A hero," said Ralph Waldo Emerson, "is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is brave five minutes longer." The one thing I understand about five minutes is that its perceived length is wildly variable, sometimes in the same environment. If the alarm clock is set for 7:00 and you stir at 6:55, two things can happen: you can go back to sleep, and those five minutes will pass at warp speed; or you can lie there and watch the numbers on the clock, steeling yourself for the inevitable, and they'll take their sweet time, and you'll give up around 6:59 because you can't stand it any longer.
Last night's severe weather was an object lesson in the compression and expansion of an interval you might have thought was fixed according to the laws of nature. And when the weather guy on television tells you that the tornado will enter your neck of the woods at 11:00, it doesn't really sink in until 10:55, when you look up at the screen and not only has the funnel not changed course, as funnels are wont to do, but it's drawn a bead on your back yard. And the winds, noisy as they could be for the last half-hour, have suddenly, ominously, gone quiet. The time to flee, you conclude, was at least five minutes ago. Is it brave to wait it out? If you have no place to go, your courage is tested.
It wasn't so long ago that a storm coming out of El Reno, one county to the west, was headed straight for me. I rearranged the living-room furniture to create a small hidey-hole into which I could crawl, signed back into Twitter, and bade farewell to the world. About five minutes later, the storm turned right, as storms often do, and suddenly the threat was gone — for me, anyway. For too many others, the terror had just begun.
Then again, I've lived here for more than forty years; I know the drill, so to speak. And the worst damage I've suffered in all that time was on a Sunday afternoon when the skies were lit up only enough for us to see s scowl, and there was't even a tornado involved. If you can imagine the sound of a machine gun loaded with half an hour's worth of baseballs, that's what it sounded like. The hail pounded my roof mercilessly; the vent tubes were bent, and the little chef's-hat exhaust fan would never be able to spin again. No leaks, at least; but the damage was somewhere in the neigborhood of ten thousand dollars. The repair job has held up for nine years, which in the storm business is an epoch or three.
Once the storms of last night had cleared my side of town, I tried to make light of it:
The goddamn sky might have missed me, but it claimed a couple of kills on the way across the area, in what strikes me as the cruelest way possible: the winds leveled a hotel out on Interstate 40 in El Reno. Who's in a hotel on a Saturday night? Most likely, people who have not been here forty years and don't know the drill and were tired as hell from driving all day. They never knew what hit them.
Life endures, as it must; the tiny blades of grass poking their way out of a crack in the concrete prove that. But the bigger we are, the harder we fall; life can be taken away in a matter of minutes. It doesn't have to be five of them, either.
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Copyright © 2019 by Charles G. Hill