In the midwest, summer means rain.
I’ve lived in the midwest most of my life — I grew here, I went to school here, I married here. My son was born in Ohio, where I grew up. I live in Wisconsin now. And summer is hot here, blistering and sweaty by turns. This,for atmospheric reasons I do not understand but my wife does, means thunderstorms.
It’s great to be married to someone who’s smarter than you are, because you learn many new things, and you get to hear about many others. Around five years ago, my then-girlfriend got very interested in how tornadoes and thunderstorms happen, and she read many books about it.
The gist, as I understand it, is that the hot air on the ground goes up through the cooler air in the clouds, kind of like a pot of water starting to boil, and that’s what causes thunderstorms. If the clouds are right, or wet enough, or something. I don’t actually know. She said it’s something like when your bathtub drain forms a little whirlpool, except in the air and caused by … heat somehow? Instead of suction?
What I do know is what the weather is like here. I know in my bones what a storm feels like, coming up. I know what kinds of clouds are going to pour and which will blow past, when the wind will whisper and when the rain will tear through and when the scary looking cloud is just cool and when it’s something to actually worry about.
My closest encounter with a tornado was when I was in my teens. My mother’s house is on a hill in the poor part of Amish country, and the door faces northwest; we could see the gray-blue clouds rolling over the next hill over. We could see the rain before it hit us, feel the breath of the west wind seconds after we saw it rippling through the grass in the neighbor’s pasture.
There’s an old wives’ tale that cows lay down before it will rain. It’s not true, except sometimes on a hot summer afternoon when the air temperature drops. It’s not a useful metric, though: if you’re paying attention you can feel the change before the cows do.
And on that August day, I was working in the yard, probably cutting the grass with the weed cutter that looked like this:
which I was always told was called a Dutch Sickle, but Google had no idea that was a thing, so I don’t know what to call it now. Thus, I suppose, are childhood illusions shattered.
Anyway, back when I was a child, I was cutting the grass and sweating, facing away from the view when the hair on my neck lifted with a sudden cold breath from the sky behind me. Like some romantic-lead farmer in a cheesy Lifetime teen movie, I turned around, sweaty and 17 and as buff and brash and bonny as I ever was, wiped off my forehead, and looked at the sky.
The clouds were green and swirling. The trees on the far hill were whipping back and forth, dancing wild like they were the ones throwing the air forward. There was no tornado siren in that part of the county, but my memory has added their low wail after living so long in cities.
I stood for a long minute facing the bank of clouds. The wind lifted my hair and cooled my sweaty face with the chill and sting of the first drops. Two decades later I still remember how alive I felt, staring into the storm.
And then the next wave of clouds to crest the hill was swirling.
I don’t remember how we all got inside, but I remember sitting in the basement shortly with my family. This was before cell phones, and there’s never been a television in the basement of my mother’s house, so I assume we were listening to the radio, but I remember hearing that a twister had touched down a mile outside of town.
I will never forget how that breeze felt, on that hot day.
My love, who as we before mentioned is smarter than me, is less terrified of tornadoes than she used to be. She grew up in the mid-Atlantic states, where there are not tornadoes unless they accompany 100-year storms (which now happen every year or two) or thousand-year hurricanes, but she’s lived here with me and the thunderstorms for a long time.
I don’t know if she’ll ever feel them like I do, but this summer she’s getting some practice.