British weather: is everything bigger in the U.S.?

From the July 3 Western Morning News I learned that Americans call the July full moon the Thunder Moon.

We do? I never did. I checked with Wild Thing and she’d never heard of it either. The only moon I ever heard given a name was the harvest moon, and that was only because of the song, “Shine on, etc.” And the writer William Least Heat-Moon, and he’s a person, not a celestial body.

As you might guess, the Westy isn’t the most news-driven of papers, but unless Wild Thing and I are the only two Americans who never heard of a Thunder Moon I’d expect a bit more in the way of fact checking.

Having said that, we’d just had a thunderstorm here in North Cornwall and lost power for a few minutes, and it had led us to compare Midwestern thunderstorms to the ones we’ve seen in the U.K. which strike us as short on drama.

Irrelevant photo by Ida Swearingen

Irrelevant photo by Ida Swearingen

I know, I know. I sound like one of those everything’s-bigger-in-America kind of Americans. I’m not, I swear. I could give you a list of things that weren’t any bigger, but maybe it’s enough to say that I wasn’t. The storms, though? They were. The thunder here rumbles instead of crashes. The lightning tends to stay in the clouds instead of striking down. Yes, we’ve seen lightning strikes since we moved here, but they’re rare, and because of that, memorable. We stood on the cliffs once, watching lightning strike down into the ocean. I was riveted and would have stayed longer but Wild Thing reminded me that we were the tallest things on the cliffs (which is a comment on how low the vegetation is, not on how tall we are) and we’d be the most likely targets when the storm got closer. I was tempted to argue that we had plenty of time but good sense and kindness got the better of me and I followed her to the car.

I do miss those Midwestern thunderstorms. They gather all the energy from half a continent’s heat, then let it loose.

The tornadoes, on the other hand, I wasn’t so crazy about. Wild Thing spent a lot of childhood summers in Oklahoma, in what’s called Tornado Alley, and since she’s lived through plenty of tornadoes she’s convinced she will again. I’ve never been as sure of that. Even after forty years of living with them, when the sirens went off, my body sent out panic signals that didn’t bother to consult my brain.

In spite of that, I never managed to memorize which siren meant this is an early warning and which one meant get to the basement and stay terrified till you hear from us again.

We only went to the basement once. We gathered up the dog and found the cats were already in place. They know. Our basement wasn’t—how can I say this and not sound panicky? It wasn’t a place you’d want to be trapped if the house collapsed on top of you. We believed that basements should be cleaned every twenty years, whether they need it or not, but this being year nineteen we were still coasting. So it would be us, the dog, the cats, the dirt, the junk, the litter boxes, the asbestos lining that was, back then, still in place on our old, old furnace, and who knew what else. On top of that, water leaked in through the walls in heavy storms. Our neighborhood was built—we found out after we bought the house—on what had once been a swamp and wanted to be a swamp again. After a heavy storm, you could walk the alleys and know who had a finished basement by the rolls of soaked carpet waiting to go to the dump. So I pictured the house collapsed on top of us and all our dirt, junk, kitty litter, and asbestos, with the water rising—

And I couldn’t remember which corner they advised hiding in. The southwest? The southeast? Or was it under the stairs?

I looked under the stairs. Some old storm windows were stashed there, so add broken glass to the list.

I was tempted to take my chances upstairs. At least I’d die clean. Then the all clear went off and it all became a funny story.

Tornadoes are strange beasts. They can drive a piece of straw through a tree. They can lift up a house, drop a car in the basement, then put the house back down more or less on top of it. Not undamaged, mind you, but still in place. One that touched down in the Twin Cities picked a bunch of fish out of a Minneapolis lake and dropped them in a St. Paul suburban mall’s parking lot. You could almost think the storms have a sense of humor, although the fish weren’t amused.

Last January, a tornado touched down in London. No, make that a suspected tornado. The damage was minimal (I wouldn’t say that if my garage that been hit, but still, given what’s possible, yes, it was minor) and it wouldn’t have been national news if they weren’t so rare.

The storms you’re used to set your expectations of what storms are. Any tornado in Britain is newsworthy. And the thunderstorm that got us talking about how mild they are here? A couple of friends commented on how wild it had been.

Which brings me back to the Westy and its conviction that Americans call the July moon the Thunder Moon. If anyone’s ever heard it called that, I’d love to know.