June 29, 2004

How far away is the lightning bolt when it strikes?

As the shutters on the barn dormers clattered, light slashed through the bedroom. A few seconds later, thunder boomed in our ears like cannon shot.

"If you count the number of seconds between lightning and thunder, you can tell how far away the bolt was," I told my younger brother as we lay in the dark. We were in elementary school, and I was keen to show off what I'd learned in science class. I remember the day well, for our grandfather had died a few days before.

Another flash lit the nightstand between us, and as the blackness returned, I counted out loud, "One, two, three, four, five ..."

Then the thunder rolled once more over us.

"It's five miles away," I said. "Every second equals a mile."

• • •

There is something comforting about a thunderstorm, perhaps because it offers relief. All that afternoon my brother and I slogged through the mugginess as the brilliant sun pressed us inside. Gradually a wind out of the southwest picked up, rustling first leaves then whole branches. Clouds moved in like soldiers to a battle site.

To the southwest, the sky had transmuted to a dark blue, but twirl around to look northeast, and the sky remained its normal, sun-washed turquoise.

Then, over a few brief minutes, our room grayed, forcing us to turn the lamp on earlier than usual.

• • •

In Sioux mythology, at the beginning of time one of the three great beings was Inyan - the rock - an omnipresent and omnipotent being who'd always existed. His spirit was called Wakan Tanka - the Great Spirit or Great Incomprehensible.

Inyan created the earth; its rivers are his blood. When Inyan wanted a companion, he created Wakinyan, or the Thunderstorm.

The Thunderstorm later gave birth to Ksa - or Wisdom - who had a strange shape. All those who existed liked Ksa, except of course for Unk, also known as Passion.

• • •

As my brother and I played Connect Four and Life and Trouble that afternoon in the gray room, we could hear the bangs in the far-off distance.

"Where do you think grandpa goes when he dies?" my brother asked.

I shook my head. "Nobody knows."

Then God-to-Earth lightning streaks zigzagged across the sky, flashcubing the horizon. The television picture fizzled briefly. A few seconds later came the thunder, like two giants suddenly clashing.

A few more streaks and collisions later, the rain arrived.

It sounded like a thousand rattlers shaking their tails. Leaves trembled beneath the falling rain. But the lightning became subtle, like a light quickly going on and off, and the thunder softened to a hungry stomach's growl.

Soon, almost unnoticed, the rain faded, and the sky gradually lightened to a white-gray.

• • •

Ksa, the Sioux said, created language and stories, names and games.

In a way, Thunderstorm is their grandfather.

• • •

My brother must have thought me wise that night.

Then he asked where birds go during a storm. "Don't their nests get wet?" he said.

I swatted at a mosquito hovering over my face. "I don't know. But the bugs go inside."

Another lightning strike came, and this time my brother counted aloud the seconds: "One, two, three, four ..."

Then the thunder arrived.

"It's getting closer," he said.

• • •

Though storms usually advance in a single direction, crossing the state from west to east, they rotate, their spiral arms sometimes carrying a silent emptiness between them. If seen from above, they can appear like a galaxy amid the cosmos, blackness marking the space between tentacles.

And so while the rain ended by early evening, like a faithful companion the thunderstorm returned that night to rain upon us once more.

"It never really left," I said to my brother.

The next morning, as I walked past the family portraits along the staircase, I paused at the one of my grandfather.

That picture always had been there and always would be, even when I'd be grown up. I thought of our fishing trips, of the walks we took past the cornfields, of him pointing out the pheasants at the wood lot.

He lived a county over, and so we only visited on weekends.

But even in death, he never would leave, either.

(originally published June 29, 2003)

June 27, 2004

Time turns relative at summer solstice

Does anybody really know what time it is?

The modern answer is just look at your watch or check the calendar. But such markings can be deceptive.

Consider "summer": Most of us would suspect it's about a third over. For our more urban, scientific sensibilities, summer pretty much runs from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day, roughly paralleling school vacations.

Technically, though, summer began just last Monday.


June 21 marked the summer solstice, the longest amount of daylight for the year as the sun was farthest north. From Chicago west through Nebraska, there were 15 hours and 2 minutes of daylight. Six months from now, the winter solstice, the day with the least amount of daylight, arrives.

Most calendars also note the solstices are the first day of summer and of winter.

The solstice means very little in the 21st century. For urbanized society, it's just a little extra daylight to enjoy after work.

To the ancients who based their cultures on agriculture, however, summer solstice celebrations abounded. The Celts held Alben Her-uin, the Gauls the Feast of Epona, the Romans the Feast of Vestalia, the early Christians of Europe the Feast of St. John the Baptist. Stonehenge and many other strange, almost mystical sites from prehistory likely served as observatories that helped determine the solstices and equinoxes.

Curiously, most cultures of Europe through the Middle Ages considered the solstice "midsummer," as it marked the midpoint in the growing season.


The great monotheistic religions of the past millennia purged those pagan celebrations from our world. And modern science, evolving from Isaac Newton's belief that the natural world operated mathematically, so to know mathematics and physics also was to know God's presence in the universe, has added additional layers of separation.

For example, trains - the great invention arising from understanding the physics of steam - forced upon all the world standard time. After all, trains can't keep a schedule if each town has its own "time." Yet our farming pioneers understood that the sun rises earlier in Chicago, by virtue of the city being farther east on the globe, than it does in Iowa.

Once scientists' measurements determined precisely how many seconds the Earth revolves around the sun, governments even changed our months with leap years. Such adjustments are necessary or within centuries the solstice will occur mid-spring.

