On a Saturday afternoon in late August, three years ago, Hurricane Irene brought her wind and dropped her water, forcing Richmond to experience the harsh effects of a tropical storm.
At home, on the North Side, our family tracked the storm on the Weather Channel, with the added value of watching college-aged yahoos in Virginia Beach mugging for the camera, literally throwing caution to the wind and irritating the suits back in the studios.
We listened to the different sounds that driving rain makes when it collides with various parts of a house, sliding off or getting absorbed. We stared through windows with amazement while trees — those bastions of strength and certainty — appeared not to be themselves. We passed the time.
I recall building Legos creations with my sons only to see our inventive structures fall apart in the throes of fictional wars. We enjoyed a new family tradition, the rolling pin, a highly sophisticated game in which daddy rolls along the living room floor, well, like a rolling pin, trying to knock over and flatten any child in his way. I will not deny the obvious pleasure in this.
Naturally, it's all fun and games — very non-metaphorical — until trees start to crash down on cars or houses, until that thing which is bigger and is knocking over that thing which is smaller becomes not cute in the least — because it's so scarily unrelenting.
It is true what Bob Dylan said: You don't need a weatherman. As the afternoon wore on, I remember agonizing over the safe return of my wife and then 6-year-old daughter, who were attending the birthday party of one of my daughter's friends. This unusual agony only served to accentuate an everyday normalcy: I am not in control of much of anything. On this Saturday, for instance, Irene might've taken complete advantage of my daughter's inability to say no to a jumping castle.
Until the electricity goes out, there remains the modern solace of television. In our age, movies have come to perfect the role of playing the escapist foil to the unpredictable tempests of real life. So, while waiting for my wife and daughter, I turned to a Saturday staple of my Texas childhood: the Western.
For some time, I had secretly harbored a desire to introduce my sons to the full catalog of Clint Eastwood westerns. When "Unforgiven" showed up on the Comcast menu, you can forgive me for asserting that some measure of divinity was at work in Irene — not to mention in William Munny (Eastwood). The story was an hour in, but I recall losing the outside world into the noisy moral background of an old cowboy seeking justice and revenge as well as redemption, and a town sheriff who wasn't remotely a good guy in any generous sense. "But he's wearing a badge, daddy," my 5-year-old son said.
Like a parenting examination in the halls of Ferguson, Gaza, Mosul or any other hall, every father should be made to explain to his children the following line from the movie: "It's a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he's got, and all he's ever gonna have." Thankfully, Irene was more forgiving than most rogue characters, and my wife and daughter made it home — in their covered wagon — through the wind and the rain.
On Sunday, the day after, I suppose the break of dawn was appropriate: All the damaged things were now evident in the light of day. I remember electricity was nowhere to be found. But I also remember the sun shining brighter and warmer, and the birds singing their familiar songs, which seemed, yes, very unrelenting.
Except for the back-and-forth of brooms and the occasional firing up of a chainsaw, a quiet hovered in the air. It lingered out of respect as much as morbid curiosity.
Down the street a tree gently leaned up against a rain gutter, almost teasing or taunting the house. Down another street the full impact of a fallen tree was braced — fortuitously — by another tree, its would-be neighbor. Still another street yielded the classic post-hurricane spectacle: a tree resting squarely on a house.
Across the street from this house I remember milling about with an assortment of neighbors, including the affected family, getting the story in fragments. They had been watching television in the family room on the first floor when Irene blew over the large tree in their front yard, directly onto their house. No one was injured.
I remember the fourth-grade girl of the house, a classmate of my son's, lamenting that her twin brother's room was in better post-crash condition than hers. She said it with a sensible smile, an acknowledgment that suggested a wider perspective — that suggested she had perspective. What else was a young girl to talk about at a time like this?
Indeed, the direction a tree falls is also a hell of a thing. Or which way the wind blows, for that matter.
On the slow walk back to our house I remember coming across a bird's nest lying perfectly upright, still woven together neatly, in the middle of the sidewalk. Not everything was damaged, after all, although more than a few things had been jarred out of place.
On Sunday afternoon I drove down Monument Avenue. Between the fallen trees lying in the median — sometimes around them or over them — the summertime players were going about their business as usual: corn hole and boccie, in polo shirts and khaki shorts, in bright, pretty sundresses, as if everything had just blown over. S
Nathan F. Elmore is a freelance writer. He works by day as an educator and peacemaker in Christian-Muslim relations. You can connect with him at nathanfelmore.com.
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