When I was a boy and the South Dakota summers turned dry, my dad always asked me to do a rain dance.
He used to fret over our sprawling lawn like a chef anxiously stirring a sauce. I remember him hauling hoses in the languid summer evenings, the pulsing of the water like a wind in the walls of our house. I liked it better when he'd run the sprinkler on hot July afternoons, and I could hop back and forth, in and out of the breath-catchingly cold swish-swish, swish-swish of the arcing lines of water, like piano wires against the heat-pale summer sky. My feet would leave bare green prints in the wet grass, which my dad insisted on coaxing to grow so I would have to mow it again. It would have been fine by me to let the rainless weeks brown and crisp our lawn, if it meant getting to leave the lawnmower in the garage for the rest of summer.
But no, my father wanted a rain dance, as though all those nights of watering weren't enough for our insatiably thirsty lawn. Maybe he was worried for the farmers, hardy South Dakotans watching the skies from their tractor seats in vain for signs of rain. Maybe my dad just liked rain.
We used to keep a rain gauge bolted to the balcony railing, beside the white plastic thermometer, as though any minute the weather bureau might call for an update on conditions on Lincoln Avenue. The rain gauge was a crude open box of clear plastic. During most South Dakota summers, it got dusty inside. Sometimes a spider would make its home in the rain gauge, as if daring it to rain.
Like spiders, little boys don't like rain. Even as bookish and TV-obsessed as I was as a kid, I hated when the rain trapped me indoors. On a sunny day I might still have preferred to stay inside and read comic books or construct imaginary civilizations out of Erector sets and Lincoln Logs—but still, I'd rather have the option. Rain foreclosed the possibility of building in the sandbox instead, or playing superheroes in the backyard with my best friend (and his little brother, if his mom made him tag along). Rain made the grass grow, which, as I got a little older, meant hauling out the stinking, coughing, lurching lawn mower—like having to take the Minotaur out for walkies.
So if somehow I did have the power to make it rain, I wouldn't have been enthusiastic about using it. Too bad for the farmers and our lawn. More playtime for me. Little boys are selfish, too, remember.
Where my dad got this notion of me doing a "rain dance," I can't imagine. I guess it was just one of his little shticks, like the lines from Shakespeare or Shelley ("O wild west wind, thou breath of autumn's being"—I still remember) he liked to recite (or, less high-falutingly, a certain song whose only lyrics seemed to be, "I love to go swimmin' with bow-legged women, and dive between their legs"). Once he'd added something like that to his conversational repertoire, in any case, there was no letting go of it.
Today, talking about doing a rain dance seems somehow politically incorrect, though I don't think my dad meant any disrespect. Not only Native Americans did rain dances, it turns out. According to the online Wikipedia encyclopedia, "Rain dances can be found in many cultures, from Ancient Egyptians to certain Native American tribes and could still be found in the 20th century Balkans, in a ritual known as Paparuda."
If my dad had known about "Paparuda," I'm certain he would have asked me to do it.
The 10 o'clock news might be on, and we'd have just watched KELO-TV's "Weather in Motion"—magnets, stuck to the map, of suns and clouds and pressure systems, with little colored plastic ridges that seemed to shimmer if you squinted at them just right. The weatherman—who also hosted "Captain 11," my favorite afternoon cartoon show—would have bemoaned the umpteenth day without rain, and how hard it was for the crops and lawns. As the news went to a commercial, my dad would turn in his big armchair, stab the air with his cigarette, and tell me I should do a rain dance.
I don't remember whether I ever actually did some sort of jig in response, there in the living room, lit only by the flickering blue glow of the TV set. I may be repressing those memories as simply too humiliating. If I did do a rain dance, perhaps once it did indeed rain the next day, establishing a superstitious cause and effect the way we all halfway believe that washing your car can cause the heavens to open up. Then my dad would have had reason to repeat it, summer after summer.
Of course, arid New Mexico is perfect for me, the rain-hater. I don't know why we didn't move here sooner, to this crease between the mountains and the desert, where the cloudless skies are the crystalline blue of the Mediterranean Sea.
We heard all about the monsoons, yes, but we've lived in places where they get more rain in a day than the whole monsoon season brings. Big deal. Still, we've learned to dutifully root for the monsoon season to begin, even if it means washing out the Fourth of July festivities at Gough Park. (We'll see you there—we've already reserved a place in the shade.)
We've learned not to resent wet winters like last February, when the rain washed away bridges and low-lying roads, and to appreciate the explosion of wildflowers thereafter. We got a good introduction to such flukes, after all, since the February day in 2003 we moved into our house—our house in dry-as-dust New Mexico—it poured all day long. The movers left muddy footprints on the ribbons of paper they unrolled to protect our off-white carpets, like instructional steps for a wildly complex dance. And we wondered if perhaps we'd taken a wrong turn at Albuquerque and wound up in Oregon instead.
But now, this drought-plagued winter and parched spring, this is just ridiculous. Even I am starting to look at every wisp of cloud the way a shipwrecked sailor scans the horizons for sails. The lack of rain has become a physical ache, like the phantom pain that amputees feel where their limbs used to be. It has forgotten how to rain. What if it never rains again?
The spring winds kick the dust into brown smears across the sky. The wildflowers are muted, as though afraid to show their faces. Quail come chuckling in to sip at our little artificial backyard pond the way nomads in the Sahara approach an oasis, half-fearing it might be only a mirage. Some places, the tumbleweeds are the only form of life. The Rio Grande looks like the aftermath of a kids' spitting contest.
In a sort of high-tech homage to my dad's meteorological mania—maybe it's genetic—I now own a sort of weather station myself. Sensors outside, including a whirling wind gizmo that gets a real workout this time of year, transmit the weather conditions to an indoor LCD screen the size of a small paperback book. Yes, there's even a rain gauge, which looks sort of like a smooth-sided Mayan temple with a slit in the top. Indoors, the LCD reading for rain to date has been unchanged for so long, the numbers are probably burned into the screen. Outdoors, it's dusty inside the rain gauge, and I suspect a spider may have moved in.
Perhaps by the time you read this, the drought will have broken and the long dry spell will be like a half-recollected dream, fading a little more with each plink-plunk of raindrops. Even I, the rain-hater, would be willing to give up some of my outdoor playtime—reading in my lawn chair, puttering about with food on the grill or in the smoker—if only it would remember how to rain. I'll wash my car, if that would help.
I may even have to try to recall that rain dance. If you see me out back, hopping about like a dog trying to shake off fleas, don't ask questions. You can just thank me later.
When it rains.
David A. Fryxell is editor of Desert