Something was off; I could feel it the moment I awoke. It was a morning in mid-June with an overcast sky and oppressive humidity that felt like if I squeezed the air, it would release water like a sponge. Despite the gray skies, temperatures still managed to climb to an uncomfortable 85 degrees by mid-morning without a hint of a breeze. My mother often hung clothes to dry on lines strung across our back yard, and when dried, they had a natural freshness from being out of doors. The air today had none of that freshness and smelled of dampness and dirt.
The weather report on the radio talked about an unstable air mass that had moved into the area, creating conditions favorable for storms. Everywhere I went on that morning, I felt clammy, a thin film of perspiration covering my skin. The humid air sucked my energy and made it a struggle to do small tasks.
Around 2 PM, the light outside changed, and darkness more closely associated with a waning sunset descended on the streets and houses in our neighborhood. It looked like a scene from an eerie movie set where the crew and actors had left for the day.
There was an unusual silence outside you don’t often experience within a city, and at first, I did not comprehend how that contributed to the strangeness of the scene. Songbirds, barking dogs, and even pesky insects went quiet, and looking at the sky to the west; I saw the reason. Stacked up on the horizon were the blackest storm clouds I had ever witnessed. These were not typical gray clouds with a darker underbelly; these were black with jagged tentacles reaching toward the earth. The blackness had a dirty, oily quality, almost as if this storm had been born over some polluting refinery belching black smoke.
I realized the appropriateness of the phrase, “silence before the storm,” as I marveled at the stillness of the moment. The ominous-looking clouds looked like they would rain down terror and destruction on anything in their path. There did not appear to be any movement in their line to the naked eye, nor was there any rumbling from within — just angry black shapes waiting to begin their onslaught.
The light in the balance of the sky took on a yellow-green cast, and houses and other objects looked surreal, bathed in the odd light set against a black horizon. I heard my dad tell us to get into the basement but could tell he did not want to miss what was about to be unleashed.
I remembered the large clusters of loudspeaker horns mounted to the elementary school roof I attended a couple of blocks from our home. I had never heard their warning siren before, and hearing it now added a level of foreboding.
The first drops of rain that fell were large and hit the sidewalk and flat part of our handrailing with a splat that reminded me of small water balloons bursting. Slow and subtle, the black wall crept ever closer even though its movement was barely discernable; it was now upon us. A dark shadow similar to nightfall replaced the odd colored light, and sharp downdrafts instantly removed the sticky remnants of the muggy day — the temperature plunging nearly 20 degrees in seconds. At the same time, the temperature dropped, the storm became unleashed, and the stillness shattered.
The stately elms that lined the boulevards in those days before Dutch Elm Disease wiped them out had their huge limbs widely swaying as turbulent winds rushed through them. Blinding flashes of lightning ripped holes across the sky, and sharp cracks of window-rattling thunder boomed nearly simultaneously following each bolt. It felt like all hell was breaking loose above us, and rain fell in huge torrents, pushed by the wind that shrieked and howled as it rushed between homes. The wind, nearly ripping the door from my dad’s grip, finally brought him out of his trance, and he quickly ushered us into the basement where my mother had already taken shelter.
For the next hour, as the storm raged, I listened intently for the roar that tornado survivors often describe in the aftermath of a storm. A couple of times, I thought I heard it, but it must have been the heavy rush of wind through the trees. A tornado did not visit our neighborhood on that day.
When the worst was over, we emerged from the basement, and the air now had a lightness. The storm had washed the dirt and pollution away, leaving it clean and fresh. The rivers of water covering the streets at the height of the storm soon reduced to small streams running near the curbs. Intermittent drops from millions of leaves fell onto car roofs, sidewalks, and the street whenever a slight breeze ran through the elms.
I felt fortunate that the storm had not caused more damage. I later learned the system had spawned multiple tornados, but our neighborhood was spared their destructive force on that day.