The Summer Sky
By Nancy Freund Bills
The summer sky of my youth was Montana blue. Its wide expanse like a magnificent tent offered me beauty and usually safety. But on certain afternoons in July and August, meadowlarks stopped their melodies, killdeer hurried back to their nests made of stones, and long-legged jackrabbits fled into their burrows. Thunder rumbled; lightning flashed; the western sky grew dark. A grey wash began in the distant Beartooth Mountains and soon colored my world as though a giant brush was painting the sky with diluted black.
By mid-afternoon, the oppressive heat would rise into the high nineties, sometimes even over a hundred, and set off palpable anxiety in me. The afternoon storms rarely delivered a refreshing rain. The wind stirred up sandy grit that blew on my tanned face and against my bare arms and legs; a few sparse drops fell, but that was all. The local weatherman reported again on the black-and-white TV news at dinnertime, “No appreciable rain for Billings and its vicinity.” The banks of the wide Yellowstone River, the fields of alfalfa, and acres of feed corn nearby were dry as tumbleweed.
Early each summer, my father took me aside and said “Nance, soon as it looks like a storm, get yourself home.” He settled his blue eyes on mine, “I mean it. Don’t get stuck at your friend Susie’s. Your mother will worry if you’re not home.” Neither of us wanted to worry my mother.
So when the sky to the west threatened rain, I ran home closing the screen door carefully behind me while other children in my neighborhood let their screen doors slam. “I’m home,” I called out to my mother. And without being told, I began the task of moving from room to room closing windows.
Almost once a summer, a serious storm arrived; thunder and lightning announced the onslaught of torrential rain, pounding hail. Thumb-sized slugs of ice caused real damage–denting our car, bruising the cedar siding on the west wall of our house, and breaking many of the small panes of glass in our windows. The cruel hail battered our garden ruining our tomatoes and strawberries, scattering their red flesh onto the dusty pale earth.
One summer during a bad storm, a child running across Pioneer Park tripped into a gully and was pummeled by hail to unconsciousness. My mother read me the news story and showed me the photos published on the front page of The Billings Gazette. She said, “That could have been you.” Tugging at my shirt, she asked, “And then how would I have felt?” I didn’t plan to come home via Pioneer Park or fall down and get banged up, but I heard her. I understood. Storms arrived; danger came with them.
During those rare bad storms, we three with our family’s springer spaniel sat in the dim light of the basement wondering out loud when the power would fail. My dad and I took turns during the lulls in the storm to assess the glass damage. “Girlie, you go this time,” he would say, and I would speed up the stairs to investigate. Our family measured the intensity of the storms by the number of windowpanes we lost–eleven wasn’t bad; thirty-eight was our worst.
Home insurance paid for materials and labor to repair our modest house, but most summers, my parents delayed the replacement of the siding. My mother who managed the budget reasoned that a little money could be made if my father patched the holes and painted the clapboards. “It’ll just happen again next summer,” she reasoned. “We’ll wait.” By doing temporary repairs, my father could create a windfall income while he was on summer vacation from teaching. He attempted the repairs atop an aluminum ladder that trembled; it made me nervous. I wondered that my mother didn’t see how inexpert he was, two stories up in the air.
I acted as my dad’s assistant, and we talked as he worked. “I get as much paint on the ground as I do on the siding,” he joked as he dripped “Sagebrush Green” in random circles on the concrete walkway. “Careful, Dad,” I said each time I handed up a brush or a can of paint.
In 1959, the August I turned sixteen, the Hebgen Lake Earthquake in Yellowstone Park caused a landslide that claimed the lives of twenty-eight, some of them campers caught in their tents asleep; the earthquake sundered roads and ripped the forest floor apart. Although my hometown was one hundred and fifty miles northeast of the epicenter, my family was awakened late at night, the walls of our house in Billings shaking.
“Get under a doorway,” my father shouted at me. And so we stood, my parents in the doorway of their bedroom, me in mine, listening to fragile objects fall and break all around the house until the initial shocks of the quake subsided. “That sure was something,” my dad said.
One summer afternoon when I was in high school, I experienced my first tornado. I stood on our upper patio with a view of the western sky. Beyond our lilac hedges, beyond the neighbors’ backyards and farmers’ fields of cornstalks and wheat, I caught sight of the horizon. I had seen the curtain of sky blackened with storm clouds before, but now for the first time I viewed long black threads morphing into swirling funnels, watched them reaching down grazing the land.
“Come downstairs,” my mother shouted at me from the basement. And when I didn’t show up, I heard her yell, “Go get her, John.”
My father came to the back door. “Nance, you’ve got to come in.” But now, I was older. I said, “Dad, you’re going to want to see this.” And for a few minutes, we stood side by side, the wind whipping our cotton clothes as we watched classic funnels grow bigger and bigger, closer and closer. I was mesmerized, fascinated, frozen. My dad took me by the wrist and pulled me inside the house; behind us, the screen slapped shut.
As a girl, I learned that my Montana sky was wide and beautiful. Some summer afternoons, dangerous storms came. They came right out of the blue.
Award-winning writer Nancy Freund Bills, MS, MSW, is currently on the faculty of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Southern Maine, OLLI/USM, where she facilitates the fiction writing workshop. She is also a retired clinical social worker; during her twenty-year-long career, she served both as a psychiatric social worker and a psychotherapist. Her full length memoir, The Red Ribbon, A Memoir of Lightning and Rebuilding After Loss, has received a Kirkus star from Kirkus Reviews; the review concluded that The Red Ribbon is “a keeper of a book by a talented author.” The Myth,” a chapter in Bills’ memoir, received first place in the memoir/personal essay category of the 83rd Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition. Her memoir, fiction, and poetry have been published in Reflections, The Maine Review, The LLI Review, The Goose River Anthology, and in The 83rd Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition Collection. A member of the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance (MWPA), Bills lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, with her two Maine Coon cats.