Storm Chaser

By Michelle R. Terry

I can hear your whisper and distant mutter.
I can smell your damp on the breeze and in the sky I see the halo of your violence.
Storm I know you are coming.
Robert Fanney, Dreams of the Ringed Vale

I noticed the weary smile tugging at the corners of your chapped lips. The fever on your brow is evident and brought on by too many months inside your cabin or treading in rising floodwaters. I see the same when I look in a mirror. It’s easy to get tangled up in winter’s blanket or dehydrated by the summer sun. The Earth sends healthy doses of Mother Nature to remind us that we aren’t in control.

It’s always been winter that wrestles me to the ground, and I’ve flipped the bird at fourteen inches of snow and fed wasted gratitude to the wood chipper too many times.

When this happens, I beg for my beloved spring thunderstorms—booming atmospheric disturbances that occupy the sky with brooding clouds and fill the air with palpable electricity. Brutal months of January and February make me crave the May landscapes of citrine green and neon blue that only a thunderboomer can produce and a camera can’t quite capture.

When I was five, my dad taught me about the jet stream, wind shear, and intuitive forecasting. While I remember the facts of a foreboding wind shift, I’m more struck by the heart of the man who taught them to me: a husband, father, and farmer who built his life and made a living in spite of forces he would never be able to control.

“That wind just switched. Been blowing out of the south all day.”

The strain in his eyes mirrored the stormy skies, so I asked him, “Is that good?”

“Just depends. We need rain, but this feels like hail.”

“How do you know that, Daddy?”

“Because I have to.”

That day’s storm-soaked scent and the conversation with my dad ignited the beginning to an involuntary and sometimes passionate journey that fostered a love-hate relationship with the elements and life’s associated symbols.

As Dad had predicted, this blast two weeks before harvest brought wind and hail and shredded most of the wheat crop. It was one of many storms that changed harvest plans, landscapes, and lives.

As I watched him and Mom pace in what I called the “worry porch,” I wondered how they would take care of us. Even as a young girl, I knew that the shoes on our feet depended on the cards the environment dealt. The stress bounced off their shoulders straight into my little brain. Boisterous thunderstorms terrified me, and the ultimate fear was a night without electricity as the seven of us hovered in the damp cellar around a single hurricane lamp while the ground shook beneath us. Even after power was restored, the lingering smell of musty kerosene and the visual of Daddy’s worried eyes stayed long after sleep should have come.

As I matured, I accepted the volatile atmosphere and gained the experience that came with living in Tornado Alley. Fascination replaced terror, and I became the less-than-wise girl sitting on rooftops trying to get a good view (or photograph) of Dorothy’s funnels. During one extra-active storm, my husband had to drag me down into the basement. The edge of hysteria in his voice reminded me that those tails drop without notice and that the funnel would snatch any idiot crouching in a doorway. I snapped a photo and watched the swirl retract into the clouds right before I gave in and took cover. That same tornado resurfaced in Joplin, Missouri, a few hours later and flattened most of the town. Even that horror didn’t keep me away.

I was struck by lightning once.

It happened on a morning when I was distracted, stressed, and only worried about being late for a meeting. The flash and boom should have been enough to warn a deaf and blind person, but I didn’t even notice. I was already two minutes late when a bolt of lightning knocked me to the ground while walking into the hospital. The amperage of the strike knocked out power to the ICU and knocked me on my ass.

I was flattened a few feet away from the same spot where a woman had lost her life just five years before—a woman who died while jogging in a lightning storm. She perished, and I escaped with barely a scratch. Nurses who witnessed the whole thing ushered me inside and checked for burns. They diagnosed me with good health, even though my burnt hair smelled horrendous, and my short-term memory was suspect. The crane I was standing below took the direct hit and left me to deal with the ground current and atmospheric static electricity.

Another woman and I had navigated the same environment, five years apart, with decidedly different results, even though we both made poor decisions to weather the storm. I couldn’t be late for my meeting, and she needed to do her training run. We were alike in that she could have been going to a meeting, and I could have been the one running. We were alike in that we both had children, spouses, and people who loved us.

We were different in that I lived, and she didn’t.

Does this trigger a bigger question around why God takes some people and leaves others? Why did I get to stay instead of her? Was this incident random, or does it mean something? My family (and coworkers who saw it) still laugh about it today, but everyone knows that I was damn lucky—or blessed.

Something broken inside me craves the storm—a carnal, sensual, irrational desire to be within the vortex; feel the power at its source; and live to take pictures and tell the story with my whole heart.

Tornadoes are an allegory for temptation—the lure of an unknown entity on the other side. A cyclone wild and unharnessed that urges me to cross the threshold. A seduction that excites and entices only to wreck or change a person when he or she disregards the obvious signs of calamity and destruction.

Experience has taught me that the inducement to be swept up by the gusts should be tempered or trumped by the reliable storm warnings. The smart woman tells me my beautiful life is mine because of weather-wise decisions. The rebellious girl pushes me to go out in the rain without an umbrella and ride out the monsoon in fancy cowboy boots.

Those two bitches fight incessantly.

I could run out of fingers and toes when counting the weather metaphors we use as second language:

Into each life, some rain must fall.
You are the sunshine of my life.
The winds of change are upon us.
Gray skies are going to clear up.

To me, weathering storms is about embracing the oxymoron and irony while using our inner voice to make wise decisions. Knowing when to take cover as well as understanding when to stick it out.

There are the times we do need to sit on the rooftops. That tail doesn’t always drop, and the storm might be just a little squall that washes off the streets and puts the smell of spring in the air or renews your spirit. Calm peace and a cloud-free horizon appear only moments after a tornado leaves its mark.

Those blue skies always come. Always.