IT IS ACCURATE to say that almost every trace my childhood ever imprinted upon the internet has disappeared. My Neopets have long gone extinct, my once meticulously curated Whyville avatar cast into the dustbin of history, my high scores on CoolMath4Kids dot com, purged. Hours of child labor have since vanished into the ether with nothing to show for them. Que sera, sera.
But what was perhaps my most prized childhood online artifact is still online. It even looks the same as it did back then, which is doubly rare on our Modern Internet: a green dot on a map of North Carolina.
The dot exists because one day in 2006, I called a phone number on a little laminated card thumbtacked to a bulletin board in my bedroom. The phone number was for the severe weather hotline of the Raleigh National Weather Service. At the time, I was authorized to call it.
I was eleven years old.
My father was always a television man. Even now he has the best and the brightest 4K setup; any bigger and that television would dwarf the living room of their 1990s exurban tract house. In early 2004, tempted by clever marketing, my father purchased a theatrically immense projection television, produced just before slim plasma became the norm. We were in awe of it. Me and my sister used the gargantuan box it came in as a fort in the garage for weeks, until the cardboard went limp from abuse.
Then came spring. In southeastern North Carolina, we get relatively frequent thunderstorms from the heat and humidity. It was night. We were watching television in the living room—the news, given the hour. It was raining, rumbling. Turn up the volume. The storm grew more raucous by the minute, and we had just begun exchanging nervous looks when an earsplitting crack seemingly evacuated every particle in the air, instantaneously accompanied by a sweep of white light. The loudness of this sound confirmed for me that sound was, in fact, a wave of energy.
The source was a loblolly pine tree fifteen feet from our house, struck by lightning. The bolt had opened a sappy gash down its trunk, a quite anthropomorphized injury. The dog pissed himself and was never the same after. I can still hear my father’s swearing as the new, glorious TV failed to come back on. But the tree lived. It’s still there.
A few months after that, I was newly in the fourth grade, going to music practice at another school. Just as practice ended, the principal came over the intercom, and then, in a rehearsed rush, we fled to the windowless bathrooms and huddled there, hands over our heads, smelling kid pee on the floor—because, to our collective astonishment (and my profound panic) we were experiencing a rare North Carolina tornado. An F0, the lowest level on the Fujita Tornado Damage Scale, it scraped the shingles off the school roof and not much else. But I swear to this day, when it was over, I saw the sky churn. I saw it contort into something preternaturally moving and alive. It spawned a terror that went marrow-deep.
“Fear,” Ivo Andrić once wrote, “serves an unknown force that follows it as a hunter does a hound…people are not afraid because of what they say frightens them, but because of their own fear.” Myself in childhood: never endangered, clinically diagnosed anxious, afraid of everything from spiders to railroad crossings, and yet, paradoxically, always looking for an opportunity to experience fear, similar to the urge one has to submerge their finger into the perfectly smooth surface of a finished cake an hour before a socially important party.
Hence, I became obsessed with the weather. This obsession was carried out with the utmost discipline. My beleaguered mother bought me a copy of the 1991 edition of the National Audubon Society Field Guide to Weather. I still have it—it’s resting on a corner of my coffee table. On the inside, in my bubbly adolescent scrawl, is the dedication I inscribed to my future self, who clearly would be a radar meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Storm Prediction Center. May it still inspire you, it reads.
I feel a little bit bad for letting my child-self down. But the book is beautiful, as all those old Audubon guides were: pleather-bound and slim, with bold color plates filling most of the pages, sandwiched between white bible-paper essays and elaborations.
The Audubon guide represents a kind of ’90s scholastic utopianism, good learning through earnest self-study, just as the National Weather Service remains a beacon of good government. I flip through it, and lean in to smell it. It smells vaguely old, starchy and chemical, like photo paper—the same aroma it had 20 years ago, albeit faded. The pictures are lovely, four to a page on a black background with serifed white text that makes them look like a slideshow. The clouds have Latin names like animal species: Cumulus congestus, a cloud expanding into a thunderhead; Cirrostratus fibratus, middle-to-high sky clouds described on page 449 as “generally featureless.” I still love these pictures because they are mostly from film at the end of film, and they are of the world, or rather, the weather, accompanied by the world. Deserts and mountains rendered in dense, vibrant color, fuzzy with filmic warmth.
Diligently, I would type each term from the guide into Google; copy and paste the little resulting pictures into PowerPoint so that there were fifteen on a page, like a tray of cookies; print them on the family inkjet (to my father’s chagrin); and cut and purple-gluestick them onto index cards. I was not content with learning the weather on my own, for learning the weather was now the most serious undertaking possibly ever attempted by humankind, channeled through my small autistic body. I forced my parents to sit through grueling sessions of cloud flash cards, getting ever more angry when they’d inevitably be distracted or want to do something else. You’re not paying attention, I would tell them.
