Last year Ireland braced for Hurricane Ophelia, a rare storm to hit the island. It was expected to be the worst in 50 years. Several days before it was to land the government decided to close all schools, and the night before the university, too, shut its doors. The Irish had watched enough US movies and news coverage to know that preparations were needed to ensure survival…so they cleared the store shelves of alcohol. For everyone else there was a sense of giddiness and expectation. For me, it was another Monday.
When I was thirteen I competed in a rabbit decathlon (part showmanship, part rabbit knowledge) at the New York State Fair. I stayed overnight in the new dairy barn with Jeff, my aunt’s then-boyfriend and later husband, since he was there showing Ayshires. I had read that all rabbits brought to the decathlon had to remain in the poll barn at the other end of the fair. Being one to follow rules, I left Sabrina, my Dutch, there overnight, even though everyone else went home with their rabbits. Since it was the last day of showing for the color breeds, there was a sense of gaiety and celebration in the new dairy barn. That was the atmosphere I left when I spread the sleeping bag over a few bales next to the show chest and fell asleep.
I was awoken by Jeff in the morning. He was a bit pale in the face, and the rest of the barn was quiet except for a few restless cows. I stood in the doorway, in front of the debris strewn across the fairgrounds. Food carts, kiosks, and trees were spread sidelong across the lane. Eventually someone came up to me and explained: the roof of the old dairy barn next door had blown off and killed an ice cream vendor in his tent, and someone associated with the horse show had been crushed when a tree limb struck his trailer. I had slept through a tornado.
For better or for worse, the fact that my rabbit was at the other end of the fair was more real than the present danger of the situation. I left the dairy barn only to be quickly found by a policeman and told to go back. I waited a few minutes and then tried again, making a large loop around that officer, only to run into a second one. “Gotta get my rabbit,” I said. He looked me over and then demanded that I return to the dairy barn. I stood in the doorway again, trying to see the poll barn. Instead I saw Sabrina being flung through the air and landing on someone’s doorstep in Long Island. I would be a rule follower no more.
I wove in and out of the scattered stands and pieces of shattered carnival rides, ducking behind the nearest clutter when I saw a policeman. Other livestock exhibitors loitered around their buildings, stunned into silence. Finally I reached the poll barn and burst through the doors.
Sabrina wasn’t there.
And then the tornado sirens rang out.
I ran back to the new dairy barn, past people trying to wave me into other livestock buildings, a boy without a rabbit. But my luck was changing. A second tornado didn’t come to blow me onto someone’s doorstep in Long Island, nor, would I come to find out, did the first one do so to Sabrina. Someone had found her, thinking she had been abandoned because of the storm, and saw my name and county on the cage. My 4-H country extension agent used her connections to get Sabrina passed among an underground network of goat people until she made her way back to me. At the 4-H awards banquet I was given a certificate of bravery, which was awkward both because all I did was sleep heavy.
Eight years later I’m an undergraduate at The University of Iowa, attending a Deborah Eisenberg reading. I knew her from her selection in a former Best American Short Stories for her piece “Some Other, Better Otto.” I was loitering just inside the doors of the campus building in which the reading was held, in the company of writer-in-residence Charles D’Ambrosio. I had been to a few of his talks and admired him both for his work and his leather jacket. Suddenly the wind started howling against the glass. Charles D’Ambrosio tried to open the door and then looked at me in shock as he found it sealed shut against the draft. The fact that Charles D’Ambrosio made eye contact was more real to me in that moment than the potential dangers outside.
Some Other, Better Ryan would have went into the auditorium to listen to Deborah Eisenberg, but I (and Charles D’Ambrosio) were part of the small group that clung around the doors, looking into the darkness. Someone found an old radio in a broom closet and informed us that there were tornado warnings for Iowa City. Not long after a blonde girl among us broke down crying. She had received a phone call saying that the sorority house that she was the president of had been destroyed. Later, when we opened the doors we noticed a Pentecostal-like ash falling from the sky. It took us a minute to realize that it was the insulation of someone’s house.
Although no one died in Iowa City, many buildings were destroyed and whole streets demolished. How does a college town respond to such devastation? The line to buy alcohol at the store was an hour deep. Everyone walked through the dark with bottles of whisky on their hips, running into their friends and growing into larger groups, eventually ending up on a rooftop party somewhere. It proved that the line between terrifying and thrilling is thin. In the best case scenario one gets to be close enough to the danger to feel it, without ever being subjected to it.
With my history, I thought I would get to see something extravagant with Hurricane Ophelia. Instead, not much happened where I lived. Three people did die, but from bad decisions and in other parts of the country. From my window I could only see a bit of garbage being flung around in wind that wasn’t any stronger than what I frequently experienced in Iceland. The Irish would still have their fun, though, passing around memes such as a picture of a tipped-over lawn chair and the words “Hurricane Ophelia: Never Forget.” And, more importantly, they got to recover from their celebrations the night before.
Amateurs, I thought.
This article is part of The Milk House column series, published in print across three countries and two languages. It can also be found at themilkhouse.org.