The first casualty of the ferocious storm that tore through town before dawn on Labor Day was my camera.
Long before the cottonwood and elm limbs began snapping and slamming into roofs and power lines, I suspect, the initial dumping rains lifted Mercer Creek out of its banks, submerging the flat limestone rock on which I had set my trusty Canon point-and-shoot.
I had left it there the previous afternoon when, during the course of a party on a neighbor’s property, three of us went swimming in a deep, turquoise, spring-fed-cold hole in a bend of the creek.
Normally, as seldom as it rains around here, the camera could have sat there for weeks. But after the rain spilled down all night long, when I remembered the camera in the morning, I realized it was pointless to go look for it. It’s probably in the Gulf of Mexico by now.
That was the first thing I thought about when I climbed out of bed a little after 7 a.m. on Labor Day. The second, looking out my upstairs bedroom window across the pasture to the south, was: What is my 65-year-old neighbor, Arlene, doing standing at the top of a ladder? Checking the gutters, I suspected. Until I saw the lariat.
If I had had a camera, I would have shot a video of Arlene lassoing a large tree limb that had landed on the other side of the roof peak. All the cowboys in town will tell you that Arlene could ride and rope with the best of them.
Other neighbors reported that Arlene was also the first to fire up a chain saw that day. By midmorning they were buzzing like cicadas all over town.
Normally after a storm in my town, before they grab the chainsaws, the locals jump in their pickups and golf carts and ATVs to tour the damage and compare rain gauge totals. Everyone in Matfield Green has a rain gauge. I am always proud when my total matches up with one of the old-timers’.
Labor Day morning everyone measured a full 4 inches. That’s how it rains here: Zero-point-zero for months on end, then 4 or 6 or 7 inches in one go.
But no one complains about the big dumps in rural areas like they do in the city. In the city, flash flooding serves no good purpose and makes major thoroughfares impassable. In the country, deluges fill farm ponds.
It is part of the unwritten code that I am slowly deciphering that you are never allowed to complain about rain here, ever. That morning, a friend in nearby Cottonwood Falls posted a photo of a tree that had split in two and smashed through her pretty patio fence and into the roof. Above the photo she wrote: “Thankful for the rain. Thankful for the rain. Thankful for the rain (repeats over and over).”
Touring the damage isn’t for rubbernecking, but to see if anybody needs a hand moving debris, getting water out of basements or making emergency repairs. Because a lot of the town’s older residents don’t carry cellphones, you pass along to the other vehicles on the road who needs help with what and sometimes coordinate a time to meet at so-and-so’s place with tools.
After you drive the nine or so streets in town you head out to survey the back roads of the township. A couple of miles out of town to the south and east I encountered a common poststorm sight I always dread: The utter, irreversible collapse of another abandoned house or obsolete structure.
On Labor Day it was a metal-roofed, open-sided hay shed, built back when bales were square and needed to be sheltered from the rain. It had been impressively tall with pleasing lines and made a lovely backdrop to the prairie wildflowers. The storm had snapped a couple of wooden support posts like matchsticks. They pierced the roof when it plunged to earth.
Further down the same road, in a sheltered bend on the banks of a creek, one of my favorite abandoned houses had been smashed by a fallen oak.
No one will repair or rebuild the hay shed or the house. They will either get scrapped or be left to slowly melt into the prairie or burn. Even in the short time I’ve lived here, I feel as if I’m watching the past vanish in front of my eyes.
On a happier note, another thing that happens when rains swell the creeks is the locals grab their fishing gear. In all likelihood, if you don’t fish, you either get invited to a fish fry the next day, or a neighbor shows up at the kitchen door with a couple of cleaned catfish in a bucket.
The latter was my fortune on Labor Day, and eating golden brown, skillet-fried fillets was a lovely end to a work-filled holiday.