A lesson learned

It must be for absent-mindedness, rather than qualities of intellect, that I am sometimes called "Professor." When I lose myself in "scientific observation" (a euphemism for daydreaming), I'm apt to be oblivious to everything, including natural disasters.

It was 117 degrees in the shade, and no shade. Down by the campus that serves the place I live in, I was absorbed in the fantastic activities of a community of ants. My belief has always been that ants are among the most absorbing people in the world, but not very bright, and I wasn't seeing anything today that interfered with such a notion.

They certainly live up to their reputation for industry, but it seems a pointless, mindless kind of industry. I watched one individual for twenty minutes, even while the sun baked me like a potato. He wrestled with a sere seed that was twice as big as he was. He carted it hither and yon, in an erratic circle, for some reason that was known to him and his Maker but surely to no one else. When by chance he encountered an impediment, such as a twig or a pebble, he was sure to go overm it as opposed to around, and of course he lugged his burden with him. The energy he spent in proportion to his size was incredible. It was as if Im were to stumble all over the county with a concrete block on my shoulders, struggling over all the fences I chanced to come to, instead of walking through the open gates. Finally, when he had used enough energy to light up a small city, he simply abandoned the seed and went on his way willy-nilly. Then as I mused on the stark foolishness of ants, an odd thing happened. In the twinkling of an eye, they all disappeared!

This was something new to me. All the ants, with one mind, left off their frantic enterprise and vanished, as if by magic, into secret tunnels. I have spied on these animals, man and boy, for dozens of years and never seen them do such a perplexing thing. They disappeared into the sanctuary of their subterranean world as abruptly as if a switch had been thrown! My mouth dropped open as I pondered this phenomenon.

At that moment I became aware of a dull roar as if a hundred freight trains were approaching from a distance of a mile. I glanced up idly, and saw with a most unpleasant shock a colossal yellow cloud bearing down on me from the west. It was three-quarters of a mile wide and 500 yards high. It seemed to glow dully, and I had an eerie feeling that it was alive. The dull roar, which of course was the wind, gave way to a high, protesting shriek, and my body felt the insane vanguard of a chaotic army of dust.

While I was being pounded relentlessly, not a single ant was disturbed. They were all safe in their backyards, probably chuckling about the slow-witted human up above. The ants whom I had denigrated for stupidity had perceived half a minute before I did that the world was about to be pulverized by dust.

Bowed against the storm, struggling to stay upright, trying to hold my eyes open for more than a split second, I was conscious of an awesome and inexpressibly marvelous manifestation of nature. Three giant palm trees in the quadrangle bent, as if in the most abject servility, pleading with nature not to be unduly severe. Trash cans went whistling by as if they were participants in a track meet for inanimate objects. Two cats zoomed past on my left, half scampering and half blown by the mighty wind. I knelt in the same old spot -- the erstwhile and arena --dous moment. In that second's span, the day had grown dark, though it was only four o'clock of a desert afternoon.

The onslaught increased. Sheets of dust, stinging motes of dust, swirls of dust and finally a wall of dust. The yellow cloud was upon us, indeed as if it were alive and voracious and unspeakably wild. Suddenly my vague panic abated and I felt tremendously free, alive, exhilarated.I thought about Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz," and wondered if the wind might not pick me up and deposit me over the walls. "What a way to get out of prison!" I shouted to the storm.

Peripherally and in Monet-like fragments I saw men scampering exactly like those ants I had ridiculed. The men too had been taken unawares and were dashing for the safety of the dormitories. But I sensed the storm was abating somewhat and so I chose not to go inside. Clutching my hat with both hands, bent forward against the wind, I moved to a grassy area behind the dorm. Here was a spot where I could huddle against the wall and observe something that I was not privileged to see in an ordinary day. A yellow silver spurted across the northern sky and was answered a few seconds later by a rumble of thunder. Clothes blew madly from the lines: T-shirts and towels and socks. I dashed about crazily, seizing up articles from the ground and tying them to the undulating lines. Later on the men could amuse themselves by trying to figure out which pieces belonged to whom.

Then I saw a sprinkler system pouring forth cascades of cool water. It was still suffocatingly hot, so like a feral child I took off my clothes and ran back and forth under the chill, moist fingers until I was satisfied. And still the wind persisted, though with diminishing vigor.

"Yard clearance! Yard clearance!" boomed the amplified voice. "All men return to their dormitories!" It was nearly pitch dark, and inmates on the Yard posed a possible security threat. Mutteringly I made my way to the dorm. I flashed back to another day, about thirty-three years earlier, when a skinny, tousle-haired boy responded to his mother's call to come in out of the weather: a rainstorm then as opposed to this dust storm. I obeyed unwillingly in that vanished time; I obeyed unwillingly in the present. Nothing had changed.

My fellows greeted me with astonishment. "Is it raining? You're soaked to the skin. Can't see very much out there. What's happening?"

How does a 44-year-old man tell his friends that he's been playing in the water? "It's pretty dim," I muttered. "I guess I ran over the sprinkler."

I took a cold shower, and when I emerged the storm was over and the world was settling back to normal. A thin coat of dust covered everything. We would clean it up in the morning.

I returned to my original spot when the Yard opened and waited for the ants to emerge in all their sagacity.

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