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Smells Like Rain
by C. Charman
I consider myself a California boy. I was born in Southern California, and lived in a little beach town in Northern California from fourth grade until moving further north to go to college at Berkeley. I have lived in California for all but seven years of my life. From age 3 to age 10, I lived twenty miles outside of our nation's capitol in Rockville, Maryland.
Those seven years, the time that I spent "seeing other places," left permanent marks. To this day, my perfectly generic American English accent is marred by the slightest hint of a Southern flavor to the way I say "boot" and "about." Our orangey-tan squirrels don't look quite right -- they should be gray, and their tails should be bushier. There should be fireflies in the summer night, not just mosquitoes, and most of all, summer storms should have a smell.
In California, at least in the part of Northern California I've lived in since the late 1970's, electrical storms are a rarity. When they do happen, they are feeble, a few flashes and bangs. Nothing special. Nothing like the thunderstorms I remember from childhood.
One summer in particular, it was hot and humid as most summers are in Maryland, and we'd been blessed with infestations of both Japanese beetles and tent caterpillars. The crab apples and roses in the cul-de-sac were looking chewed up and unhealthy. One morning, I got into my swimsuit and sandals, grabbed my towel, and headed to the community pool. I stopped along the way to catch iridescent green and copper beetles from the neighbor's rose bushes to take with me. At the pool, I would drown them in the deep end. I walked up the bicycle path, through the woods, the Japanese beetles squirming in my hands in a vain attempt to escape their fate. The air was think and heavy, and it was already close to 90°out.
I skipped the mandatory shower, and dove straight in at the far end of the pool, near the 12' mark. My little captives were dead, killed by the pressure and lack of oxygen. I deposited their corpses along with the others that tended to accumulate around the pool's drain, and swam back up to the surface.
In spite of the heat, the sun was hidden by masses of tall, threatening clouds. The clouds grew darker and the air became still. The lifeguards blew their whistles in a long blast, and ordered everyone out of the pool. A storm was coming, and staying in the water would have been an excellent way to be struck by lightening.
Walking back from the pool, it was as dark as twilight, even though it was only late afternoon. I hurried, trying to stay out of open spaces and under the trees. The insects droned on, and in the far distance there were flickers, followed at some length by a subdued boom. The air was filled with the smell of the approaching storm. As I understand it, the smell comes from ozone, created by the masses of charged particles colliding and interacting as the cloud's masses of hot and cold air slide into each other. If you have ever smelled it, you know exactly what it is like. If you haven't, try pouring water on the sidewalk on some hot, sunny day, and you'll come close. Or you can try a sharp blow to the face, which seems to induce a similar smell for me at least. Hot sidewalk is without a doubt the less painful way to experience it, if you can't manage a trip to the mid-Atlantic or the South during summer.
The flashes got closer, and the bangs louder. You can count elephants or Mississippis between the flash and the bang, and that is supposed to tell you how many miles away the lightening is. I was always an elephant guy myself. When it got down to two elephants, I started running. At one elephant, the rain came, the heavy drops soaking everything. I got back into the cool, air-conditioned house somewhere between the ears and the trunk.