They have closed Bixler Lake because E. Coli from migratory fowl droppings is blooming in the warmth and wet. It is June, and already the humidity of summer is miserable. When I step outside, the air is dense, heavy, thick, hard to breathe. By ten in the morning the birds are quiet and exhausted. Even the willow by the lake sags.
Inside my house, I closed the window blinds to shut out the glare, and I set the thermostat to 75, the tipping point. Below 75, I feel too much guilt for wasting polluting, coal-fired electricity. Above 75, and I may as well open the windows and sweat on the computer keyboard. It is unusual when a moral dilemma like this can be reduced to a measurable statistic, but there it is. Seventy-five.
In my little environment-controlled bubble, I sat working at the computer, when suddenly my insides turned wobbly, that odd sensation one gets while giving blood just before you pass out. Perhaps 75 was not low enough. Perhaps too much Father’s Day cake or not enough sleep. I felt alert. My eyes were focused. And soon it passed, forgotten.
Dawn called that morning on the cell phone. Looking out my sunny window, I heard rain storm on the phone twenty miles to the south. Not so unusual. Pretty Big Long Lake often defies the local weather patterns. Dawn had barely started talking to me when suddenly she screamed and laughed. I briefly heard the voice of her friend, another parent who volunteered to help her at the school garden. I listened to their garbled voices, and then Dawn remembered me, said she’ll call later, and hung up.
Later at dinner, she explained that a summer rain shower snuck up on them. She had called me from the shelter of the car when her friend unexpectedly yanked open the passenger door and jumped in, soaking wet. Gravity pulled at the smile lines around her eyes as she told the story; she was as tired and as sleep-deprived as I was. More so, because she works in the sun and humidity all day. I sent her to bed after dinner, and she gratefully agreed.
I read books to the children, brushed their distracted teeth, and sang them to sleep in their beds. For a moment, I had the house to myself, quiet, no obligations, and decided to do so research on the internet when suddenly the doorbell rang. My next door neighbor stood there with a deep furrow between her eyes. She lives alone with a cat and a weather alert radio. The lights in her house are often burning long after we go to bed, for she doesn’t sleep well. I let her in, signaling to talk quietly since everyone was asleep, but her news spilled out before her foot was in the door.
A big storm was coming. Hail. Flood. Winds over 90 miles per hour. Goshen had been hit badly by winds. Lots of damage. The storm was moving east at 55 miles per hour. She didn’t say tornado. She didn’t have to. We knew the possibility, even though we didn’t like to admit it. No one on the lake has a basement. She started to tell me about using one of the garages as a shelter, but I was calculating and didn’t listen.
I can drive to Goshen in one hour. My average speed is just about 55 mph. And the storm had already left Goshen.
I stepped outside to smell the sky, and the back of my throat glazed with burnt ozone and fear. It was 9:00 PM, not quite sundown, but from horizon to horizon the sky was a glowing, metallic color, like a television screen the moment after it is turned off and the electricity is still draining out of it. The humidity was no longer pressing on my body, but rather pulling on it. The hairs on my arms stood out.
My mantra for such moments, which I do not often get to practice, is “Strive to be the calmest person in the room.” I wanted information, but we have no television, so I headed to the computer. The internet was down. Not a good sign. I turned on the radio and instantly heard the irritating buzz of the emergency broadcast system warning. A line of squalls with hail, flash flooding, and possible tornadoes was bearing down from the west. The announcer read the list of counties: St. Joseph, Marshall, Elkhart, Kosciusko, Lagrange…
Lagrange. Our county. I got moving. The announcer continued into Michigan and Ohio, but I was already preparing the emergency kit I should always have on hand. The little hater in my head, the useless, uninvited voice started screaming, “Idiot! You should always have an emergency kit on hand.”
“Shut Up!” I told myself and start putting things in bags.
Water. Apples. Crackers.
“Please take shelter. The best place is in a basement under a workbench or sturdy table.”
Shoes. Car keys. Flashlights.
“If you have no basement, head to an interior room away from windows.”
Clothing. Swiss Army Knife. Batteries. Transistor radio.
“Do not go out to watch the storm.”
The wind picked up and the lights flickered but didn’t go out. Regretfully, I woke Dawn and let her know what was happening. We would need to move the children, but without waking them. They were nervous enough in ordinary storms, and they would have panicked to hear the word “tornado” in earnest. Dawn collected pillows and blankets and made little nests on the bathroom floor for them, and we carried them in and lay them still asleep in corners.
Dawn found the first aid kits, extra clothes, candles, books, knitting. The bathtub started to fill up with anything we could think we might need for the next few days or could not live without.
I began opening windows. During a tornado, tremendous low pressure builds up outside. If your house is sealed, it can literally burst like an overinflated balloon, usually through the doors, windows, and roof. It is better to open your windows and let the winds trash your furniture and books than to scatter broken glass and splinters everywhere.
When everything we could think to do was done, we headed to the bathroom to wait. The lights were still on. Dawn crocheted by the door, her legs mingled with the children’s. I sat on the closed toilet seat and fiddled with my old Peace Corps transistor AM/FM/shortwave radio. I used earphones, so as not wake the children, and relayed information to Dawn.
A tornado warning for our county for another 45 minutes. The storm had not arrived yet, but it was moving so fast that, whatever was going to happen, it was going to start and end in the next 45 minutes. Stay tuned for updates.
Then music. Country music. A song by Blake Shelton.
“Yeah, tomorrow can wait ’til tomorrow, it’s all about tonight.”
My local DJ had a twisted sense of humor.
Ten minutes later, the wind arrived in earnest. At first nothing and then a sucking rush, followed by a rattling, and then lightning and rain on the roof, all within ten seconds. But muted. Not scary. Not worse than a regular summer thunderstorm. The bathroom was in the very center of the house and several walls separated us from the noise in every direction. The lights flickered again and went out for just two seconds before returning. Dawntook a breath, pulled her crochet hook out, and captured a loose thread.
Reports came in on the radio. A tractor trailer overturned by winds in Fort Wayne. Funnel clouds sited in Allen county. A barn destroyed in Goshen. I did not repeat all this. Instead, Dawn and I chatted about summer vacation plans, as blithely as though we were at a station waiting for a train to arrive. And in a way, we were. We had half an ear cocked for that tell-tale train noise everyone says they hear just before a tornado strikes. And then suddenly …
In about twenty minutes, what little noise we could hear died down. No more hail or lightning. The wind and rain were barely noticeable. On the radio, the warnings moved east into Ohio. I didn’t hear Lagrange county anymore on the reports. Magical Pretty Big Long Lake had been spared. About then Rose woke up.
She looked around, squinting and disoriented. “Mama,” she asked, “What am I doing in the bathroom?”
We bundled the children back in bed, leaving the pillows and paraphernalia in the bathroom. They scarcely noticed the interruption and were soon sleeping. Dawn went to bed too, but I grabbed an umbrella to check on our insomniac neighbor.
Her door was open, a light and the glow of the television within. She jumped at the sound of me stubbing my toe on her step in the dark. But soon I was seated by her muted television, amiably chatting about the averted disaster while the rain fell outside. From my seat, I could see her bathroom contained a similar, hastily-prepared pile of things. She began to tell me how it was never like this before. Never. Maybe a high wind once in summer, but not this kind of thing. It was odd. A wind storm last week knocked out a tree and some people lost power, and now this. And did you know there was a earthquake in Canada today? They said they felt it in Fort Wayne.
No, I hadn’t heard, I said. But I smiled. I had felt it too.