Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Summer Storms


Photo by Boboshow, CC0 Public Domain

You remember the feel of the air. Sultry. Stifling humidity. Calm. Kind of a funny color to the sky. Rumbles in the distance. An onrush of dark clouds from the west. Sometimes it almost seems like night is descending. There is a sudden freshening of the wind, sometimes from complete calm to almost gale force. Then a brilliant flash, sometimes with almost a hot, hissing sound followed by a tremendous crash of thunder that makes you leap out of your skin. Then you remember, if you heard the thunder, the lightening didn’t hit you. Driving rain, where roads turn into rivers, almost blinding on the windshield, or to someone like me wearing glasses out of doors.

Summer storms. They could be terrifying when you were a kid. I remember one night when I was out with my dad and we arrived home amid a crashing storm. Our garage was detached, about thirty feet from our house. I didn’t want to budge for fear. My dad said “I’ll take care of you.” and sheltered me under his arm as we ran for the house. Only later in life did I realize he couldn’t really protect either of us if lightning had struck. But in the moment I felt safe–and obviously we did make it.

We lived on Portland Avenue, off of Mahoning, about halfway down the hill that runs from Belle Vista to Steel Street, that looks eastward toward downtown and the north and east sides. So storms from the west came from over the hill so we didn’t so much see them coming as heard the rumbles of thunder, and saw the darkening skies. Late in life, my parents lived at Park Vista Retirement Community with windows facing west looking across the valley. We could watch the storms come across the valley toward the north side, an even more awesome sight.

When the storms were coming and you were at home, there was always the mad dash to close the windows, except maybe on the east side of the house so the rain wouldn’t come in. Mom would be very unhappy if rain stained the curtains, and she always worried the lightning could travel along a draft in the house (actually the greatest danger inside the house is talking on a landline phone during a storm–something that may soon be a thing of the past).

When a front was moving through, the storms brought relief from the heat and humidity, and it was refreshing to come outside and find the sky a clear blue as the haze and pollution had been washed from the air. At other times, the storms were of the “pop up” variety when heat and humidity made for unstable air. Usually, if anything, it was worse afterwards when the sun came out and you felt like you were in a steam bath.

We always worried a bit during storms about the big silver maple next door, that it would come crashing into our house during a wind storm. I would stare at it sometimes, trying to figure out if it would fall toward our house. All I know is that it never did, although there were often branches to clean up. Eventually it was cut down. The worst thing that happened was when part of the cherry tree next door fell into our driveway–but there were some ripe cherries on it!

Sometimes the storms would come at night. First you would see the heat lightning but wouldn’t hear anything. Was it really going to storm, or was it just the heat. And sometimes it didn’t as storms went another direction. But sometimes heat lightning was followed by brighter flashes and thunder. You counted the time between the flash and the sound–One-Mississippi–Two Mississippi, etc. Every five seconds was about a mile. And that told you how far away it was. When it got down from five or less, it was definitely time to find shelter (actually we probably should have sooner–lightning can strike from up to 10 miles away and experts say that any time thunder follows lightning within 30 seconds, you should seek shelter).

Storms can be terrifying if you are not in a safe place. But they can also be things of wonder. Driving in a place with a view, and sometimes you can see the arc of lightning across the miles, lighting up the tumultuous clouds. Sometimes, snug in bed during a storm at night, it can be almost cozy, as one sees the flashes, hears the rumbles, and the sound of rain on one’s roof and against the windows.

It was a stormy day today where I live, and it recalled those stormy days of summers past when winds and rains swept across the valley with strikes and arcs of lightning overhead, and thunder echoing from one side of the valley to the other. In those moments, we remembered how small and vulnerable we really were.