Why is the smell of the air just after a rain so intoxicating? The smell of steam hovering above hot pavement following an afternoon thunderstorm in July. Why is the sound of rain fluttering along windows and rushing off rooftops so enchanting? A lullaby hypnotizing you to slip into your comfiest pair of sweatpants and finish the dusty book that has been taunting you from its place on the nightstand. Why is the feeling of rain sprinkling your face below the hood of a rain jacket or splashing against your ankles during a swift walk across campus so breathtaking? Every person that enters the dry classroom heavily sighs in relief and huffs away to the nearest seat to reflect on the mission they just conquered somewhere between the commuter parking lot and the double doors of a lecture hall. Why does the glare of headlights reflecting off a glossy, rainy street reach out of its photograph and pluck the sweetest memories from the depths of our minds? The time you raced your best friend across your high school football field over and over for no reason until both of your clothes became so drenched they were like heavy ice cubs melting into the car seats on your drive home. The time you were deep in the woods running on your favorite trail and suddenly heard the rain in the trees just before you felt it on your sweaty skin – laughing like an idiot on the spiritual sprint back to your car. Surely, we all share some version of a memory when you and your mom run spastically out of a Walmart into a torrential downpour with arms full of groceries -doing a little dance next to the locked passenger door and screaming angry nonsense at her while she scrambles through her purse searching for the missing car keys.
I remember the excitement that filled me to the core when our lights went out at home and my mom tiptoed into my room with a flashlight. I always thought the kitchen felt magical in the midst of all the candlelight and fuzzy sounds of a severe weather alert coming from the radio speaker. My brother and I would destroy the hall closet as we slung down every hibernating board game and puzzle in sight and lugged them into the living room for a family game tournament. My naïve perspective of these moments changed when I was introduced to the tornado drill in elementary school – The bland hallways filled with crying nerds and terrifying rumors about how long we had until the tornado ripped the school’s roof off and sucked a few unlucky ones up for fuel, so it could pass on to the next town. We were instructed to place our stark-white, plastic binders on top of our heads to protect us from any flying debris and a prayer was broadcasted loudly from the intercom speakers in each hallway – drill or no drill. From then on, the bad weather traditions transformed from a séance-like game tournament into a vision that I had been cast as the lead star in a survival reality tv show. I would remain calm but intensely focused on my mission to fill a backpack with food, water, a change of clothes, and any item that could be considered useful in the future, when I was going to be living off the land and traveling by horse to potential areas of refuge. The hall closet was now cleared of its clutter for a very different reason – it was the only room in the middle of our house that was not connected to any walls. Thus, it was the most likely to remain intact after the tornado attack. With a backpack, several blankets, and my cat, I would sit somberly on the floor beneath the overhead shelves and wait for the treacherous fate I had patriotically prepared for. After quite a few of these storm encounters ended with my mother luring me from my closet safe haven with the reassurance that we were in no danger, I decided from then on to pack my backpack while still participating in the game tournament.
Hurricane Katrina brought with her a short period of time when school was canceled, and I felt like we were all living in some literal alternate time period. I couldn’t pick up the bulky house phone and dial my best friend’s number by heart to make sure she was having just as much fun on her hurricane vacation as I was. There was never any doubt that she was as safe in her home along with the rest of the tiny southern community. She was probably somewhere in the middle of the life-threatening action of it all, riding an old four-wheeler at top speed through the cow pastures and past rows of chicken houses on the land across from her house. My brother and I started the week out with our usual storm tradition, which involved a 1,000-piece puzzle set of Godzilla reining terror over some large city in flames. My grandmother moved in with us for a few days, and I would ride 20 minutes down our curvy two-lane race track of a road into “town”, where we would wait in line for gallons of water amongst a crowd of slimy people who radiated the unfortunate childhoods and poor life choices of their past and present. If anything, these trips to town were good for escaping the thick heat trapped inside my house and for confirming that the rest of the world as we knew it was still out there alive and annoying as ever.
One particular night during the week of our thrilling attempt at a pioneer lifestyle, the storm gathered gusto and began to haunt the sky outside my mother’s giant bedroom window. The trees were turning from sturdy giants into frail toothpicks right before our eyes. The mood shifted rather urgently from a humbling vacation into one of worry and fear of the things that are only supposed to happen to other people becoming a possible reality. I still to this day do not know precisely or even care to know what people mean when they refer to “the eye of the hurricane”, but when my grandmother chillingly spoke of its fast-approaching presence, I knew it sounded a lot like terrifying Lord of the Rings commentary. With the winds gathering a force so strong that it was almost unbelievable, the voices from the old radio speaker reported that cars were being blown off highways, houses were steadily being destroyed, and people were drowning in the streets they drove their cars on every day. My dad stood in the orange light of a candle in the kitchen with his fellow intimidating shadow and told us all that he had been called to go with the National Guard to New Orleans, where the world was ending for many families and things were unrecognizably chaotic. I felt so proud that my dad was important and strong enough to be expected to stand within the midst of a monstrous hurricane and order the world falling apart around him to settle back down. I suddenly felt the pride that perhaps only comes from being part of a military family and I began to understand a very innocent version of what it might mean to risk your life for the better of the world you left back home.