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Boyhood Memories from 'Tornado Alley'


Gregory J. Rummo

AUGUST 3, 2002

Thunderstorms exploded through the atmosphere during the first weekend of August here in New Jersey. The displays of lightning followed by the crash of thunder—in some cases the two being virtually simultaneous—were truly awesome.

In our neck of the woods, high winds snapped a rotting tree off at its base. The trunk fell across the street, blocking traffic until a few of my neighbors, aided by the local police chain sawed their way out of suburban gridlock.

Powerful storms were the norm when I was a kid. And they were pretty spectacular even though we didn’t have the theatrics of the Weather Channel and Doppler radar.

I grew up in Westchester County in lower New York State in a town called Yonkers. We lived in a small, white colonial on Height’s Drive at the top of what was affectionately known as “Snake Hill,” so named not because of the preponderance of snakes in the area but due to the serpentine character of the road bed.

In the small park across the street from our home, a US Geological Survey marker designating the spot as the highest point in Yonkers. Three blocks from our house the Catskill aqueduct ran underground, delivering its precious cargo to the faucets and fireplugs of Manhattan. Overhead, following the aqueduct were high voltage lines, their taut cables sweeping out hyperbolic arcs between the immensely tall steel towers.

It was as though our house had been soldered onto a printed circuit board between the contacts of a huge electrolytic capacitor. We were in fact sitting atop Westchester County’s number one location for the conduction of atmospheric electricity.

As you can well imagine, when a thunder storm homed in on our neighborhood, it was always a doozy, rivaling any storm chaser’s wildest dream.

We were in tornado alley—sort of. At least to this little boy of five years old it seemed that way.

Adding to the aura of fear and wonder was my mother.

She was simply terrified of thunderstorms. As a young girl, she had witnessed ball lightning—an extremely rare phenomenon—inside a neighbor’s house. The lightning had apparently entered the house through the chimney, scorched its way across the carpet in the living room and exited through an open window.

Consequently, whenever the skies darkened, at the first rumble of thunder mom would go racing through the house, shutting all the windows until finally ending up in the kitchen with a deck of cards to keep her mind off the impending Armageddon. The kitchen was about as far away from the living room as one could get in that small house. And in the living room a brick-faced chimney stood as a terrifying reminder from mom’s past.

When the storm was finally over and we survived—we always did—it was like a home movie run in reverse. Mom would put away the cards and race through the house opening all the windows. The cool air would come streaming in, offering us a respite from the hot weather in an era when air conditioning was reserved for wealthy folks, department stores, restaurants and movie theaters.

These were the remembrances running through my mind as I sat with my family the other night in our living room in air conditioned comfort, hunkered down, and waiting for the storm to pass and the electricity to come back on. The walls were bathed in the yellow glow from a flickering candle which every so often was overpowered by the blinding blue-white flash of lightning.

The storm eventually passed, the power came back on and life returned to normal, the episode, like all the ones before it, melting into the confluence of memories reaching all the way back to my boyhood on Snake Hill.

Gregory J. Rummo is a syndicated columnist and the author of "The View from
the Grass Roots." Contact him through his website,

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