Thursday, December 13, 2012

Sheet Lightning

I don’t know why it was called that. Sheet lightning. And when I was a youngster, I never questioned it. Why should I? When they called an apple and apple, it seemed that it was an accurate word, others agreed and applying it to the object could be quite useful.

So, until now, many decades later, the thought that it was a “funny” word or expression never occurred to me. At that early age, I knew that it somehow signified rain, and rain was precious, desired and essential for the farm in that arid part of central Nebraska.

How many times I heard, “Well, we could’ve gotten rain, but it went around us.” This was in the day before every drop of rain, every “hook echo” and every blast of wind was announced in breathless awe by the ratings-conscious weather announcers.

Sheet lightning teased us; it never resulted in rain for us, just for others. Looking off to the south, over the irrigated-but-still-dry corn, away in the distance, it flickered and promised rain to others, but not to us. The weather on the Plains is fairly predictable in that it travels in a generally eastward direction. From the north, cool air swoops down the east side of the Rockies, pulled by the earth’s rotation into an easterly flow, and smacks into the air that travels north from the Gulf. No wonder we had severe weather, the formula was predictable. But not if it was already far south, moving east. Not here. Not tonight.

The Thirties were not a distant memory. Just twenty years prior to the time when I would lay cross wise on the bed in the sleeping cabin and yearn for the storms that I saw to come our way. I couldn’t remember them, but adults did. The terrible sustained heat, the wind that created the famous Dust Bowl and the lack of rain. Corn would grow a couple of feet and die in the field without coming close to pollination or production. That was the year my parents were married, in 1934.

Twenty years later, mid-century modern was storming the country, the ’57 Chevy was being designed and Formica was the miracle for modern living. And it was still dry, but not as bad as the Thirties. Conservation had made a small impact, and it would continue to do more over the decades, but in that part of the country, it is still dry, more than a half century down the road. It is just the nature of things.

When it did rain, it rained too much. I guess part of that whole business of the moist air and the cool air; and the creek was out of its banks seven times in 1950, the year they thought I would die from the fever. Now I would blame contamination of the water, some sort of typhoid fever, but they flew in an experimental drug, possibly erythromycin, and I was well the next day. Except for the sore spot on my butt.

If the rain was going to come, it would come from the west, through the trees to the northwest or across the valley to the southwest. Sheet lightning would not announce it; the loud sizzle and crack of a bolt hitting one of the huge cottonwoods gave you a jump start in the middle of the night as an introduction. Then the cold breeze, the gust front that challenged anything foreign in its way, like trees. Trees were foreign, they didn’t belong. The vast herds of bison were not tolerant of a tree in the way, but it was the prairie fire that wiped the face of the Great Plains free of anything but grass, miles and miles, thousands of miles of grass. Tolerant to the severe cold of the winters, the constant wind and the dryness. The oppressive dryness that sucked the life out of people and things less tolerant.

The weather of the Plains may be predictable, but it is not yet understood by science. They chase tornadoes, trying to figure out what is happening and why. I have been in two tornadoes, little ones, and saw the aftermath of the Joplin storm. You have to respect and love these phenomena of nature. And the result, as someone said, is that humans owe their existence to six inches of top soil and the fact that it rains. Due to the great eruptions from the moving volcano that is now Yellowstone, the top soil there was rich and deeper than six inches.

Well, it never rained enough. Before the advent of newer, conservation-oriented agricultural practices that conserve the soil’s store of moisture and nutrients, before the newer forms of irrigation and, especially, the newer hybrids of corn, there was never enough. As a child, I was not going to understand the science of weather, the history of the place where I lived or the concept of a tall grass like corn being hybridized, but I fully understood the need for rain and the consequences of the absence of rain.

The little one-room school house would be drained of children regularly as the families “dried out” and went to California. The view from the house at one time contained as many as nine or ten family homes, and right now only one. Absent the dairy business (which was frankly too difficult and required too much discipline for most of our neighbors) we would have been “Okies,” too.

It was too hot to occupy the second floor of the un-insulated house, much less sleep up there. Bad enough in the bitter cold of winter, but impossible in the heat and humidity of the summer. We were fortunate enough to have a “sleeping cabin” that was just big enough to contain two double beds with a path down the middle and enough room at the foot to slide along. The sides to the north and south were nearly full windows that lifted up on hinges and hooked to the rafters leaving screens for the sides of the cabin. If there were any breeze at all, the tiny place under the shade of the trees was comfortable. That is where I would gaze out at the far distant sheet lightning. The reflection off the sides and tops of the great thunderheads would create that flicker, that promise of the rain.

And I would hope. I have never quite figured out why people dislike rain and storms (except the constant drizzle and gloom of the northwest that just isn’t the same). To me, they were hoped for, prayed for and welcomed with excitement and glee.

Many times in my life have I watched the “sheet lightning” of events and human behavior, hoping for the desired result without success. I should have learned that sheet lightning is a provocative, sensuous mistress, beckoning me with promises and never delivering. I should have learned…but I didn’t. I still watch and hope and pray, believing that the rain will come despite the fact that it is “going around us.”


  1. Bob, Great post. I thought I was reading your first one, and only later discovered the ones below. I was reminded of a North (maybe South)Dakota farmer/guitar player who cut one or two albums that Dale Connelly and Jim Ed Poole would play selected songs from on the public radio morning show now and then. The one I remember best was called "God, It's Great When It Rains." It included lines like "my city friends don't think so; it spoils their tennis games. Ah, but what do they know?" I can't find anything about the song or the writer/singer. Maybe the song had a different name, but I know the guy's name was Chuck Suki (clearly I have no idea how to spell his last name). You'd like the song if you were to diligently search and find it.

    At any rate, great post. Keep it up.

    1. Okay, Gerry, terrific memory on this whole thing. The idea of our part of the country being dry must have struck a chord with you, too.

      The guy's name is Chuck Suchy and he is a farmer/rancher from Mandan, North Dakota who is also a musician. The song, "It's Great When it Rains," is on his "Dakota Breezes" album. I am now trying to figure out how to download it to my iPod.

      Thanks for the tip, and RIP to Jim Ed Poole (Tom Keith). I saw 3 episodes of Prairie Home Companion live, and listened to dozens. He was younger than we are.

      Ever been to Mandan, ND? Not as dry as farther south and east this year, but it is quite a place.

      Thanks again for the great memory and pointing me in that direction.

  2. I knew you would be more diligent in your search than I was.

    Believe it or not, I don't think I've ever been to ND.

  3. I actually like the place, and not just because Darin Erstad is from Jamestown. Lived in Fargo for a couple of years and the state is full of Norwegians and mosquitos and, in a significant portion of the year, it is cold. The coldest I personally experienced was 33 below.

    Politics have been along the Scandinavian-socialism lines for decades and the Communist Party was big in the first few years of the 20th century.

    Drove through it from west to east in August this year, and the state is prosperous, crops looked excellent (unlike Iowa) and I understand the state's coffers are in the surplus (unlike virtually everyplace else).