We were just kids then. Bumping up against the ceiling of reality that we had been so oft told that we were not quite prepared for. However, as the final days of that Indian Summer fell from the calendar we waited in quiet anticipation. Each too unsure to speak the questioning unease aloud, we laughed, and drank, and carried on as if something wasn’t consistently lurking in the darkness. At the same time real and abstract, we knew our clocks were winding down in that small Midwestern town, but it always seemed so surreal that in the moment it felt like it would never end.
I slammed the scratched burgundy door to that old Isuzu Trooper, sinking into the seat I had so often visited since this not-so-old friend turned 16. We had just been kids together, meeting over the water fountain during 4th grade recess. I had been struck by his odd name, and the mutual employer of our parents helped to make us fast friends. There were catalogs of memories that could fill a wing of the National Archives if only they could be preserved: shooting apples off the old tree from the porch with the .22, gutting that old school bus, chasing girls that we never had a chance at, a birthday gifted three-piece corduroy suit, and wee-hour conversations under the climbing wall in the barn.
By the time that last summer came we had no reason to believe the wise words of elder sages suggesting that things would undoubtedly change. For all of our conscious years we had always been around one another, some seasons driving us closer together, others leaving us farther apart. However, no matter how distance emerged or what circumstance held, we undoubtedly were always bound to end up lost in a conversation sooner or later. We were too young. Too full of sheltered experience to even grasp that our instincts were wrong, but in that moment it felt like it would never end.
He pulled away from the curb, shifting gears in that ancient transmission as we headed out toward the lake. The forecast called for storms moving in, but fronts always broke when they came up against the enormous surface area of that southern Iowa freshwater reservoir. As we came under the streetlights of the traditional town square, we noticed the Krispy Kreme donut truck outside the local fill-er-up station. We stopped, still too young to ever question the necessity of picking up an entire case of donuts for a late evening drive.
Summertime insects dashed out of from in front of the headlights as we gained speed, making headlong out of town for the North Overlook. Horizontal lightning flashes on the horizon illuminated the edge of the moving front, still off a good ways to the West as we embarked for the shelter house overlooking the dam. The air was humid and still, only a few lingering lightening bugs flitting above the tall-grass prairie making dents in the inky vale of late evening. The strange energy that can only be felt in those few moments before a storm filled us, helping to ease the gaps in conversation as we both worked diligently to demolish the box of donuts.
Slowly at first, and then more intensely, we began to hear the drops falling throughout the Black Walnut trees lining the open shelter house. A slight breeze escalated with the thickening of the rain until, at last, with a force grand enough to make one believe in nature, lightning landed on our side of the lake. The breeze became a gale as the rain poured in torrents. More powerful booms echoed as lightning struck first amongst the trees, then openly against the dam on the Des Moines River. The electricity of the air not only raised the hair on our arms, it could be felt pervading the skin, deeper until it static charged our internal organs. Each new flash elevated the electricity in the air, illuminating more than the breaking clouds or turbulent waters violently swirling beneath the blockade of steel and concrete.
In that moment it felt like it would never end. The storm had become so powerful that it became easy to conclude that no force would ever slow it down. But in a moment, it was over. The wind dropped and the rain slowed, petering out until it became impossible to differentiate between that still falling from the skies and the residual dripping from the trees. The humidity hung in the air, pairing with the silence that had overcome our normally conversational selves at some point while the storm front passed over. We had been borne silent by the enormity of the moment.
Eventually we saddled back up in the Trooper and headed back on those winding blacktops toward town. Making pledges to keep in touch as the fall semester unwound, marking a new chapter in each of our lives, we tried to believe that the enormity of the moment had passed with the thunderheads. Self-confident claims of good faith suggested the memorable times we would have together on Christmas break, and we jokingly closed the conversation as I got out and slammed that heavy door for the last time. I walked across the still rain-soaked grass, admiring how clear the sky had suddenly come. A thousand stars had peeked out from behind the clouds, filling the sky with new possibilities.
The next morning he embarked for school in Northern Appalachia, marking a point in our journey that time would only prove more divergent than imagined. A few weeks later, I went my own way; North in a different direction. We would talk on the phone those first few years every once in a blue moon, a well-earned teleconference between two people who had paid the dues of a decade long friendship. We did cross paths on that first Christmas break, briefly illuminating a tunnel of interpersonal history that his since gone dark, silent as the moment before a front pushes its way across a lake.
We have both long graduated from those collegiate campuses, survived our own independent tribulations, and grown into men we could have never envisioned then. We have managed to become disconnected, even in a digital age filled with electronic communications between remote parties and places, two different people with faces once familiar. But, sometimes, even now, when I sit facing west with a storm pushing in, I think to myself about that moment where it felt like it would never end.