Chasing Thunderstorms

In the 1950’s when I was growing up in San Diego it was in the midst of a very dry weather cycle there.  Our stated average annual rainfall was about 10 inches, but I don’t remember ever getting that much rain until the 1970’s when all of the county’s reservoirs, most of which had boasted of little more than puddles at the bases of the dams for as long as I could remember, were filled to overflowing.  During those dry years I loved to see and get out into that infrequent novelty that was rain, and took every opportunity to do so.

One thing in particular that we enjoyed was the occasional thunderstorm that built up over the Laguna Mountains to the east of the city.  Any given day would begin as usual, but on very special days by late morning big, puffy clouds could be seen boiling up over the mountains and my father, brother Brad and I would glance knowingly at each other and it was game on.  My mother would see that look in our eyes and know what was coming too.  Mom had the misfortune of being the only one in our family with good sense, in that case at least, and she knew that what we were about to do was sheer idiocy and that she would more than likely lose her family that day.  That my mom was wrong was owed more to luck than brains.  When the thunderstorms rose up over the mountains Dad, Brad and I would love nothing more than to drive up into the mountains and chase them down.

My father had a 1950 Studebaker Champion in those days, which was the finest automobile ever made for one overgrown kid and his two witless sons to chase storms in.  It was big and comfortable and seemed to be able to go places that a Jeep wouldn’t attempt.  My father bought that car with a total of two miles on it:  the two miles that factory workers drove it to be certain that it actually ran before they sold it.  Dad bought the thing at the factory in South Bend, Indiana, and drove it on Route 66 most of the way back home.  From that time onward that car purred like a kitten; a large, bulbous, asthmatic kitten, until the day he traded it in for a ’63 Mercury.

We would climb into that iron stagecoach and head in the direction of the largest of the thunderheads knowing that the picture would change by the time that we arrived on the mountain.  On the way my father would tell stories about his childhood in Georgia or adventures in the Navy.  I remember one story in particular of him plowing behind a mule when his plow bit into a bumblebee hive.  As Dad told it, a buzzing, swarming, angry cloud of bees boiled up out of that rent in the ground and split in two, administering justice equally to mule and child alike.  The mule bolted one way, dragging a rapidly disintegrating plow behind him, while Dad ran with the feet of Mercury to a nearby pond into which he dove, ignoring the possibility of water moccasins, and stayed under water as long as he could until he would have to breach the surface, pay for it with one or two new stings on his increasingly lumpy noggin, take a deep breath and then submerge for another while and hope that the bees felt compensated or bored enough to move on.

Up we would climb into the the mountains and the center of the storm would seem to move first here, then there, then somewhere else.  Dad was a sort of prototype for the G.P.S.  He knew main roads, back roads, private roads and darned near no roads all through those mountains.  We would wind or creep along those trails until he began to close in on our prey.  Usually the first thing that we noticed was the wind.  Dad told us that as rain was falling it pushed the air out from under it and that is how we get the big winds from thunderstorms.  I think that is true, but I couldn’t swear to it.  Then we would get the lightening and thunder and the first drops of rain.

I am always amazed at how inadequate a word “thunder” is.  If the lightening strike is eight to ten miles away “thunder” may be adequate I suppose, but if the lightening is only a mile away or less “THUNDER!” is more appropriate, or “ARMAGEDDON” maybe, or even “THE MOLECULES AND ATOMS FROM WHICH YOU BODY WAS COBBLED TOGETHER BY THE CREATOR WILL BE RETURNED TO THEIR RANDOM PRIMEVAL STATE”.  The effect of thunder at such close range would be staggering to a person with an IQ approaching room temperature.  Fortunately for us we were not encumbered in that fashion and prepared ourselves for our plunge into the maelstrom.

The aforementioned Studebaker came with one particularly convenient feature.  The hood would begin in the middle at an apex and slope down towards the sides of the car where the headlights were housed in what looked like two torpedos on either side of the front.  The depression where the hood and those torpedos met made for a perfect saddle where two kids could sit while a deranged adult drove slowly, never more than 5 miles per hour, through the heart of the storm.

The experience was overwhelming and exhilarating.  The lightening would strike all around us; frequently we could smell the ozone.  The rain would sometimes come straight down and sometimes blow right into our faces.  My brother and I would be ecstatic and squeal with unrestrained delight with every crash of lightening, and I say “crash of lightening” because it was often so close that the bolt and the boom were simultaneous, and at every wave of water that would pelt us from above or in front or wherever like a tsunami washing over a low-lying atoll.  Dad would stay away from the low places because he knew of the danger of flash floods.  Somehow the danger from a gazillion volts of lightening didn’t occur to him or to us either.

When it was over, which it was all too quickly, we would pile back into the “Studie” wet to the bone and shivering like the convicted.  Dad had blankets for us to sit on and cover up in, and he would run the heater full blast until the windows were fogged up from the water evaporating from our clothes.

We would make our way to the nearest restaurant; the Julian Cafe or the Alpine Tavern or that little place in Santa Ysabel, and get hamburgers and french fries and a coke, and leave wet stains on their chairs when we departed to return home to our mother who could scarcely believe that her family still lived.  Of course, Brad and I were fast asleep by the time we got home; sleeping the sleep of the innocents.

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