When Derechos Attack

Two towering thunderstorms over a Midwestern plain
“When Derechos Attack”, 16in x 12in, acrylic on canvas

I just want to remind you of the time the storm nearly killed us.

“Storms,” you correct me. “There were two of them.”


A pair of rowdy storms tumbled drunkenly across the plain, heading in our direction. They were in a lively mood, which did not bode well for us. Cloud bumped against staggering cloud, igniting flashes of lightning and sending peals of thunderous laughter through the air. 

“They drank their share of something,” I said. “Must be from that lake the next town over.”

“Lots of fertilizer run-off goes into that water,” you said. “Pesticides too. It’s gone to their heads.”

“Not just that. They have a mean look about them.”

You sized up the storms. “Damn. They’re Derechos, and they’re looking for trouble.” That wasn’t good.

The Derecho Gang is a band of fast-moving thunderstorms that ride across the Midwest and wreak havoc just for the fun of it. They’re notorious for whipping up tornadoes, sparking fires, uprooting large trees, and knocking down power lines. They’ve been known to go around shooting off wild gusts that overturn semi trucks on the highway and flip over planes at the airport. 

The baddest of the bad in these parts.

Back in the 1880s the weather service gave them the Spanish name for “straight” because that’s how they typically travel, with no twists or turns, as if they don’t care about trying to shake off storm chasers or bounty hunters. But these two weren’t moving too straight in their condition, and didn’t look like they’d pass by quickly.

“So we want to avoid them?” I said. 

You nodded. “We don’t want them coming this way at all. They’ll ruin Joe’s corn and tear up the whole place.”

We had been visiting the farm owned by your uncle’s friend Joe, and were out for a late afternoon stroll, keeping to the dirt road that ran between cornfields. We were worried because the Derechos often destroy crops with showers of hailstones as big as baseballs, then let loose flash floods that wash away fields and houses.

“You think we can stop them?” I asked. “Just shoo them away?”

“If we don’t, they’ll devastate the farm. Joe and his family will lose everything. The neighbors too.”

“Okay. What’s the plan?”

“I don’t know.”

“Okay.” We were doomed. The storms rolled on with malicious intent, each carrying as much energy as an atomic bomb. They’d be on top of us in less than thirty minutes.

“We need to distract them somehow,” you said, as more thunder rumbled in the distance. The wind picked up and fluttered your skirt.

“If only we could make our own lightning,” I said. “Show them a thing or two.” The ionized air was making me giddy, to the point of recklessness. “Hell, I’d take some of those fireworks Joe makes and shove ’em right up the storm’s—”

“That’s it!” You slapped my shoulder and started running back to the farm. I hurried to catch up and asked what you were thinking. “We’ll light up the sky and get their attention. We only need a few of the big shells.”

“Great,” I said. “Can’t wait.” Why is it we keep using explosives to solve these little problems we run into?

“Sometimes you’ve just got to blow things up,” you said, reading my mind.

Before Joe inherited the farm, he had been a munitions expert — that’s how he knew your uncle, I think — then later took up fireworks as a hobby. When his son Burton came home from school with a degree in chemistry, they set up a business putting together fireworks displays around the state. They had shown us their workshop earlier, a low-roofed building set a safe distance from the house.

“We make all our own shells from scratch,” Joe had explained, giving us the tour. “We make the black powder, roll the casings, assemble the fuses — the whole deal.”

Burton chimed in. “We’re certified, licensed, and insured. We can handle professional shows, but mostly we do private events.”

They hire out for weddings, parties, rodeos, and of course the local Fourth of July celebration, which was just a few days away. That side business helps supplement the farm income, a little.

When we got back we found Joe and Burton in the workshop putting some final touches on their show for the Fourth. They were wrapping a two-foot cylinder as big around as a coffee can when we rushed in and explained the situation. You took Joe to the doorway and showed him the approaching storms. 

“Well I’ll be damned,” he said. “Two of them. Nothing in the forecast about this. They don’t look sociable. And you want to do what?”

“Save the farm, basically. Get the storms to veer off by distracting them. We just need a few of the big shells, if you’ve got any extras.”

Joe wasn’t having it. He didn’t believe anyone could change the path of a thunderstorm, and couldn’t spare a single sparkler if Moses himself was asking. “Don’t even think about it.”

