The weather outside is thankfully dreadful this morning, and I use the term thankfully because it revolves around some much needed rain for our area. The past few months have been hopelessly dry, and my rose bushes have been displaying their chagrin over the situation. Maybe this newfound abundance of water will provide a change in their attitude, and once again their varied hues and fragrances will fill my yard – at least for a few more weeks before winter makes her appointed appearance.
Etched in my mind when it rains like this are vivid memories of the morning hurricane Katrina made her landfall a few years back. (Warning: Katrina Story!) A dreary morning that quickly escalated to cataclysmic was not the worst part of the storm for me, or for most of the people in our area. The real damage was on the coast. For us, the worst memories remain attached to the days and weeks that followed the storm. The loss of electricity, the shortages of gasoline, the endless task of clearing and cleaning the fallen trees made life hard during those hectic days of an Indian summer. The oppressive South Mississippi heat and humidity, faced without benefit of air conditioning while biased with rationed water, makes me shudder when I think back upon it even today - five years later.
We moved from inside our house to a tent set up in the yard due to that heat, and although the night temperatures were milder, the actions of some of the more sordid members of our society made it a time to reflect with consternation on the precarious safety of the situation. With minimal law enforcement available in the aftermath of the storm, stealing things like gasoline and generators became almost acceptable by a county that found itself ripped apart in the sudden disaster. Eventually, my wife and smaller children moved back into the house; leaving my oldest son and me to abide in the tent and keep the watch over what was left of our meager possessions. Even our dog abandoned us and moved into the house, leaving us to whatever fate awaited us during the ominous nights we spent outside in the thin-walled tent.
You forget how dark the night becomes with no artificial street lights to illuminate the things that are unknown, at least until you’ve lived the part. With no human-made noises, the night becomes a symphony of nature, and your ears regress in an uncivilized manner to a time when protection was so much more than a refined instinct hushed from our psyche by centuries of law and order. Every sound becomes a threat; the breaking of twigs in the grass, leaves crunching underfoot, and the pounding of your own heartbeat resonating in your ears. A faithful shot gun or rifle cradled against your breast is of little comfort on nights where light evades the things that are ‘out there’ and you know those things are quite possibly coming for your belongings or even the ones you love.
Many nights were spent in that manner, sleeplessly awaiting a dawn that seemed far away and impossible to obtain; hoping against hope to cheat disaster and merely make it through just one more night. We always did, and though it seems far away and ethereal today when I look back upon it from the viewpoint of a safer time and place, I earned those memories and keep them with me today should chance provide me with a return appointment.
One particular night stands out more so than others, as they sometimes do. I had been awakened by one of those aforementioned noises, and swiftly alerted by instinct I checked my watch. The time was precisely 4:54 AM, although the calendar date eludes my memory. Dates and days of the week had lost their meaning by then, but time itself remained a viable function of survival in our post-disaster scenario. Peering from the tent with my rifle, I gazed through the pre-dawn stillness across the yard to the road, daring not to use what was left of the batteries in my flashlight for what may or may not have been a false alarm. A highly likely human form was out there, moving silently down the country road that fronts my house. He was using a low wattage penlight to find his way through the murky darkness, and due to the early hour as well as his mannerism it was easy enough to ascertain he was up to no good. Adrenaline coursed through my veins as I tried to decide what to do next, and all that came to mind was to yell loudly - an option I could not perform as it would alarm my reposing son as well as my wife and younger children slumbering fitfully in the tepid house nearby. In the end I clutched the rifle in a firing position and walked purposely toward the stalker, making sure I made enough noise where he would know that not only was someone alert at the Johnson House, but they were coming for him. While I was still a good distance away from my dark visitor, he turned his insipid pen light on me, illuminating my aimed rifle, which caused him to swiftly retreat back up the road in the direction from which he had arrived. As he made good his absence, I heard a clashing of tin from my back yard, and turned back to investigate in that location. I found nothing, (but the next day I would discover a five-gallon can of gas/oil chain saw fuel mixture missing) and more than likely it had been a team effort.
I made a reconnaissance around the house to no avail; nothing human or animal was to be found in my transit of the area, and so I made my way back to the tent. In the dark hour that followed, my stress level remained at a decidedly less than heroic quotient and I was reminded of how the sailors on Paul’s doomed ship had ‘wished for the day’. Eventually, a glow in the east began snaking tendrils of vibrant oranges and reds into the obsidian sky as dawn heralded the much-longed-for arrival of another day. The hopelessness of the night before along with its chaotic fears faded with the beginning of what turned out to be a beautiful morning, also reminding me of the truth penned by Psalmist when he wrote “weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.”