“The Echo of Thunder” by Henry Regehr
To a six-year -old, sitting at the supper table on a sultry summer evening, the brilliant flash of lightning, followed by a stunningly loud clapping of thunder, was a frightening experience.
Prairie thunderstorms had a particular quality about them. They exploded dramatically from the wide open skies and always brought welcome rain to the parched garden and to farmers’ fields. It was a blessed alternative to the stifling dust storms that blew in from the West, denuding the newly planted garden of its topsoil, leaving the pea seeds, that mother had just planted, standing on tiny mounds of dirt that mother had to push, with one finger, back into the dry soil. How can one forget the approaching brown wall of dark dust that advance with such fury, such a threatening assault leaving everything in our clean house covered with thick layers of gritty dust?
As adult, visiting Saskatchewan, gave the opportunity to watch a violent thunderstorm crashing across the open fields. From the safety of our car, we could follow the storm at a distance and see the dark roiling clouds, spewing lightening at frequent but irregular intervals. It was high drama. But, next morning, we heard on the CBC that that the storm had spawned a tornado and left several barns and houses in ruins. Drama indeed.
Sitting with my back to the open window the sudden flash of lightning followed immediately by rattling thunder was frightening but a few minutes later we could see the neighbor’s house was on fire. The supper table was abandoned, and we gaped in horror at the flames licking skyward from the gable of the house.
The fifteen-year-old daughter of the owners was told to run into town to ring the fire bell in the two-story town hall. In a panic she sped the half mile, was stopped by a kind townsman to ask why she was in such a hurry. He told her to get into his Model T Ford and they drove the rest of the way to arouse the town inhabitants. The volunteer fire brigade heard the call to action and rushed to the garage in the town hall to get the old fire truck started. That was not an easy task. One volunteer stepped to the front of the little red engine and began cranking furiously and only after several laborious attempts they finally heard the motor hesitantly turn over. The firemen got onto the little truck with its container of water and began the drive to the fire, the bell ringing plaintively until the engine died. More cranking, more setting the choke and finally they were on their way again. Until the engine failed, and the same panicked procedure was followed. By the time the sad little truck with its sad little bell arrived at the burning house it was half destroyed. The kind townspeople had by this time removed much of the furniture from the house and placed it in the nearby barn. I had by then overcome my terror enough to walk across the cow pasture and watch as the last items were rescued from the house and, for the first time, encountered the strange smell that comes from water pouring into a house in flames. I wandered to the barn and saw the lady of the house sitting on the rescued rocking chair beside the rescued hand cranked washing machine. She looked at me and I was surprized to see that she had been crying. In my child’s mind it seemed that she would be happy that she was not harmed and that all the furniture was safely surrounding her.
Fifty years later we were traveling along the highway, watch the thunderstorm and listened to my niece, now a CBC announcer conduct an interview with an elderly prairie pioneer, and stopped at the town that had been our family home so long ago. The lunch in the local Chinese café where I had tasted my first 7up at age eight was still busy and served a fine Canadian Chinese lunch. We wandered over to the cemetery that had by then grown into the adjoining field. We looked for the gravestones of people that had been important to us and whose names we still remembered.
While wandering around we noticed two elderly women standing at a marker and we approached them in the small-town manner. It turned out that they were remembering their parents. A short conversation led to a discovery. It turned out to be an echo of that thunderstorm an echo of the thunderstorm of 1937. They had been our neighbors whose house had been struck by lightning. One of them was the girl who had run to ring the town fire bell. I told them the story of my experience of that event and of seeing their mother in tears. Her daughter added to the story: her mother had said, after they had built their house, she never wanted, ever, to move again. This was to be her forever home. When lightening struck the home and it had burned to the ground, she was being punished, she said, by god for being so selfish and so self-reliant.
After the fire, the towns people rallied around and built a new house on the same foundation. It became their mother’s forever home.