Shelter from the storm (or libraries save lives)

Published on: 9/2/2011

I now know why straight-line winds are called “hurricanes of the prairie.” Only unlike hurricanes, they can arrive without warning, as this one did.

“They come in under the radar,” the librarian said, holding her flashlight because even the emergency generator was out. In fact, all the power was out for 20 miles or more in this center-of-the-state area. Sixty and seventy mile winds had taken out not just power lines but transformers. The only difference between this and a tornado was the direction of the force, straight ahead instead of whirling.

The stately Carnegie library to which I fled had survived many storms, including the storm of developers who took so many of them for retail outlets. And it would survive this one.

I got there after a white-knuckle-ride with winds trying to force my boxy HHR and  the big tanker truck in front of me off the road. When the tanker swerved to miss the better part of a burr oak crashing onto the highway, I knew I’d better head for a safe place. The GPS I’d just bought told me I was close to town. I headed for the library, a  place anyone can go.

We sat in the dark, the few patrons and I, while the staff tried to work.

“Did you call the school?” one mom asked. “I texted: the kids are staying,” the other mom answered. “Where’s Jim?” another wondered. “He’s driving those big grain trucks 18 hours a day to make enough money to keep the farm,” someone said. “Oh, he’s up at Four Corners: he’s okay.”

"Where are you going?" they asked. I told them: a farm down a long dirt road northwest of there. "Don't go," they agreed in unison. "Those roads get slidey, but it's the trees you have to worry about." Eighty year oaks line so many of those roads and, nearing the end of their lifespans, they tend to shatter and fall in dramatic ways, as I'd already witnessed.

I picked The Warmth of Other Suns off the rack and settled into a soft chair under what little light came through the window. The Great Migration of African-American people moving from the South to the North for better lives was profoundly different from the present migration from the North to the South.

Libraries gave all sorts of immigrants, including those, the knowledge and inspiration they needed to build lives in this ambitious democracy. They sheltered them from ignorance and, sometimes, the harsh storms outside.

When the winds died down I thanked the staff, who’d kept the place open for me, and left, picking my way through the debris.

I decided to stop at one last house off the old highway. A tree blocked the road. Feeling like I could do anything, a feeling libraries and the kindness of strangers often gives me, I dragged it off to the side to let the next travelers pass. It was a small tree, true. But that is what we do in America.