The Awesome Power of a Storm
I had never heard the term "white plague" as an 11-year old girl, but I would certainly have thought it appropriate to describe what happened to my family on July 3rd, one year. I grew up on a Montana wheat farm located on a land formation known as Broadview Bench. As its name implies, the bench was higher than its surroundings and quite flat, allowing me to see three or four miles in all directions.
Since our farm could not be irrigated, we had to rely on rather sporadic rain showers to make our crops survive and the best way to predict a coming storm was simply to look to the western sky and watch the clouds build. This particular 3rd of July started out normally enough, but by mid-afternoon it became obvious that a storm was on its way. The breeze had been from the east all day, which allowed the clouds to pile up in the west. These were not harmless, fluffy, white "cotton candy" clouds, but slate-colored heavy masses that promised precipitation. The formations grew in density all afternoon, and I was puzzled by the behavior of my dog when he began pressing himself against my leg wherever I went. He even had the audacity to follow me into the garden, a place he knew he was not allowed.
When my dad came in from driving the tractor about 6:00, I could see the worry on his face as he scanned the horizon. "I sure don't like the looks of those white streaks," he said, and at his words I noticed the purplish clouds had been joined by marks which resembled vertical scribbles made by a giant white crayon. Just about then, we heard the old windmill which rose above the farmyard give a mournful screech as the easterly breeze gave way to the winds coming from behind the clouds in the west. It was a sure signal that the storm was on its way.
My mother had heard the windmill turn and came to the door of the house with a warning. "Here it comes! Help me get the clothes off the line and get inside!" The three of us quickly retrieved the sun-dried laundry and dashed through the door with the dog close behind just as the first large raindrops began to fall.
Once safely inside, three things happened which helped us predict what was to come. First, the temperature dropped a good twenty degrees, turning a muggy over-900 day to a wind-blown 700 in less than a minute. Second, we all sniffed the unmistakable odor of sagebrush which grew in abundance near our farm but did not smell unless trampled or disturbed. And third, we could hear a roar like a mighty rocket straining to leave the launch pad.
Seconds later, we heard the loud clattering of hailstones hitting the house. My parents wrestled a mattress off the bed and threw it up against the west-facing picture window in our dining room while instructing me to hold couch cushions against the smaller windows nearby. We all stood there fortifying our positions for what seemed like hours, listening to the roar of the wind, and the incessant hammering of the hail. I could only cry and hope the chickens, calves and other barnyard animals had been able to find shelter.
When the wind finally died down and the pounding ceased, we looked out to discover a nearly unrecognizable landscape. Hailstones covered the ground in drifts like snow. The garden had been turned into a multi-colored mud pie, with wisps of lettuce, strawberries, or cucumber floating here and there. Every west-facing window in every barn, shed and storage building was shattered except those in the house we had protected. About 60% of our wheat crop had been lost, and only crop insurance helped us stave off financial disaster.
I dashed outside to gather some of the largest hailstones to keep in the freezer as testament to the big storm. I found many the size of golf balls and one monster formed by four or five of the golf balls melted together. Our animals all appeared none the worse for wear and ventured out of their living areas as soon as the storm was over to sniff and peck at the resultant drifts of ice.
We spent the 4th of July picnicking with friends as planned, but the talk was completely dominated by accounts of the storm, which had covered nearly our whole county. It was a good lesson in the power of nature and the value of family and community as people gathered together to help those hardest-hit and encourage each other to persevere.