Or there is daylight-saving time, that effort to even from month to month when sunlight falls upon us. With school children, it's simply a safety issue. But it also means the first Sunday in April has 23 hours and the last Sunday in October has 25.

It's a game of beat the clock.


For most us, however, the ancient rhythms die hard. Perhaps it's because so many of us have grown up on farms and are the first generation to move to town. Maybe it's simply because all of us need food; certainly a sense of seasons and their cycles offered an evolutionary advantage in humanity's distant past.

In Iowa, midsummer falls somewhere around July 15. By that time, we should be able to walk through waist-high corn, the points of their brilliant green leaves still sharp, the soft silk of their ears yet to come. The humidity prickles. During a good year, there's enough rain to keep down the dust, meaning brilliant sunshine and fresh air greet all who cross a field.

As summer wears on, the amount of green one's eyes can behold will stretch to its upper reaches. So also will the moisture in the air as it presses against us, making an easy walk in spring turn into an aerobic workout by August. But such extremes are worth it. Soon the yellow flash of school buses and the orange, red and mauve of fall leaves will herald the return of crisp, cold air.

Regardless of what our calendars say, regardless of our watches, time will have moved on.

(originally published June 27, 2004)

June 22, 2004

Best laid plans require legwork when barn dancing

Jimmy Doyle had a plan, and that wasn't a good idea.

He didn't like Helen Griswold. Not many of us sixth-graders did. Despite being the namesake of the woman who launched a thousand ships, she shared more in common with Medusa: crooked nose, the utter lack of a chin, hair coiled like black wires.

We were learning the Virginia Reel, among the simplest of American barn dances. By the late 1970s, this once commonplace skill was fading into a folk tradition, even in my small rural town. Our aging 4-H club leader remained intent on ensuring at least one more generation knew how to barn dance, though.

Jimmy's plan was quite simple: When the do-si-do part came, and we dancers were back to back, if he was with Helen Griswold, we'd just sort of sort take extra long steps and swap partners.

Which meant I'd end up with Helen Griswold.

• • •

Unfortunately, Jimmy Doyle's plan overlooked one of the unspoken rules of barn dancing: good humor and grace are required.

Barn dancing evolved out of the French formal ball tradition. In America, pioneers dropped the frills, anglicized the calls and kicked up the minuets a notch by playing fiddle and banjo. Settlers preferred practical attire to fancy dress.

But the tunes remained the same, often going back hundreds of years. And the movements generally were the same as those in 1700s dance books; the do-si-do is from the French "Dos a dos" or "Go back to back."

And it still was a community dance. Living miles apart, separated from their European roots, the need for others' company became paramount. It was a pioneer version of the personals.

And as any successful online dater will tell you, you've got to be courteous and gentle, or you can forget having anyone save the last dance for you.

• • •

We lined up in sets of four couples, typically paired off by height. Our club leader thought linking arms would be easier if we were the same height. I didn't mind his way of thinking. It meant I always started with the prettiest girl in the club: Missy Sheldon.

Jimmy was shorter than me. And it meant he ended up with Helen Griswold.

Why Jimmy didn't think someone would notice that we'd switched partners was beyond me. But I didn't mind that Helen Griswold's picture was next to the word "execrable" in the dictionary. I thought she actually was quite clever in an admirable sort of way. Besides, Missy Sheldon could be a bit stuck up.

In any case, Jimmy was my friend. And he didn't like always getting stuck with Helen Griswold.

• • •

Barn dances used to be quite common. Whenever a new barn went up, a dance was held in the hayloft to celebrate. Lanterns would be strung along the rafters.

"Everybody would climb up the loft ladder, even if they had to crawl over a few horses or cows to get to it," recalled Mrs. Charley Huyck, who was born in Delmar during 1875 and played dances with her father for a half-century, in an oral history kept at the Library of Congress. "The crowd was always full of life, and they sure could dance. There was no snobbery and everyone was friendly, no 'cliquety' people who would keep to themselves.

"... The young folks and the old folks mingled freely together. There wasn't the distinction there is today. They weren't cliquety at all. I think the older people are responsible for the way they ... (are separated) now. These young people wouldn't keep to themselves so much if they were encouraged by the older ones to all mix in the same crowd."

Like America itself, barn dances were democratic affairs.

Which is why Jimmy Doyle's plan just wouldn't work. Mixing with other dancers is one of barn dancing's joys.

• • •

As our 4-H leader started the record of live string band music, he played caller. It fit him well. Callers traditionally taught and cued dances.

As Missy Sheldon and I joined both hands and made a complete turn, returning to our places, Jimmy glanced at me out of the corner of his eye. The do-si-do came next.

Missy and I passed each other's right shoulders. Jimmy and I, at our partners' backs, faced one another. He added a quick hop to his step and then froze, unable to believe what was happening before him.

• • •

In modern suburbia, barn dances come off as corny (no bad pun intended). Rock'n'roll long ago captured the pulsing hormones of youth and before then jazz our sense of individuality. Swing and sock hops were more in tune with modern transportation and a rising urban populations' rhythms.

These days, lovers of tradition and history still hold barn dances across the Great Plains and New England. Various clubs exist in rural areas, including one near West Branch. The Living History Farm in Des Moines offers barn dance shows.

They're also played out in my memory every time I think of someone uncivilly trying to dance around their apportioned duty.

• • •

For what surprised Jimmy - and myself as well - was that Helen Griswold and Missy Sheldon were taking quick long steps to switch partners as well.

And in the process of swinging around each other's back, we ended up with the same partner that we'd started with.

Except when Helen Griswold realized what we were up to, she stomped on his foot, good and hard.

(originally published June 22, 2003)