“Okay,” you said, “no fireworks. What I really want is to take the crop duster up and get the storms’ attention that way. Get them to follow me, lead them away from your fields before they start destroying everything. I just need the key and—”

“You out of your mind? Go up in this weather? Not a chance!” He started pacing, then stopped, picked up one of the shells from the workbench, and gave you a piercing look. “You really think you can do it?”

You had him. Compared to letting you use the plane, giving you a few fireworks seemed trivial. You haggled a bit, just to make him feel like he’d won, but in the end Joe agreed to let us have a couple dozen canisters and a large round shell, which it turned out he could spare after all.

He also provided some mortar tubes — about a foot high and anywhere from four to eight inches across, each attached to a wooden base — and put them in a plastic milk crate. “We just use these for testing, but bring ’em back if you can.” Then he handed you a deep bucket for launching the round shell.

“You want to set the charges with a remote, Sweetie?”

“No time,” you said. “We’ll just light them by hand.” 

“Mm-hmm.” Joe threw a butane lighter in with the shells. I picked up that box and started for the door. We were running out of time. Burton offered me an armful of skyrockets attached to three-foot sticks — like bottle rockets, but much bigger. “We need to get rid of these. We don’t make them, they’re technically illegal here. Don’t ask how we got them.”

“Uh, thanks,” I said, as he added them to my load.

“I’ll take you two out there,” Joe said to us. “Burt, you stay here and finish up. And check the windows. Storm’s comin’ this way,” he gave us a look, “maybe.”

“See if you can find Jess,” Burton said. Jess was their dog. “She’s running around out there. Weather’s made her skittery.”

We piled into the red and white Ford truck, which I guessed was from the 80s, based on the style, but it still ran fine. On the dashboard was a figurine of Saint Barbara, a patron saint of fireworks. Often invoked against lightning, too. Joe was Protestant, I thought, like a lot of Nebraskans, but apparently St. Barbara’s intercessory powers over explosives were given due respect by those in the business.

You directed him to let us off by the edge of the farm, where vacant fields stretched off into the hills. “Will the neighbors be bothered?”

“Nah, we do tests out here all the time. They’re used to it. Hell, they expect to get a preview of our latest beauties this close to the Fourth.” As we unloaded the boxes he stuck his head out the window and shouted back to us, “I’d help, but I got to go find the dog. You’ll do fine.” He took off with a wave of his hand.

“Trusting guy,” I said, as we trotted across the field with our arsenal.

“I’ve visited here enough times over the years — helping out, making shells, setting them off. Sometimes driving the tractor, for farming work. Flew the crop duster a couple times.”

“He called you Sweetie.”

“They do that here. Don’t you start. Besides, the waitress called you Hon the other day.”

“They do that here.”

You pointed with your chin. “Over toward that tree looks good, but not too close.” The sky had darkened and the wind attacked us with fierce gusts that tried to knock us over. I wasn’t sure about setting off fireworks in a squall.

“We’re not licensed for this,” I said.

“The Pyrotechnic Association doesn’t need to know.” You dumped the tubes on the ground. “Let’s start small and see what happens.”

I set off a rocket, holding it gingerly with my fingers and balancing the stick on the ground, then lighting it and letting it go. It zipped upward in a streak that looked like a bright shooting star. I only got a little burned.

You plopped down a launching tube at an angle and dropped a canister in with the fuse hanging out the top a few inches. You lit it and leaned away. About ten seconds later the charge ignited and sent the shell hurtling skyward. By the time it exploded high above you were already setting up the next one.

We took turns — me with the rockets, you with the shells — aiming our fireworks in the direction we wanted the storms to come. Chunks of burning cardboard and glowing embers rained down on us.

“It’s working,” you said. “Look.”

The Derechos were veering toward us, fascinated by the light show and itching to join in. With each rocket or starburst we put up, they’d respond with a bolt of lightning — still a safe distance away — like it was a conversation. We kept at it, as the wind rose to a steady howl and raindrops spattered the ground.

Moments later, the storms had us surrounded. 

They tossed a few thunderbolts between them, cloud to cloud, in a threatening manner. Then I felt my hair standing on end and my skin got tingly with electricity. “Lightning!” I shouted. We crouched down as low as possible just before the air was ripped apart by a flash that set ablaze the tree a few dozen yards away.

“Well,” I said, “we got their attention.”

