Deep grumble of thunder this morning before daylight, rain drumming on the tin roof, the cool sheets and pillow plumped under my head just right, little dog Bobby curled beside me. I smiled in the dark like I was back on a construction crew, when such threat of weather invited me to reach over and turn off the alarm clock. I was a carpenter who loved a rainy day off from work. And now that me and my tools have a job to do down at the boathouse, I turned over and put a hand on Bobby’s side, a little sign, Not today, boy.
When I took a degree in English and Creative Writing it didn’t come with a job. On college career day when a throng of employers show up looking for work-ready graduates, English students can be viewed through a glass darkly. While nursing and accounting and engineering and science or tech students skip out the door with good news for Mom and Dad, waving maybe even more than one job offer—well, let’s just say I had to make my own opportunity.
My back door neighbor and friend had his master’s degree in English, and neither could he parlay his prize-winning poetry into a means for paying the rent and buying coffee, gas in the car, all that. I had an old pickup truck and some tools, and had worked around the farm growing up and as a carpenter in Tuscaloosa for an outfit called Home Maintenance Company. Pretty straightforward name, and where I learned some straightforward skills. My neighbor was a gifted carpenter, and could build things with wood that were as well-crafted as his poems. We teamed up in 1977.
And by the time Hurricane Frederic drove up the middle of Mobile Bay in ‘79, we had twenty-some guys swinging hammers and sawing boards for us. They all loved rain days. So did my partner. It’s just a thing in that business. Even bitchy customers cut us slack when the sky was pouring and thunder was rolling. But that hurricane showed us all the side of bad weather that nobody liked. We had more work than we could manage, for customers who were hurting, and we were months and months building back from that September storm.
My man Henry James Stuart had his healing moment in such a storm in 1926. He was working the last course of blocks on the roof of his round house when the Miami Hurricane, ranked the 5th worst hurricane to strike the U.S. mainland, jumped across Florida’s southern peninsula and took aim on Perdido Beach, Alabama, making landfall with sustained winds of 115 miles per hour. Henry’s miraculous recovery during that storm changed him like Saul of Tarsus was changed on the road to Damascus. And the people whose help he had refused found him knocking at their doors along the Montrose bluff in Fairhope, tools in hand, offering them his own help to fix their hurricane damage.
This morning in my cabin, I had no idea the rainy day was building into something a lot worse. Things got interesting about lunch time when I was startled by my phone’s weather warning, that piercing multiphonic tone designed to rattle even an old tom cat on his cushion. Jack Kerouac in his Scripture of the Golden Eternity wrote, “Cats yawn because they realize that there’s nothing to do.” On the other hand, I’m not an old tom cat, so I picked up the phone to see what was I supposed to be doing.
Turns out, dodging a tornado, forecast on a path to my front door. Hmm? I thought about the piece of driftwood I collected yesterday from the edge of the stormtide line on a wooded Daphne beach. I plan to paint a name on the board and hang it on the new cabin.
Stormy metaphors were blowing around in my head as I went next door to check on Suzanne’s dad and mom. Suzanne was there, too, in the living room, and with her input we decided we’d wait for the sound of a train, then she’d grab her husband Joe and we’d all five of us cram ourselves into the bathroom. She said in the meantime she was going back to work on her novel. I sat with the old folks, and Bobby took a four-legged perch in my lap. He knew something was up and was on full-ready for whatever that might be.
My phone rang, a number I didn’t recognize. I took it anyway. Under the circumstances, you know. It was a friend who was at Page & Palette bookstore with other friends, and she wanted me to know a tornado was aiming for Waterhole Branch. They were watching, I suppose, the weather warnings on the coffee shop TV. I was given the co-ordinates and speed and direction of the storm. It didn’t sound good. She knows that my little dog has one ear up and one ear down, and she told me to watch Bobby’s ears, and if both stood up, then we should take cover. I thanked her and got off the phone. And if Bobby’s ears went up, would that serve as a convincing warning? It would work for me.
But the train never came, and Bobby’s left ear stayed flopped.
And by three o’clock the sun peeked out for a minute. Then the rain fell again and the water around the boathouse had risen, creating a small lake outside the banks of the branch, and also crept up the tires on the utility trailer. I wondered if the water rose high enough could the trailer be coaxed to float, with four tires full of air and all of of the 2-by-8 wood on its deck. I hoped I wouldn’t have to learn the answer today, since I don’t have a trailer hitch on my Subaru wagon.
The rain let up again. Bobby and I walked down the hill and he ran over to sniff a huge box turtle with a glistening shell going in our direction. It pulled in its head and legs and Bobby quickly lost interest. When we got to the boathouse, I could actually see the water receding from around it, inch by inch down the siding.
Oh, well, no work today, I said to Bobby, we’ll just go to the cabin and do some drawings and think about what dimensions we want on this rebuild.
Walking back, we passed the turtle, sort of plodding along toward the tall grass near the water’s edge down at the branch. And I knew without a doubt the turtle was a teacher, come looking just for me. Lao Tzu, the ancient Chinese philosopher who wrote the Tao-Te-Ching said that racing “maddens the mind”—just ask the speedy hare. And this turtle was not going to let me forget it. Building this house is not a foot race against time or some mad hurry against Henry’s year-and-sixteen-days’ work schedule.
That would take all the joy out of rain days.
My old friend Paul Bell, a British car collector, said when once we got caught out in a Jag E-type roadster with the top down in a pouring rain, “Rain’s water, and water’s life.” He laughed, making no effort to stop and raise the hood, as convertible tops are called in England. Neither did he speed up.
Lao Tzu’s turtle would’ve loved Paul. And maybe Lao Tzu’s Turtle can be my Tolstoy Park.