take shelter.

I'm hoping the Great Magnet will cut me some slack on this: for a long time I've been amazed at the consistent paths that tornadoes take through northern Georgia. If the American weatherpeople are ever talking about "severe weather" in the southeast US, I'd say roughly 90% of the time it will pass through northern Atlanta. I don't want to get into this right now b/c I have things to do, but remind me to tell you someday about my tornadophobia (or possibly astraphobia).


When I was 12 or so (thought you didn't have time for this, yo?), my family moved to Atlanta from Albany, NY somewhere far outside of Philadelphia, PA, and shortly thereafter my relationship to weather changed forever. Back in the 70s, up in Philadelphia the "worst" thing that could happen to you from a meteorological perspective would be snow, lots of snow.

But, unlike tornadoes, snow can also be fun, and in fact, if you're a kid and you don't have to drive in it, snow is pretty much nothing but fun and adventure and days off from school and going over to your neighbor's house to look at his dad's Playboys and accidentally finding nude Polaroids of his extremely churchgoing mom. Ah, snow days.

I'm not sure exactly how long it was after we moved to Atlanta that I was introduced to the very unsnowlike pleasures of lightning, but I still remember it with the vivid persistence of a really bad dream.

It was summertime, I was outside playing with some friends that I don't remember except that they were blond, we were in some kind of semi-wilderness area that wasn't part of any subdivision or neighborhood. Maybe it was a construction site on its way to becoming a subdivision. Anyway it was probably 10 minutes away from my house on foot down a two-lane highway.

The way summer storms happen in the south is that the sky gets really low and becomes a beautifully threatening bluish-grey with charcoal-colored accents, and the feeling of the air changes, as if things get more quiet. Maybe they do. And then fat warm raindrops start smacking into you with great velocity. Things rarely start with a polite drizzle.

This goes on for five or so transitional minutes until the real rain starts. And at that point, you should really be somewhere other than outside. If you're in a car, it's hard to drive b/c you can't see. And no one can see, so driving gets stupid quickly. If you're on foot, you're just being drenched in a punishing (yet warm) way.

So far, this all sounds OK, even to me. But the lightning that accompanies these storms is unusually, shittily aggressive. I mean, if you go to Wikipedia and look up "lightning", the first picture is one of Atlanta being struck rather spectacularly by lightning.

So anyway, we were outside playing. And it started to rain, rather typically slow and sparsely, and then suddenly rather emphatically hard and with impressive density. Being American kids and it being summer, we had no "rain gear", so we gave up on whatever adventure we were engaged in and started heading for the nearest of our houses, which I think was mine; first laughing and talking and walking, and then jogging silently as we got wetter and wetter.

And then the lightning started, it all happened very fast, not this business where you see the lightning and then hear the thunder later, allowing you to gauge how far away the storm is; but both happening at exactly the same time, really close by, somewhere behind us. At this point in my teenage development, I knew a few bits of conventional wisdom for "how not to get hit by lightning": 1) don't hide under a tree, 2) don't stand near a metal fence, 3) avoid power lines.

The big problem with my then-current situation was that the only way to get back to our neighborhood was to go down this typical American two-lane road. It had nowhere for pedestrians to be, so no sidewalks. On one side of the road was a very long metal chain-link fence with a line of tall pine trees right up next to it. On the other side was a rather low-slung set of power lines that I seem to remember you could even hear humming.

I remember weighing the options as to which side seemed safer, but I don't remember why I suddenly chose to sprint across the road to the side with the power lines, probably because parents and teachers really drill the thing about avoiding trees into your young little brain. Anyway, I wasn't over there for 60 seconds before a deafening crack-boom and tremendous flash of purple-white light exploded directly over my head, maybe 3 meters above me...everything stopped, I was sure I was dead.

And yet I was still running, so, yeah, not. After that, I like to imagine what I must've looked like to the outside observer by the time I was approaching our neighborhood: through some kind of bionic teenage adrenaline boost, I remember feeling like I was running faster than anyone had ever run. I was surprised and impressed that my friends were keeping up with me, except they weren't: when I finally turned to look behind me I could see them flailing and panting off in the distance.


When I have time I'll fill you in on my late summer nights in our house in Atlanta waking Mara up to tell her to get in the basement during tornado warnings; but for now I'll just say that I'm pretty sure the above experience is at the root of my problems with thunderstorms and tornadoes.

Although there's more to it: I can't really mention all this without mentioning Take Shelter (below). I saw it a couple weeks ago and it struck me (ha) rather hard, for a number of reasons, and then I read this interview with the director, in which he said:

"When I began writing Take Shelter in the summer of 2008, I was in the middle of my first year of marriage. Although both my career and personal life were on a positive track, I had a nagging feeling that the world at large was heading for harder times. This free-floating anxiety was part economic, part just growing up, but it mainly came from the fact that I finally had things in my life that I didn't want to lose."

That was totally me in 1998.


EDIT: I realized after puzzling over the memories generated by the story above that I'd misremembered almost everything in terms of time and place. I'm pretty sure the lightning strike in question actually happened up in Pennsylvania because I think I was running home with J.J. Lapp, the most beautiful girl I'd ever seen up to that point in my life, and her brother, both very blond. And I know for certain that finding my neighbor's mom's naked pictures happened in Atlanta during my first experiment with skipping a lot of school (like weeks of school), not a snow day at all. Ah well. It all still happened.


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