“One more.” You had saved the biggest for last — the twelve-inch round shell. I grabbed the bucket and jammed it into the ground at a lower angle, aiming it toward the uninhabited hills well beyond the fields. You placed the shell in and lit it. We stepped back as the spark ran up the fuse, over the top of the bucket, and down to the black powder charge. Then, nothing.

“Crap,” we both said. Now what? 

I wondered if I should give it a kick, like it was some misbehaving electronic device, then started to feel my hair raise again and could see yours forming a halo around your head. We’d get struck by lightning any second now.

I was ready to say goodbye — or appeal to St. Barbara — when the charge ignited and sent the shell off with a thwump! We watched it lift into the air and explode in a multicolored burst of stars that lit up the sky and left long trails. 

The thunderstorms turned and headed toward the shower of sparks like two toddlers going after a shiny toy, forgetting all about the lightning they were about to inflict on us. They kept on going, following some other whim now, until they were over the horizon. The rain gave us a final drenching, then tagged along after them.

We picked up the boxes and mortar tubes and jogged back to the farm, soaked and bedraggled. Jess greeted us with wagging tail, calmer now that the storms had passed.

As we stopped by the workshop to drop off the gear, Burton handed us towels.

Joe nodded at us with approval. “That was quite a show.” He gave Jess a pat. “What I can’t figure is, how’d you get the lightning timed so well?”

Random Forest

A forest of straight trees in the afternoon sun
“Random Forest”, 16in x 12in, acrylic on canvas

There is a time, once a year, when we should avoid the forest. This was that time, and we were caught off guard.

About mid-summer a peculiar brand of bureaucrat invades the woods to conduct the yearly tree survey — gathering data, interrogating trees, and annoying the denizens with long questionnaires. I thought they had done it last week and you thought it would be next week, so we were okay either way, but we were both wrong.

“What’s that man doing there?” you asked, as we walked along a favorite path.

“Talking to that oak, it looks like.” He wore a checked tweed jacket with matching vest and brown corduroy pants — suitable for the English countryside in 1890 perhaps, but not the usual outfit for a casual hiker in these parts. “Oh, no. He’s got a clipboard or something. I think he’s one of those surveyors.”

“They’re not supposed to be here yet. Can we get past him?”

He was standing next to the path and we didn’t feel like turning back, so we forged ahead, hoping he’d still be engaged with his current victim, a gnarled red oak who must have been two hundred years old.

“I bet he’ll be busy for a while,” I said. “Some of those old-timers just won’t shut up when you ask their opinion.”

No such luck. As we were about to pass, the surveyor finished up with “Thank you for your time,” and turned our way.

He had a contraption on his head that let him switch between a variety of eye pieces — thick spectacles for examining bark, binoculars for looking into the higher branches, and normal glasses for reading his electronic notepad, which I had earlier mistaken for a clipboard.

When he saw us approach, he stepped into the path and went into his routine, not seeming to notice we didn’t belong to the plant kingdom. He hadn’t adjusted his lens gadget properly, so we probably looked like any other woody perennial with a single trunk and lateral offshoots.

“Good day. I’m from the Arbor Polling Service and we’re conducting our annual survey of trees. May I ask you a few brief questions? Good,” he said, without waiting for a reply. “Species type?”

I thought of the old personality question: If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be? We couldn’t decide, so you just said, “Pine.” A safe answer, if a bit generic, though maple would have sufficed.

“Mm-hmm,” he said, tapping on his screen. “How many branches?”

“Branches?” I wasn’t sure how to handle that one.

“Limbs. Growths. Boughs,” he patiently explained, squinting at me.

“Four?” you said with a shrug.

He gave you a sharp look. “Had an accident, or did you lose them from disease?”

Four was too few, so I calculated fingers and toes and told him, “Twenty.”

“No, forty, all together,” you said, including us both.

“Ah.” He tapped that in, satisfied. “How many rings?” 

Neither of us were wearing any, but that’s not what he was after. He just wanted our ages. “Well, in dog years… no, wait.” Wrong conversion factor. “In tree years, um…” Is that a thing? 

“About three decades,” you said. “I mean, thirty rings.” That was close, if you averaged our two ages.

“Any saplings?”

