The storms of summer are the most memorable. One might happen in this way: out of the stillness of a humid afternoon, in the midst of which you sit with a gnat whining at your ear in enhancement of your solitude, you hear a rending as of a tree splitting down its middle, and then an explosion like a crate of dynamite goes off. After you recover, and begin a tour of the house to close the windows, the rain starts, or the hail, or a combination of them, and you might wonder, fearing a tornado, why it is that you’ve never trained your family to take a quick route to the safest part of the basement when they feel a trembling through the house like the approach of an overloaded locomotive.
What is so pernicious about summer storms is the resistance in our nature to admit them. We acknowledge the possibility of storms in the spring, yes, when rain on the roof can assume the sound of a waterfall; or in the winter, with a howling wind accompanying drifting snow; or even in the fall, when heavy bodied rain tears off the last of the leaves and pastes them over spearing stubble. But summer is the season we’re to be let off, to be free of this, as we expect, after the ingrained conditioning of years in school, to be freed from all our onerous chores. So summer storms set us outside our expectations, and often isolate us physically, since we don’t take the precautions we do during other seasons; we expect to bask in stillness, taking summer off as recklessly as—well, that storm on its way.
It was the summer of 1980, the same season in which I watched twin tornadoes set down from a black-green sky and finally spin themselves out without harm. I was working in an outer shed on a farm in North Dakota, when I realized that I was enveloped in utter silence. Then in the distance I heard the rumbling of that approaching locomotive. I thought of my family in the house and went for the door of the shed and opened it against a sound like rifle fire, Hailstones the size of marbles, then golf balls, were ricochetting off everything in sight. A few hit my hand at the half-open door. I pulled it shut, and out one of the high windows, which I had newly installed that summer but hadn’t yet equipped with locks, I saw the anvil-shaped cloud, and then, with a sudden drop in pressure I could feel inside my ears, all four windows sprang wide, wobbling on their hinges, and pages of a hand-written manuscript started climbing out the closest opening in a chattering stream.
I grabbed at the pages, batting some down, but only stirred things up worse, and now the shed was shaking and everything loose or on a surface was springing for the windows in a rattling swirl worse than moths around my face. The hail had forced the door inward, I saw, and went for it, but so much ice had built up I couldn’t get it closed, and suddenly a fresh wash of rain, mixed with hail, sprang from the exact direction to enter the door, and a carpet I’d lugged all the way from New York rumpled up and then lifted against my legs with the wind. I was soaked and dripping in seconds. “And it’s summer!” I almost cried out loud, as if my statement could bring this incongruous situation to an end.
After the small tornado I gathered from our fields as much of the manuscript as I could immediately get my hands on, and my daughter and my niece, who was visiting, began to make wider rounds. Over a hundred pages were lost, but by the time the two of them had covered about a hundred acres, alert to the glints of pages, the task of reconstructing the manuscript began to seem less hopeless. Each sheet had to be spread out to dry, and some were battered so badly it took tape to reassemble them, but I had written in pencil, not ink; nearly everything was legible, and as I continued to recover more pages or shreds of them over the summer, I began to think that nearly nothing was irrevocable.