serene. There’s no bravado or horseplay, and no camp songs either. Storms like this make people stop what they’re doing, because they hear Chaos grumbling in the distance and they remember they’re vulnerable.
When they spot the tornado off in the distance, the counselors tilt their heads together and mutter about how much they should tell us. There’s one counselor I haven’t liked all week long, but when I walk outside and stand shoulder to shoulder with him on the porch to watch the sky, I kind of well up with affection for the guy. I turn to meet his eyes, but he just looks down at me and says, “Why don’t you go back inside?” I begin to think a child’s vicious thoughts about how he could die.
Inside, Stacey, tiny Stacey, is wound up and shivering, bawling, inconsolable with terror, the arm of a counselor around her shoulder. Then she vomits a little puddle, full of spittle and milk. I’ve never seen white vomit before. Because I have ulcers, mine’s always been red, and I say so to my friend, who shoots me a funny look on his way into the other room for some paper towels.
I decide I want that tornado to land. Right here. Take me away with you, please, please, I pray to the sky. I crave something to deify, something big and palpable and personal, and maybe laced with ozone like this great storm. (Years later, when I got my driver’s license, I’d drive and drive and drive, always in deserted areas, hoping to be struck by lightning, or picked up by a UFO, or maybe greeted by a pointy, green-black Wizard o f Oz witch spreading her arms in the middle of the road to welcome me and take me on as her apprentice. Just take me away.) Forced to crouch on a gritty wooden floor when I’d rather stand with dignity, I grind my teeth and wish even harder: great spirit Storm, incarnate in wind, touch down here, here, I’m the one you seek, right here, oh please. Just two thin forearms laced tight over a light brown head, waiting for the elements to choose.
M. D. Harris
Los Angeles, California
Weather on the coast of northern California is relatively mild as long as your feet are planted firmly on the ground, but my husband and I were romantics: we lived aboard a fishing boat, traveling from port to port, chasing albacore tuna, constantly at the mercy of storms.
Once, a hundred miles from land, our boat slapped about by angry walls of sea water and driven by ninety-mile-an-hour winds, I sat clenched and terrified by my helpless smallness, listening to the grinding, screaming diesel engine that propelled us ever so slowly through the valley of death. But my husband had come alive. This edge was where he chose to be. It was not an obstacle; it was the goal. This was why he liked to fish for a living.
For ten hours I watched him navigate toward safety, calm and quick and controlled, dodging ocean breakers while the boat groaned and lurched. We were balanced on the lips of the earth, being tasted by a lapping tongue, about to be chewed and swallowed at any moment. It was the worst Pacific storm of the century, and many others did not reach safe harbor.
I stayed ashore the following season and convinced my husband that his passion for balancing on the edge of the abyss was self-destructive. He sold our boat and hired on as skipper of a giant, steel drag boat that operated in quieter waters nearer to shore. Instead of riding a chip of wood, dragging fishhooks through an angry ocean, he worked a solid tank that towed a net slowly through less hungry seas.
Two months later, on a perfectly still night, the boat, the net, and my husband disappeared, only an oil slick marking the spot where he went down.