We’d never really discussed having children, though we’ve planted plenty of trees together — two weeks one summer crawling up and down desolate slopes inch by inch on our hands and knees with a group of conservationists. Hot sun, pesky insects, aching backs. Good times.

“No offspring,” you answered. 

“Squirrels,” I explained. “Those darned critters eat all the seeds. Or nuts. And don’t get me started on the deer. We once had a tender young seedling, newly sprouted, bright green and cute as can be. But this hungry six-point buck came along and just munched the poor little— Oh, it’s too horrible to recount.” I teared up, almost believing my tale. You glared at me.

“I see. Legal resident of the forest?”

“Just visiting,” you said quickly, before I could invent another story.

“Hmm. Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of an aspen grove?”

Never!” I answered that one. “We don’t associate with communes.” Technically, clonal colonies, but it amounts to the same thing — all those trees sharing a single root system. As bad as inbreeding with cousins. And look at what that did to the Hapsburgs.

He finished with the demographic info, then tapped his pad to bring up a new page and gave us a friendly look.

“Now, what is your opinion of the use of mulch in society today?”

I tackled that one. “Mulch is, and always will be, the bedrock of our communities.” He frowned at my metaphor, but I stood by my statement.

“Do you support any bird’s nests or avian families?”

“No,” you said, “but we give to the Audubon Society.” That part was true.

“If you could change just one thing about the forest, what would it be?”

“Fewer trees,” I said, “maybe none. It’s just too hard to see the forest because of all the trees in the way. Something should be done about it.”

He hesitated before entering the response, as if deciding how to word it. He finally started tapping something in, but I could see you were getting impatient. We needed to continue our hike if we wanted to be home by supper.

You tugged on my arm and we began walking off, but the surveyor followed us with brisk, efficient steps. “Just a few questions about soil health… and grooming habits… and your exercise routine…”

He wasn’t about to leave us alone, which is why we wanted to avoid him in the first place. But there’s one sure way to handle this type — turn the tables.

“Let me ask you a question,” I said, wheeling around to face him. “What kind of statistical model do you use to analyze the data?”

“Model? I don’t—”

“And how do you calculate your confidence intervals? Or guarantee you have enough of a representative sample to draw the correct inferences about the target population?”

“Well, uh…”

You joined in and hit him with: “This survey obviously suffers from selection bias by including an over representation of trees residing near the path. How do you rationalize that?”

“But… but…”

“You need better random sampling,” I suggested, “though that would entail a lot more walking.” I poked him in the chest. “Why are you ignoring the opinions of those ridgeline trees? You’re marginalizing them.”

He was backing up now, but we pressed on.

“Which machine learning algorithms do you apply?”

“If a tree falls in the forest, how many are left?”

“Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Logger’s Union?”

“Who are you really working for?”

He looked uneasily at the remaining questions on his notepad, glanced up at us, and turned on his heels. He was far along the path before we could say another word.

“I think it was the tweed jacket,” you said. “Just not the right look for these woods.”

That bothered me too. We discussed proper forest attire as we headed down the homeward trail in the lengthening shadows of afternoon.

The Road to Nottamun Town

A dirt road leads over a hill to a hidden town, behind which lies a mysterious mountain range
“The Road to Nottamun Town”, 12in x 9in, acrylic on canvas

Not a soul would look up, not a soul would look down
To show me the way to fair Nottamun Town

We weren’t sure we’d get through Nottamun Town in one piece, based on the bizarre tales we had heard. We had no choice — our destination lay beyond it, a mountain range of myth. And we needed supplies.

Not one person we asked would show us the way there, of course. The old folk song predicted as much. But we only made inquiries to verify directions.

We had a map on parchment, drawn in ruddy ink with names scratched in by an unsteady hand. You had tried to decipher the writing. “It looks like it says Nothinham, or Notaman, or Nobbonum.”

“Close enough,” I said. “Must be the place.”

The map had been handed down and hidden away for generations, until we got hold of it by a bit of honest deception. They say it was made by pirates who came far inland to hide their loot. We didn’t believe that part, since no treasure spot was marked on the map — unless that blot of ink beside a poorly-sketched tree meant something.

Walking along the road into town we came upon a stone marker commemorating the well-known forgotten flood that had swept through the valley long ago. 

“Wait,” you said. “How can it be well-known if it’s forgotten?” That was our first warning sign that something was amiss.

