If I had a blog, today I would write about my lifelong fascination with weather. What does this have to do with a giant amphibian native to Australia? Honestly, outside my quirky family, nothing at all, but we adopted this phrase as an omen of a coming storm after hearing the opening lines of a song called “Cane Toad Blues” on a documentary about these massive and, might I add, poisonous members of the toad family. Right here you see that I was destined to be a science geek. Any child who knows the lyrics to “Cane Toad Blues” and whose mother read National Geographic to her kids at bedtime was going to be a little off the grid. Given that I was raised on documentaries and real-life nature adventures, it was only a matter of time until my love for all things meteorological came to the surface.
My mom’s father was my first weather sensei. Grandy Kent was a man of few words and my only clear memories of him revolve around stormy days. Whenever storms were in the forecast, Grandy and I would watch the western sky and when the first anvil-shaped thunderheads appeared, we sprang into action. Granny and Grandy’s house was in a subdivision, but it overlooked acres of undeveloped land to the west, giving us a clear view of approaching storms. There was an old wooden fence at the edge of their property and Grandy built me a little seat on top of one of the posts so I could see what was happening far afield. I would sit on my perch, leaning back against Grandy’s chest, his arm holding me safely in place, and without saying a word, we would watch the storm roll in. We saw the white wind-clouds ride before the blue-black skies and listened for the first deep rumbles of thunder. I’d count the seconds between the flashes of lightning and the thunderclaps so I’d know how fast the storm was coming. The wind would rise, the smell of ozone heavy in the humid air, and then we’d see it: The curtains of rain as they danced over distant hills. As soon as we could hear the rain on the trees just beyond the field, Grandy would say, “It’s coming across the pea-patch!” and he’d lift me from my seat, take my hand, and we’d try to beat the rain to the back door of the house. More often than not we’d make it, but Granny Ruby was always standing by with big, soft towels in case out timing was a little off. It has been 40 years since those magical spring afternoons, but I can still feel the promise of rain in the wind and hear the patter of droplets rushing across forest and field on those magical days.. Grandy passed away when I was ten, but the love of storms he gave me grew into a passion that I carry with me today. The year before Grandy died, I saw a film in school about amateur weather-forecasting. It featured a boy who built his own weather station and made his own forecasts with a barometer, thermometer, and a cloud chart. I was hooked! I desperately wanted to make my own forecasts and started gathering books from the library telling me what to do. The one thing I didn’t have was a barometer. Amazon.com was thirty years in the future and living in a rural Missouri town didn’t present many options for this kind of purchase. The only barometer I’d ever seen was an antique brass model Grandy kept on his dresser. It was a “look but don’t touch” situation, although we would get readings together when I was at the house. Shortly before his passing, Grandy gave me that barometer. It was the best gift I was ever given and it sits proudly on the sideboard in my living room, advising me whether to expect “Rain, Change, or Fair.”
As the years rolled by, my whole family supported my love of weather. Mom, Dad, and Granny Ruby kept me well supplied with books on forecasting and Granny faithfully clipped newspaper articles about anything weather-related, which we pasted in my Weather Scrapbook. I wrote to every TV weatherman in our area and received wonderful replies from all. Dave Murry, a meteorologist in St. Louis sent me stacks of satellite imagery from severe weather outbreaks and I got volumes of Civil Defense pamphlets on all manner of severe weather. I knew nothing about sports stars, but knew the names and “stats” of ever tornado researcher in the field: Howie Bluestein, Tim Marshall, Kelvin Droegemeier, Gene Rassmussen, and Tim Samaras were my “team” and I haunted PBS for any documentaries they sent my way. Today, storm forecasting and photography are still my passion. Since my academic strengths were English and art, a degree in meteorology wasn’t in my future. Happily, with the advent of the internet, I can indulge my interests as an amateur and be part of the storm-chasing community without ever leaving home. It goes without saying that no storm enthusiast wants an EF5 tornado to form for their entertainment. Tornadoes are terrifying, destructive, and tragic. For me, as for many, the fascination is the study of something we still don’t understand. It is (for me) armchair exploration of uncharted territory and awe at the forces of Nature. So, when I get an iPhone notification from the National Weather Service that says storms are in the offing, I will go out and drink in the heady air. I will check the radar and the thermodynamic fields from the Storm Prediction Center, but, in the end, I will make my forecast based on the moment I hear the rain coming across the pea patch. Then I will call Mom and she’ll join me as we watch the clouds and make our judgment. If “Cane Toad’s A Comin’,” you can be sure we’ll be standing on the front porch, watching the storm roll in.