dispatches to and from

nathan f. elmore

Dispatches to and from faith, culture, and things in between

Blowing Over

A house on Bellevue Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, shortly after Irene came to town in 2011
[Photo by Will Weaver]

 

This piece originally appeared as a feature in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on October 2, 2011.

 

“The ordinary shoves up against the monumental.” {Colum McCann}

On a Saturday, Hurricane Irene brought her wind and dropped her water as she traveled up the coastal regions of North Carolina and Virginia. Richmond, as we soon wouldn’t forget, experienced the harsh effects of a forceful tropical storm.

At home, on the city’s North Side, our family passed the midday hours tracking the storm on the Weather Channel, the added value being: watching the college-aged yahoos in Virginia Beach mug for the camera, literally throw caution to the wind and irritate the suits back in the studios. Meanwhile, we listened apprehensively to the different sounds that driving rain makes when it hits various parts of the house. We stared out the windows with amazement as trees—those usual bastions of strength and certainty—appeared not to be entirely themselves.

I remember building terrific Legos creations with my sons only to see our structures crash apart in the throes of our fictional wars. We also periodically took part in a time-honored family tradition: “The Rolling Pin.” This is a highly sophisticated game in which daddy rolls along the living room carpet, uh, like a rolling pin, trying to knock over and flatten any child in his way. (There’s a certain pleasure to it; I will not deny it.) Of course, it’s all fun and games until trees—unlike Legos—start to crash down on cars or houses, and that thing that is bigger knocking over that thing that is smaller seems not very cute—and rather unrelenting.

It is true what they say: You don’t always know which way the wind blows. Because of this, as the afternoon wore on, I remember agonizing over the safe return of my wife and daughter, who were attending the birthday party of one of my daughter’s friends. This out-of-the-ordinary agony served to accentuate an everyday reality that I am not remotely fond of: I am not in control of much of anything. Honestly, the idea that Irene could’ve taken advantage of my daughter’s inability to say no to a jumping castle is still surreal.

For these tenuous moments, at least until the electricity goes out, there is the solace of television. In particular, movies have desperately perfected the art of playing the escapist foil to the tempests of real life. So while waiting for my wife and daughter to arrive home, I turned to a Saturday staple of my Texas youth: the western. Not even my wife is fully aware that I secretly harbor a burning desire to introduce my sons to the full catalogue of Clint Eastwood westerns.

When Unforgiven appeared on the Comcast menu, you can forgive me for asserting that some measure of divinity was at work in Irene—not to mention William Munny (Clint Eastwood). The story was already an hour in, but I remember losing the hurricane into the noisy moral background of an old cowboy seeking justice/revenge, as well as self-redemption, and a town sheriff who was not remotely a good guy (“But he’s wearing a badge, daddy.”).

Every father should be made to try to explain the following line to his sons: “It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.” Fortunately, Irene was more forgiving than most of us rogue characters, and my wife and daughter made it home in their covered wagon through the wind and the rain.

On Sunday, I suppose the break of dawn was as appropriate as one could imagine because all the broken things were now very evident in the light of day. I remember that the power was still nowhere to be found but that the sun appeared to shine brighter and warmer and that the birds were everywhere, singing their familiar songs, which seemed, well, unrelenting.

Mid-morning our family of five decided to walk around our Bellevue neighborhood to see what we would see—and to see if anyone needed help. Except for the back-and-forth of brooms and the occasional firing up of a chainsaw, there was a generalized quiet hovering in the air. It lingered, perhaps out of awe-inspired respect as much as undeniable curiosity.

Down one street we saw a tree gently leaning up against a rain gutter, almost teasing or taunting the house. Down another street the full impact of a tree that had fallen was braced—fortuitously—by another tree, its would-be neighbor across the street. Still another street yielded the classic spectacle in a hurricane’s aftermath: the tree that has indeed fallen directly, violently, fully on the house.

Across the street from this severely damaged house, I remember milling about with an assortment of neighbors, including the affected family, getting the story in fragments. They had been watching television in their family room on the first floor when Irene blew over the large tree out front onto their house. Thankfully, no one was injured.

I remember the fourth-grade girl of the house, a classmate of my son’s, lamenting that her brother’s room was in better post-crash condition than hers. She said it with a sensible smile, however, that suggested a wider perspective—that suggested she had perspective. Yet what else is a young girl going to talk about at a time like that?

It’s a hell of a thing—the direction a tree falls. Or which way the wind blows, for that matter.

On the slow walk home I remember observing a bird’s nest lying perfectly upright, intact, still woven together, resting in the middle of a sidewalk. Not everything was broken, after all, although more than a few things had been jarred completely out of place.

Later that afternoon I drove down Monument Avenue, the iconic street in Richmond. In between the fallen trees in the median—and sometimes around them or over them—the usual Sunday suspects were playing corn-hole and bocce in their polo shirts and khaki shorts and in their bright, pretty sundresses. I remember thinking: Our species is unrelenting, aren’t we?