“It does seem contradictory,” I agreed. “And apparently just ten people drowned, but the stories grew until they said thousands had died, though only a few hundred people ever lived hereabouts.”

You recited a line from the song: “Ten thousand got drowned that never was born. So that’s what it means, maybe.”

We hid our backpacks in a gully up a ways from the road, knowing they’d be safe for an hour or two. On the outskirts of town we passed a corral and barn before reaching the hustle and bustle of Nottamun. It had been built like an old western town, with one main avenue running down the center where all the stores were clustered in a row.

On arriving there, we encountered a curious scene.

The muddy street was dry as dust; the sidewalks were crowded but no one was there. Three people sat while standing on a corner; they laughed and smiled in misery. A megaphone maven mumbled a shout and talked without saying a word; the audience tried hard to misunderstand. A parade without followers crawled in a march, led from behind by an elderly child.

“Well,” I said, “who am I to question anyone’s lifestyle choice, but still…”

You nodded. “Just don’t get on a horse, especially a gray mare. Remember that part of the song: She stood so still, she threw me to the dirt; She tore my hide, and she bruised my shirt.

I hadn’t planned to get on any kind of horse, let alone some cantankerous mare.

The mayor strutted by without moving a limb and informed us, “If you tell the truth, we say it’s a lie. And all lies are truths in this town.”

“Like one of those riddles,” you whispered to me as he turned to accost someone else.

“But what if they really mean it here?” This could get dangerous. We kept walking down the muddy-dusty street.

Children in a circle chanted, “Victims are heroes, heroes are crim’nals, crim’nals are victims, no one’s a saint.” Then a lab-coated model with a clipboard approached us. “We’re polling the people about science. Vote for the facts that feel right, so we can decide what’s real.”

“Wait,” I said, “you can’t just choose what—”

“Never mind.” You grabbed my arm. “Remember, we’re here to get supplies for the rest of our trip.”

We stopped in a saloon, where the cellar was up in the attic but the building had only one floor. A barman with empty bottles served us dry drinks in thimble-sized quarts. You looked thoughtfully at your glass and quoted more lyrics: “I bought me a quart to drive gladness away; And to stifle the dust, for it rained the whole day.

“This is simply no good,” you added, and struck your fist on the table.

“Yeah, we won’t have much luck getting supplies if all the stores are like this. What’s going on here?”

“Not sure. But there’s one person who can tell it to us straight — the town fool. That’s his job, right? Revealing the uncomfortable truth.”

We paid for our drinks which were free, and the barman kept the change that he gave us.

“I don’t even understand the physics of all this,” I said as we headed back onto the street. “It’s not like a parallel universe. More of a skewed one.” And yet, everything seemed vaguely familiar.

We looked in all the spots we’d expect to find a town fool: stables, barns, pigsties, the courthouse. We finally found him sitting on a fence, looking dejected, and explained our plight. He brightened at being asked a sensible question.

“Yes, it’s an odd place — makes my job tougher.” He sighed. “Up is down, good is bad, wrong is right. Hard to compete with that. What’s the point of playing the fool when folks are so foolish themselves? My advice: Leave before you forget what’s true.”

“But what do all these contradictions mean?”

Acting the fool, he gave us a wink. “If the meaning is known then the mystery’s gone.”

We thanked him and tried to leave quickly. Not so easy.

A naked man in a business suit stopped us to say, “There’s a nice little big house for rent to buy on credit-swap paper with no money down. Perfectly safe risky investment. You can bank on it.”

“Keep moving!” you said to me.

A woman with cash-hungry eyes thrust some vials at us. “Medicine, medicine, for all your ills. You invent the malady, we concoct the remedy. A tincture of nothing suspended in hope. The weaker the mixture, the stronger the faith.”

I waved her away.

A circus barker shouted at us, “The world’s biggest tent, fits in your hand. Everyone’s together separately, shackled by choice, freely beguiled. Come for camaraderie, stay for the rage. Consume all you want, never be sated.”

We hurried past him. “I’ve never heard so much nonsense,” you said. 

“At least no one tried to tell us about String Theory.”

We exited at the entrance and got far clear of the town, heading back the way we came. We never reached the mountain range. It would have to wait for another day.

“Get out the map,” you said, as we retrieved our packs. “Let’s go find that tree where someone put a spot of ink.”

That turned out to be more fruitful.