October Lightning

Bolts
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The slow rumble of thunder woke me on Thursday just before dawn. For a few minutes, the wall behind my bed, facing a west window, flared, faded, and flared again. The thunder rolled away to the northeast. A scattering of rain fell.

Rain in mid-October on the Los Angeles plain is a rarity. This is supposed to be a month of aridity and Santa Ana winds.

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Lightning and thunder are even more unlikely. Among the weather miracles sold to tourists and newcomers at the turn of the 20th century was a "lightning free" Los Angeles. Supposedly, the region's warm, dry atmosphere made electrical storms, hailstorms, and tornadoes almost impossible.

Compared to the Midwest from which most of the visitors and immigrants came, the local climate boosters were nearly right.

Childhood memory is a poor witness, but I hardly ever saw lightning or heard thunder as a boy. Years went by, it seemed, before the flash and boom of an electrical storm would blow up the valley of the Los Angeles River or come down from the mountains behind Pasadena and Monrovia. None of those encounters was anything like the long sieges of lightning and thunder in other parts of the country.

I can remember once, at ten or eleven years old, standing in the driveway of my house and seeing a filament of lightning appear overhead and hearing -- perhaps imagining it -- the sizzle of its passing. Had lightning been more familiar, I might have been more afraid.

Thursday's thunder and lightning passed away before I left my house. There was a wash of rain on the sidewalk and semicircles of dry concrete where trees stood as shelter. The clouds to the east were the color called "CBS gray," although the the sun was already cresting their edges.

The sun rose intensely bright in the cleaned air. It was too hot for a jacket, too cool for just shirtsleeves.

Everything on my walk to city hall in that light was distinct, insistent in its being there, solid, and sufficient in itself, like a room full of people who know they're important. Rain in streaks that seemed yards apart fell into and out of that light. The drops were brighter than the sky.

The odor that follows rain after a long dryness lingered halfway down my block before the rising heat evaporated it. The overall scent may have been petrichor; I'm not sure what that is exactly.

I smelled a faint, musty sweetness from the dust kicked up by the rain. I smelled the asphalt's astringent wetness, evoking a memory of my elementary school playground. I smelled the oily duff under the eucalyptus trees that line South Street, medicinal and bracing.

There were pea-sized snails out on the sidewalk, rasping calcium from the concrete to make bigger shells. Two crows cursed me from the wire that strings together the street lights. I looked at them and they at me. They were unimpressed.

In memory, I'm always at the still center. In life, the impressive storm moves on. The ground breaths a momentary sweetness and it's carried away. The crows follow, flying north.

D. J. Waldie, author and historian, writes about Los Angeles twice each week at KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles." He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times.
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