Sunday, April 30, 2017

Bad Weather Days

I recently heard someone say that folks in the South watch the radar on bad weather days like we do SEC football in the fall. Eyes glued to the TV for hours at a time. Watching the newscaster draw sharp and twisting lines across the screen, giving a play-by-play of how the storm will travel. Praying for no injuries. Trying to recall if we know someone from the given hometown of the redshirt freshman, or in today's case, the next map dot in the path of a tornado.

This morning, I saw something during my marathon weather watching that I've never seen before. Church got cancelled at First Baptist.  In this modern day era of weather alerts via cell phone and apps with real-time doppler data, it shouldn't surprise me that some deacon deemed it too dangerous for folks to get on the road.  And then had the media savvy to call WLBT to help get the word out to parishioners around the metro. As I write this to you, I must admit I'm impressed that the usual live service from the baptist church is re-airing a cantata special from last spring. Now that is what I called organized religion.

After 8 years on Redwing Avenue, we keep waiting for our true "initiation" into the Fondren neighborhood, which is when a storm gust drops a heavy limb on your house, your car or in the case of our friend Russ, your brand-new Green Egg smoker. From that bad weather day forward, you will share your testimony with anyone who will listen. Each year it will grow longer, stronger and more dramatic, until it is perfectly polished into the ultimate bad weather story. While my bad weather story does not involve a tree limb and homeowners insurance, it does involve a blues festival, government property and a gas light.

In August 2014, I made my way to Clarksdale for the annual Sunflower River Blues & Gospel Festival. My home for the weekend was the Gravy cabin at Shack Up Inn, and I couldn't be more excited to get there on Friday. That afternoon we had a hundred or more people arrive at Red's, a well-known, urban juke, to honor Big Jack Johnson with a marker on the Mississippi Blues Trail. There were songs, tears, kind words, beautiful remembrances, jokes and incredible joy. Big Jack's daughter was there with a spooky tattoo of her father etched into her arm, piercing white eyes. After the marker unveiling, I returned home to Shack Up, had a beer with a friend, made a few new ones and danced the night away in the Juke Joint Chapel to the Chuck Berry-styled sounds of Robert Bilbo Walker.

The next morning Barry and Jenny arrived in Clarksdale.  I welcomed them to the Gravy cabin and they settled in before we headed to the festival. It was a scorcher. Not too sunny but muggy and suffocating. We found air conditioning and solace in a bar we'd never seen called The Pink House. Icy margaritas and cold fence-post beers. Heaven. Later that night we returned to Shack Up Inn with a collective brood of blues enthusiasts and continued our revelry until midnight. Barry and Jenny had to leave early and get back to Jackson. My plan was to stay the afternoon and explore the Cathead Mini Blues Festival, taking place later that day.

I laid around the dark cabin for a while that morning, slipping out and into the lobby for a complimentary cup of coffee and Delta Donut.  I spent a good while at the mini blues festival, occupying a folding chair at the storefront of Cathead Folk Art & Records in downtown Clarksdale. The music was great, but when the sun emerged, I crossed the street to sit on the shaded side. I retuned to Shack Up late afternoon, feeling a little lonely and nostalgic, not noticing the weather until I hit the road. I had decided on a whim to go home to Jackson, but to take the long way, down New Africa Road and through my hometown of Drew. The state-issued, base model Nissan I had been assigned for the weekend crunched gravel and as I looked at the Shacks in my rearview mirror, I caught sight of the dark clouds percolating in the Western sky. No biggie.

I popped in a new CD by an artist from Ruleville we met by way of Oxford named Jim Ellis. It was the perfect soundtrack from my journey South. As I cruised up on the backside of Drew, the rain began to come down in sheets. The roads are bad in Drew. Just foreshadowing for what was to come when I arrived in the City of Jackson. I ejected Jim and punched up the FM. Flash flood warning. Severe thunderstorms. Avoid roadways if possible. Well, not possible.

Highway 49 has always been my friend, on this day she proved no different. The line of the storm seemed to stay about a mile behind me all the way through Yazoo. The gas gauge was getting low, but it seemed too risky to stop and let the storm catch up. When I banged a left on Northside Drive off Medgar Evers Boulevard, the bottom fell out. The gas light turned on. The street filled with water and went from its usual, passable, four lanes down to 1.5. Driving rain filling the growing potholes, the tiny Nissan batting back and forth between the bad road and the big wind. The National Weather Service kept beeping from the FM and telling me to "Turn Around. Don't Drown." I was afraid. Very afraid. But only a few miles from home.

By the time I made it to State Street, my fear had morphed into full-blown panic. The neighborhood's small ditch, that we politely call a creek, was lapping over the road. No sooner than I decided to forgo crossing the creek, rather turning into East into the neighborhood, did the car begin to drift and shut down completely. The water seemed to come out of nowhere and the side street now mirrored a small river. I was a mere vessel along for the ride.

It felt a bit like bumper cars. No movement, completely still, then a wave would thump me down the street a bit further. As I pulled out my battery-depleted cell phone to call Barry to the rescue, the murky water began to seep into the car from the bottom of the doors. Barry pulled up and plunged waist-deep through the water to push the car to higher land. His shoes slipping on the mud and muck dredged from the ditch. When I opened the door, water gushed out. I helped push the car over a small cut in the curb and into an abandoned department store parking lot. Adrenalin pounding in my veins, heartbeat in my head, tears mounding but refusing to fall.

The car wouldn't start. We didn't know if the battery was dead or if water had killed the engine. The only thing I was sure of was that I was going to lose my job for destroying government property. We locked the doors and left the Nissan overnight. When we got home, I pulled up the company's employee handbook and tried to find the section on fireable offenses. Certainly flooding a fleet vehicle calls for immediate termination.

I didn't sleep at all that night. We left the house early and were able to jump-start the Nissan, which as already smelling of mildew in the early August morning. I stopped at the nearest gas station and filled the tank. When I returned the keys to Bobby, the fleet manager, I told him what happened. That I was ready to fill out any accident report needed, or to let the big boss know about my neglect.

"Act of God," said Bobby, when I finally stopped explaining myself. "What?", I asked incredulously. "Act of God." Act of God?

I had never heard that term before, at least that I could remember, but those three words saved my soul on that bleak Monday morning. Act of God. The tears that mounded the day before began to fall. I think I embarrassed Bobby with my display of emotion, and you better bet I made him cookies when he retired.

So, I guess those Baptists were right to cancel services this morning. The Act of God I experienced on that bad weather day in 2014 is not to be confused with the Act of God most are looking for in a Sunday sanctuary. Now, back to the TV for more weather watching.

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