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?”