Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Origin of a Rain King

I love the rain. It is one of my favorite things and I am loathe to miss any opportunity to pull up a camp chair in my garage and sit and watch it for hours. Some nights my kids and/or their friends will join me and we’ll sit together talking quietly and watching as the lightning splits the sky over the trees on our block. My relationship with the rain is so strong, people will often refer to me as the Rain King and will call me to let me know it is raining in another town and on its way toward me.

It wasn't always that way. When I was a little kid I was scared to death of rainstorms. At the first sound of thunder, I would go into hiding under a bed, behind a couch, or into the cupboards underneath the kitchen sink. I don’t know what it was that scared me so much, if it was the loudness, the light, or the fact that nobody can stop the rain and so therefore it must be very powerful and deserving of fear.

One night when we were living in a townhouse in DesPlaines, Illinois, near the intersection of Golf Road and Milwaukee Avenue, there was a horrible storm. It was worse than any I had ever been through before. It was so bad that it knocked the power out for miles around, which allowed the rain to come flooding into our basements and fill them waist high in water. It was so bad that I remember that my father and some of the other neighbor men had to go across Milwaukee and help evacuate the Dolphin Hotel when it was struck by lightning and caught fire.

I remember when the storm hit. It was at the end of a summer’s day. I was lying on the living room floor playing with some Popeye Colorforms. My older and younger sisters, Melissa and Stacia (who had just moved into her own bed), were in their room playing. My brother, Tim, was still an infant and was probably asleep in the crib in my parents’ room, dreaming of his next meal, and therefore oblivious to the whole thing. Although I’m sure it didn't, it seemed to me like the storm sprung out of nowhere. One minute everything was calm and quiet, then the wind picked up and blew all the bedroom doors closed. The sky quickly became dark with sickly green overtones. I immediately stopped what I was doing and went to the big picture window behind the couch to see what was happening. The thunder and the torrents of rain came so fast after that I didn't have time to go and hide, so I just curled up there into a little ball and put my hands over my head, wailing in panic and fear.

When she heard me, my mother came running into the room and pulled me up into her arms. I grabbed her around the neck and buried my head in her chest, sobbing. She just rubbed my head and said over and over, “It’s OK, buddy. It’s OK. There is nothing to be afraid of. It’s just a storm.” When I had calmed down, she carried me over to our rocking chair and pulled it out so that it was facing that big window. “Don’t be afraid of the rain, buddy,” she said. “It’s actually really very beautiful.” She turned me around on her knees and made me watch the storm as it unfolded in all of its fury. She held my hand and explained to me that storms and the rain didn't come because they wanted to or not; they really had no motive but to happen. She told me the rain was a good thing, deserved respect for all the good it did and that I just needed to give it a chance. She was right. That night, watching the lightning bounce off all of the electrical towers near our house and the neon signs that lined Milwaukee, having her beside me and making me feel safe, I became absolutely transfixed. The rest of the night, until I fell asleep and my tired father carried me to bed, I sat and watched the storm. From that time onward whenever it would rain, I would find my mother and pull her by the hand into the living room, so that we could sit in the rocking chair and watch it for awhile.

After that particular storm our street looked like what I imagine London looked like after the Blitz. All along the sidewalks people had stacked furniture, appliances, carpet and other articles that were too water-damaged to be saved. I remember my friend, Scott and I being absolutely fascinated by a toilet on top of a heap of carpets and other remnants of the floods. We had never seen a toilet like that, outside of a house, before. And because we were five, and possessed the scientific curiosity that only five-year-olds have, we spent the better part of an afternoon examining that toilet in an effort to figure out exactly how it worked. As I think back about it now, I am perplexed about why that toilet was there. Nobody that lived around us had a finished basement, let alone a bathroom anywhere other than on the second floor of their house. Also, generally speaking, porcelain objects are not typically affected by flood water. So why was it there?

Scott and I probably would have spent the better part of a week messing around with that toilet, if it had not been for the sudden and unexpected arrival of my maternal grandparents and two of my favorite second cousins, Greg and Diane. When I saw them pull up along the street and get out of the car, my interest in toilets and all the other compelling junk that sat on our sidewalks went right out the proverbial window.

My grandparents and cousins lived in a small town in Indiana just outside of Lafayette. Normally, we would only see them at Halloween, Christmas, Easter, or some other holiday when they would come to visit us, or we would go to visit them, so it was a tremendous surprise to see them on what in my mind was a not-that special of a day. The reason they came was to take me and Melissa home with them, so my folks could concentrate better on what they needed to do to with only only two kids not four.

I don’t remember much about that unplanned visit to Indiana, with one exception— the day it rained again. At that time, my grandparents lived in a rented bungalow on the very south edge of their town, across the street from the county fairgrounds. If you walked two blocks in any of three directions from their house you were in cornfields, so when the rain came blowing in you could see it from miles away...long before it ever got to you.

That day it rained, it was not a storm. It was nothing more than a gentle, consistent summer rain. As it was getting ready to fall (you could feel and smell it in the air) my grandfather pulled his hammock out from under the apple tree in the backyard and moved it into the garage. He pulled a couple of tomatoes off the vines on the fence for us to cut up and eat with sugar and salt as a snack. When the rain did start falling, he and I curled up in the hammock, covered ourselves with a light blanket and for the next few hours talked, napped and just silently watched as it fell from the sky. It was one of the best days of my life and one we would repeat frequently.

As I became a teenager and then a young man I still grabbed my mother's hand and made her watch the rain with me.  The same was true of my grandfather.  Whenever I visited him, if it was raining we sat on the front porch, on the swing, and talked while we listened to the rain drumming down on the roof.

This is why I love the rain, and how I became the Rain King.