Spooky Street

Spooky Street, Thorin Wagner-Peck

A thunderstorm passed through yesterday afternoon. My only complaint was that it was too short. Thorin and I were both hoping for a doozy of a storm.

My younger self, my teen self and my early adulthood self would be shocked by my enthusiastic response. I used to be terrified of thunderstorms. Growing up in Wisconsin– you knew you would be in the basement a few times during the summer because of tornado warnings.

Much earlier in life I loved storms. My dad told me the the great crashes of thunder were the angels bowling. I didn’t imagine small, delicate or obedient angels but huge, powerfully built women in swaying robes smashing strikes.

My mother did not love storms. She couldn’t contain her own anxiety about them so she behaved as if it was a valid, imperative and reasonable fear that I should also adopt. She successfully swayed me for years to fear storms coming. This tactic didn’t work on my siblings. I was more malleable.

Today is the second anniversary of my mom’s death. She moved from Eau Claire, Wisconsin to be with us transplants in Portland, Maine. She died four years later in our living room with family members from here and there. We had hoped for a few more years than that. While I miss her I also value the fact we had real conversations before she died. Like the fact she scared the crap out of me– a lot.  

On a practical level when the storm sirens went off  I hated running to the basement without a book, a magazine, a flashlight and a set of street clothes. These things invariably started at night so I went in the basement in pajamas but I liked having options. Everything fit perfectly in my pink 1960’s size cosmetic case. It was packed and waiting patiently for me on a shelf in the basement from June to September.

One of the best storms: Anna who lived next door to us was older and she didn’t have a basement so she would come to our house during tornado warnings. Her daughter lived in LA. That’s right, California. She was a secretary to the president of S.A.G. who at the time was Charlton Heston. On one particular trip back home to visit her mom the sirens went off. Anna and her daughter both came in the side door to the basement in their pajamas. I was the luckiest kid in the world!.Hollywood came to my basement and was trapped there by a storm.

Anna’s daughter did regale us with some funny Hollywood stories, none of which I remember. What story sticks out is her enthusiastically bragging that her nineteen year old daughter spent a weekend in Palm Springs with Clint Eastwood. 

If I could direct your attention to the scene in totality: we are in a basement in Wisconsin in the 70’s. An adult has just acknowledged human beings have sex and it’s so great it’s worth bragging about who you did it with. Who cares about dying in a tornado when there’s SEX talk?

I could see my mom trying to figure out how to stop her from continuing her story on moral grounds. I also think she may have been torn between her Lutheran upbringing and being a little star struck herself. My parents both loved Clint.

During my mom’s moment of indecision I directed a question to our resident Rona Barrett, “What did your daughter pack for the trip?”

That snapped my mom into decision, “Okay, that’s enough.”

The next day my mom and I talked about the fact we knew Clint Eastwood was married because we saw he and his wife, Maggie, on The Mike Douglas Show.

Years later, I’m living with my girlfriends Gina and Julie. I’m at the apartment alone taking a bath. I’m relaxed. I’m enjoying being alone. The phone rings. I answered it because that’s what we did then.

It’s my mom, “Kari, I shouldn’t even be calling you right now because I could be electrocuted but a big storm is coming!”


“Go downstairs to your neighbors now! You need to be in the basement now!”

“I’m in the tub. It’s 9:30 at night.”

“Judas Priest, get out of the tub! You could be electrocuted right now! Tornadoes can take a whole floor off a house.”

I could already see myself getting dressed and going downstairs.

“This isn’t a decision you can get back!”

“Okay, I’m out of the tub.”

She frantically offers more gruesome imagery as I quickly dressed. I’m at the point of panic by the time I get downstairs. I knock but no one comes to the door. I have never really talked to the neighbors. It is a young wife and husband with a little boy. I don’t hear movement. I’m knocking more energetically now because it’s clear I not only have to save my life but theirs as well.

I find the door is unlocked. It’s dark inside but not all the way dark yet outside. I can see the living room and further on the dining room. I also see a stairway and assume that’s where the bedrooms are. I go charging up the stairs yelling, “Wake up!”

Here’s the predicament– once everyone is up including a visiting grandmother I hadn’t planned on– they think they have a home invasion on their hands. I see myself as their rescuer. 

After proper introductions everyone was very nice about it. I could tell the husband really wanted me out of there and he hinted that perhaps my mother was a worrier. He checked the local TV stations for severe weather reports. Nothing. He also agreed to my request to call one of the stations to make doubly sure. From that night on when our paths crossed they laughed and shook their heads at me in a not mean way.

My last storm tale of the evening is not only memorable to me but memorable to anyone living in my hometown and surrounding area. It was the July 15th, 1980 storm; aka, The Big Wind. From the forecasts it promised to be more than a doozy but a mini-disaster. My boyfriend was at work. Our apartment didn’t have a basement. Julie my former roommate and childhood friend was living with her boyfriend who was also working and their apartment also had no basement.

Julie and I drove over together to my parents house to wait out the storm with my mom and younger sister, Betty. My dad had spent the day golfing a few hours away and he was now on the road with a group of friends headed home. When he called I asked my mom why she didn’t tell him to pull over somewhere.

She chuckled a weary wife chuckle.

Betty had kindly assembled our storm provisions to take to the basement: 2 six packs of Coke, marshmallows, potato chips and cigarettes. It isn’t like bottled water was everywhere then. No one carried water anywhere unless it was in a canteen and you were camping, maybe. And– we were very unhealthy.

Once the storm started in earnest we heard a horrible wind that rumbled  like an out of control freight train.We lost the weather reports on the little plastic radio in the basement when the power went– which would stay out for days.

I broke up some nervousness and monotony by screaming bloody murder at the sight of a June bug in the bathroom. It was dead. Betty admitted to planting it for me on the toilet seat. Even in a tornado Betty demonstrated her little sister role to perfection.

Julie was becoming increasingly worried about her boyfriend who had decided to drive toward the storm to be home. She was upset. She expressed her fears. My mom raised her voice, “If anyone’s going to get killed it’s my husband, okay? Not your boyfriend.”

It was a funny line but it seemed rude to laugh. Julie looked  miserable.

God bless, Mary, she was our Tempestas.

Post script: The photo in the post was one of Bubba’s favorites of Thorin’s photographs.