A Flatter Valley

By Beacon Staff

As a child of the Midwest, the summer brought with it humidity, fireflies and storm warnings.

Last week, after the muggy Flathead air turned violent and a tornado touched down near Polson, a valley renowned for its surrounding mountains acted much flatter; a lot like Bourbonnais, Ill. My family lived in this town – more of a village – an hour south of Chicago. There are no mountains and little to shield Bourbonnais from the moody wind.

When storms crackled, my family went to the garage and piled into a dark crawl space. It was fun, at least for a young boy – like camp. Mom would bring in the junk food, dad the radio and flashlight. My brother, three years my elder, took the storms a bit more seriously, and would urge the family to move quickly. He’s protective like that.

Tornados blew through and we would track them with an old battery-powered radio. They never came that close to our village, but we sat, listening for longer than we needed to before crawling back out.

What are the odds that the closest a tornado got to my home would be in Montana? I imagine it’s roughly 50,000 to one, certainly less than the chances of getting bit by a demented venomous snake.

But there I was, and there were you. When the weather channel’s red ticker scrolled across the bottom of the television to notify us that a tornado had touched down in Montana, we both checked to make sure we were in the right state. The cyclone dissipated as it moved north, but the winds were still strong enough to pick up a silo and throw it, snap power poles and knock down the screen at the Libby drive-in theater.

Rain, then hail. Wind. Then the dead lights.

Then people everywhere.

The dark Kalispell streets last Wednesday night were crowded after the storm. City officials asked people to stay indoors, but nobody listened. At 11:30 p.m., locals cruised, sizing up their town and assessing the damage. It was like an alien had landed, and no one wanted to be the one who missed it. Thankfully, the damage on the north side of the lake was less severe than first thought and no one was seriously hurt.

But watching the drivers maneuver the lightless streets and hearing a few jovial screams, it reminded me of that crawlspace in Illinois. Holed up with my family, we were all a little scared, but at least we were together – enjoying a small, excited kind of camaraderie in our apprehension.

Last week, outside my apartment on Kalispell’s west side, neighbors who hadn’t shared but a few words prior were now talking loudly about the craziness. Around town, residents helped pull trees off roads and first responders patiently answered every frantic call.

For one night the valley felt, not only a little flatter, but also a little smaller – like a 5-by-5 foot crawlspace.

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