Eventually, rejected, I learned to keep the weather to myself. But because of the weather, I was never bored. The sky was there and I could read it. Dappled altocumulus clouds meant that conditions would change. Wispy cirrostratus clouds were more common in winter and meant the weather would remain stable due to high pressure. I would spend summers in the car, waiting for my mother to emerge from making her bank deposits or water bill payments, or what have you, watching the cumulus clouds dot the sky in their little puffs—desperate to see them, through the power of convection, inflate and consolidate into something more defined, sharp, cauliflower-like in crispness, something tantalizingly menacing. Something to fear.
People get into the weather, I think, the same way they get into airplane crashes or mushroom hunting. Ninety-nine percent of the time, airplanes and mushrooms and the weather are mundane, and occasionally nuisances. But when they turn deadly, the result is spectacular and humbling.
Within me were two conflicting impulses: a prize pupil’s regimented need to adhere to all safety rules, to protect myself and my family from those forces whose dangers I had dutifully learned better than anyone, and also the urge to peek through my grubby fingers and witness the effects of something life-alteringly powerful. The clear way to resolve the tension between these needs was to become a Skywarn storm spotter.
I learned about Skywarn by accident, through digging in the severe weather sections of the National Weather Service website, a favorite hobby of mine. The Skywarn program is a network of volunteers, trained and governed by the NWS. An aspiring storm spotter takes a series of classes, at the end of which they become qualified to make verified storm reports to the federal government. There was, fortunately for me, no minimum age limit. I signed up for a class online. In the month or so before it began, I could pursue a head start through NOAA’s JetStream program, a series of artless white-and-blue PowerPoints and quizzes for teacher and citizen-scientist perusal. The dad-Asics tennis shoes of learning materials.
Nearly 18 years later, the JetStream lessons are still right where I found them, on the NOAA website. Comfortingly, they look the same. In the early years of this century, finding what you needed or wanted to see on NOAA.gov was a pathway of discovery—trial and error, pulling up the tabs on a children’s book and seeing what’s behind the cardboard. This is a way of navigating the internet that is lost to us, bred out with a eugenic fervor by consultants and web designers who are unable to understand the charm of clicking a link and finding something completely unexpected, but ultimately fascinating.
Even now, the National Weather Service site is a set of nested time capsules of web design. The homepage and the most accessible parts, like the pages for the nation’s various local weather offices, were overhauled in 2007, brightening up the appearance from the deep blues and ungraceful Arial typeface the agency used in the early aughts. The proportions are built for boxier computer screens than today’s. But when you click through to the deeper parts of the website that make up the meat of the weather—specifically the Storm Prediction Center—even that antique 2007 update falls away, so it feels as though one has hacked into the depths of a government agency.
One page in particular, for Mesoscale Analysis, which describes the day’s various potentialities for severe weather, appears so obscure, so technical, that accessing it as a child brought a sense of pure transgressive bliss. Even without diving into the dark-web part of the NWS website, when you click through a local weather office’s storm warnings, you will find they, too, are in the old blues and yellows, still typed in monospace. Their prose is enchantingly telegraph-like, with a special message for storm spotters at the end. Spotter assistance is not anticipated at this time. These messages were my personal Little Orphan Annie decoder pin.
There was almost no one in the small community center auditorium. Just my dad, me, a few paramedics and firefighters, an Eagle Scout candidate, and a husband and wife who were interested in Discovery Channel documentaries about tornadoes. (Amateurs, I thought.) It was October of 2005, and in the still-quaint brickmaking town of Sanford, North Carolina, it was raining. The meteorologist tasked with teaching this motley crew about the weather was a sandy-haired man of middling height, whose face betrayed a true scientist’s quietly beaming excitement about their subject. I don’t recall his name but he had a soft voice.
The class was two hours long. Lots of slides. The most important ones were about distinguishing scuds, dangling cloud remnants, from the funnel clouds spawned by tornadoes. Scuds, improperly distinguished, were the cause of many irritating false reports. A tornado needs rotation, the meteorologist said, and this rotation is very concentrated within the thunderhead itself. A mesocyclone, I chimed in. Hearing the correct terminology from me surprised and delighted him.
A few months later, after the end of the advanced Skywarn class, the meteorologist and I engaged in what was perhaps the most fulfilling conversation to be had between two people—a ten-year-old child who suffered from panic attacks and a grown man, an expert in a deeply complex science—about the weather. He gave me his email address. My pupils dilated at the @noaa.gov, though I wasn’t sure what I could do with it except thank him for the class, which I completed with flying colors. In the end, this exchange was merely one of those memorable kindnesses bestowed upon me by adults who perhaps could see themselves in certain lonely children.
