It isn’t really the time of year when people in South Dakota think of storm cellars, but my brother posted a Ted Kooser poem on his social media account and one of my nieces posted a question about rattlesnakes in the cellar my folks had on the farm.
One thing led to another, and first thing I knew, I was pleasantly lost in thoughts about the good old days and that one time my dad actually did kill a rattler on the bottom landing of the steps that led to the storm cellar. The family never was in imminent danger as we watched encounter, but it did leave me unsettled as we rode out a wicked rain and wind storm in the half-darkness of the cellar itself. I kept hearing things slithering around, you know? Things seemed to move under the benches that rested against the dirt walls and among the Mason jars of beets and beans and peas that filled the home-made shelves in the center of the room.
During storms, I’d troop to the cellar with my siblings, all of us following our dad with the big flashlight. My mother rode drag, you might say, hurrying through the rising wind and the first rain drops and watching for stragglers in our little herd. The cellar was dug into a mound of earth 12 or 15 yards from the back door of the house. A flimsy wooden entryway protected the dozen or so stone steps that led to a thick door at the bottom landing.
We’d huddle inside the entryway, feeling the edge of the wind and smelling the lightning’s ozone, while Dad went down the steps alone. He’d have a rake or hoe or some such tool in one hand and he’d sweep the flashlight across each step before he moved on down. Once he’d reached the bottom safely and unlatched the big door, we’d descend in a pack and take our spots on the benches, leaning against the cool earth of the cellar walls.
What I remember most about those storm nights is the way the light from the candles flickered across the glass jars, creating a sort of poor boy’s aurora borealis, you might say. The center shelves on which the jars rested were fashioned to stabilize the roof of the cellar. Railroad ties black with creosote formed the four corners of the shelving.
I only remember that one time when we found a rattlesnake on the steps, but that was enough to make me nervous for many future storms. It’s like, I only recall one time when I was stacking hay and a buck load arrived with an angry rattler in it, but I saw snakes in every buck load on every stack after that for weeks. That’s how it was for a while in the storm cellar. We had to go there. There was no way our mom was going to ride out a bad storm above ground. She trusted our dad to make sure our safe place was safe, and so did my siblings and I. It was a fine thing – an underappreciated thing, really – to be young and completely trusting of your parents.
Oh, yes, that poem my brother posted. Kooser lives in Nebraska and writes poetry full of insight but crafted in a way that makes you feel he’s simply chatting with you as you read his stuff. The piece in question is titled “Winter Morning Walks.’’ It begins, “In the yard of the empty Walker place the storm cellar roof has fallen in, and the cut stone steps that once led down to safety now lead to a wall of sod and rubble.’’
Kooser mentions “damp wooden shelves jeweled with jars of preserves,’’ and says, “But in memory, the safe places never fall into themselves.’’
Well, last time I visited our old farm site, it sure looked as if it had fallen into itself. I kind of like to think that never happens to safe places. And I enjoyed the reverie, even if this really isn’t the time of year when people in South Dakota think of storm cellars.