Storm Watching: A Show of Nature

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Storms brewing in the skies.
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Watching storms clouds gather.

Storm watching can be fascinating, the clouds provide many lessons — and they’re not always about the weather.

In our family, studying and understanding storm clouds — the whys, hows, wheres and whens of thunderstorms and tornadoes — is a skill taught by one generation to the next. Today, it seems to be a dying art. Storm watching is done differently from when my I first began the study of storm clouds.

When I was a youngster, my family lived on the outskirts of a small town in southwest Oklahoma — a part of the country so flat there was little to break your line of sight for miles beyond the rooftops of modest homes or the small Main Street district.

The town sat well within the boundaries of the region of the country we call “tornado alley.” Those of us who lived there knew what that meant. Severe weather was an accepted part of life — and because the terrain was so flat, you could watch the storms approach for hours before they presented any immediate threat to your safety.

Often on warm spring nights, ominous clouds gathered on the western horizon just about suppertime. After supper on those days, my dad quietly stood up from the dinner table, strolled out to our front yard and stood facing west — hands pushed into trouser pockets — where he quietly studied the approaching storm, sometimes for what seemed to me to be hours.

Most evenings, my two sisters and I joined him. We weren’t sure what we were looking for, but we tried to look as if we were seeing important things in those clouds, now and then glancing up at our dad to gauge whether it was time to worry.

What my sisters and I really wanted to know, but never asked, was “Is a tornado coming?” We never said the T word out loud, just in case talking about a tornado could conjure one up.

But we loved being storm watchers. It was exhilarating to watch neon lightning flashes against a boiling, black sky in the distance, all from the safety of our front yard. Even from far away, I could feel the super-charged air on my skin. We listened to the rumble of thunder and tried to decide if it sounded closer than the last rumble.

Churning black clouds with thunder and lightning as traveling companions — still hours away from our town — provided a dramatic backdrop to the everyday goings-on of our little’ neighborhood. Friends rode by on bicycles, occasionally one might pull his bike to the curb to ask my dad about the coming storm; other children might play baseball in a nearby front yard. A little thing like an approaching thunderstorm wasn’t going to keep the neighborhood youngsters from their important tasks.

Occasionally an adult neighbor came outside to check the weather. Sometimes he and Dad chatted for a bit. Then the neighbor went inside again. We did not. We held our post until it got too dark to see the clouds well, and bedtime loomed.

I’m a youngster only at heart today, and I can no longer study clouds with my dad. That doesn’t mean I’ve given up watching as “bad weather” approaches. But storm watching has changed.

I live in a large city where I can go for months without really seeing the stars — too many lights. That, and the presence of all these tall buildings, makes it tough to see storm clouds moving in. And the children in my neighborhood all seem to be inside, maybe playing video games.

Even so, I sometimes walk out to my own front yard and stare in the direction of approaching storm clouds. I’m sure my neighbors wonder why I bother. After a time I give up trying to see the clouds. I go back inside, where the TV weatherperson tells me everything there is to know about the approaching storm, including the exact minute it will arrive on my street.

Storm watching has gone high-tech, and it surely makes us safer. But like a lot of things, the high-tech experience, at least for me, lacks soul. Watching a weather radar screen on television just can’t compare with the experience of being outdoors and getting a personal view of nature’s show.

True storm watchers know the adrenaline rush the practice creates can’t be duplicated electronically or technologically.

To get the full effect, you have to be there.

A longtime journalist with a fiction writer’s heart from the Dallas, Texas, area, Glenda Vosburgh now enjoys writing personal biographies based on her own and others’ genealogy research.