Once I graduated from Skywarn, it became a game of waiting for the weather to do something I could report. This was, for a child, agonizing. My parents got me a cheap weather station for Christmas, my father climbing up on the roof to attach the anemometer, then running its long cable along the downspout and into my bedroom, where I monitored the station on what was my dad’s old clunky Windows XP work computer. I submitted data that way to databases, the little weather station terminal giving me, in blocky, digital-clock-esque text, data about what was going on right outside my door.
Many times the following summer, once the barometric pressure dropped below 30, I’d rush out of the house and stand in the yard to see if the sky had changed, the dense Southern humidity causing a sheen of sweat to appear on my upper lip in no time. If thunderstorms were predicted for the evening, the afternoons would be spent between just me and the sky, facing one another, trying to communicate our respective secrets. This is a strange variety of unrequited love, the love between weather watcher and weather.
As a child your life has no real scale. You can seemingly survive any disaster because there is not much to lose except a set of plastic horses, or a prized copy of Microsoft Encarta, or a weather radio shrieking off and relaying events in its crackling robotic male tone—or your parents, who you believe in the back of your mind could never possibly die. Back then, I knew nothing about climate change, which now keeps me ostrich-in-the-sand (I am ashamed to say) with regards to the headlines made by the weather, and of the apocalyptic potentiality to come.
My childhood longing had abstracted this danger, and in my love, I wanted to see the true face of that which I loved—to see what was always hiding beneath the surface of polite clouds and immutable jet streams, to see the sky at its most base and cathartic, to listen to the howl of something that could utterly destroy you, to long for a certain kind of curious annihilation, something that would finally redeem all that fear. A sad fact of growing up is that when you are an adult, the weather-love is not as intense. Fear is justified every day in the news. Storms are something your landlord mutters about beneath his breath. The polite skies are enough for you. You’ve become something that can be destroyed.
It was Tuesday, I remember, because I had a violin lesson that day. We were driving home from Walmart, frozen pizza and Edy’s ice cream melting in the trunk. The sky had turned gray and queasy, quietly threatening. My eyes were glued to it through the minivan window. I could see mammatus clouds, named after breasts, dangling in clusters—an omen of severe weather. The evening grew artificially dark, and the wind lashed out in bursts, as though insulted. When we arrived home, we scurried meekly into the house.
Memorable storms in our lives produce colors and combinations of tones we will never see again. These exist outside the vocabulary of appearances. The best we can do is grasp for straws with words like, “ashy” or “saturated.” Or in this case, “sickly taupe.” It was a real howler of a storm, loud and lugubrious, followed by spells of relinquishment, the wind pausing to contemplate its own destructive capacity. But to me, the certified Skywarn volunteer, it was disappointing. Nothing severe was happening, just another unremarkable thunderstorm. Until the hail began to fall in little pings and shatters. Hail, real hail.
I was agog. I ignored all the rules about windows and storms and clambered to the sill, practically jumping up and down, as though this were the greatest thing I’d ever experienced. It fell fast and hard, an unnatural, white, oversized sleet, which, compared to other precipitation, appeared uncontrollably clumsy as it landed, projectile-like, on the warm ground where it began to melt. This troubled me. I needed to get to it before it disappeared.
Hail was certainly an excuse to call the NWS Spotter hotline. Fortunately for everyone, the hailstones were too small to damage anything. My dad’s beat-up Isuzu would be alright. After the storm ended, I pocketed some loose change from a jar for size comparison and a marker-stained washable ruler for more precise figures, along with my mother’s digital camera in case I was asked to supply photographic evidence. In reality, the photos, long since lost, were for my own gratification.
Notebook in hand, I ran out to the side yard, not far from that injured lightning-struck tree, where I made my observations with clinical precision, grateful to the sky for the opportunity. I couldn’t resist holding the hail in my hand, marveling at its pebble-smooth, icy coolness, watching it grow slick with wet until it disappeared just as quickly as it came. It amazed me that something so severe, with such potential for damage, was also, to the touch, so fragile.
Back in the house, hands trembling, I called the hotline, double-checking the landline screen after each digit. Someone answered. I reported my findings with brisk, ever-practiced accuracy. The next day, after school, I refreshed the Storm Prediction Center’s Storm Reports page, looking for that little green dot over Carthage. When I saw it, I held my breath and clicked through to read the report. The little monospace text said:
hail, dime-sized. Confirmed spotter report.
Kate Wagner is a critic, journalist, and poet, and the proprietor of McMansion Hell. She is currently trying to convince her landlord to let her affix an anemometer to her front porch.