Saturday, April 14, 2012

California Storm Watcher

Oakland Bay Bridge, April 12, 2012

A couple nights ago, a rare thunderstorm boomed across the Bay Area, one of the biggest storms in years. On the coast, we get them once a year, at most. Frankly, the weather along the California Coast is often boring.

Thunderstorms don’t come often enough for me. I enjoyed how every flash brightly flickered into our house, how the thunder boomed and rippled away through the air, and how the walls trembled like glass. I wished our windows—narrow and set oddly at the corners--were bigger, more open to the drama unrolling across the tumultuous sky, where gods make beautiful war.

By one estimate, lightning struck 750 times between 8 PM and midnight. I enjoy bad weather, I wish there had been more. Sorry, guys, but your weather out here is just too damned nice. (Even as I write this, a sun shower spatters prettily on my office window from a blue sky.)

My Midwest memories are seldom honeyed, and often bleak and sorry. But two windows of nostalgia stand open: one lets in the early snows of winter; the other welcomes the great storms that roared proud and purple across the summer skies.

My horizons in those days were flat, circumscribed and laid out along strict grids, but when the storms came, possibilities opened up, the sense of something larger than the place I lived in; of great turbulent beauty and dangerous power, of things beyond plain words and dry measures. Sure, I know how thunder and lightning works, but that’s not the why of it.

One afternoon, I saw a frosted lightning bolt unfurl like a whip across the purple sky to the north. On another summer evening, driving back into Oshkosh from a party out in the countryside, I drove head on into a giant storm, blacker than a clear night sky. Lightning broke and snapped across my windshield, from the left, from the right, from the empty center, a dozen flashes imprinting my retinas mere seconds before another jagged bolt leapt again. I was a little scared, I knew the danger, but I’d been through more dangerous storms, and smiled with uneasy pleasure. I was relieved to reach home safely, but grateful for the spectacle.

Soon after, I moved to Minneapolis, where I lived for five years. For three of those years, I lived on the third floor of an apartment building in South Minneapolis with two other guys, Greg and Steve. A small balcony opened up off the outside hallway. During the summers, after my roommates and I had made ourselves a little fuzzy (or “had us a laugh” as the Beatles once put it), I’d go out on the balcony for a while to watch the towering wall of purple clouds sail proudly from the western sky, swallowing the IDS tower (then the tallest building in Minneapolis)—here comes God rolling into town with His caravan to put on a great light show—step right out, ladies and gentlemen, see what I can do. No matter how big and strong we are, there are powers bigger and stronger.

No matter how hard Hollywood tries, their epics and spectacles seem small, tinny affairs when compared to those storms; and when compared to the one that enchanted me a couple of nights ago.

(Re-edited 4/17/12)

Photo from North News & Pictures, Ltd.

Text Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

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