Summer Squall

A beach day cut short

Photo courtesy of the author

In June of 1985, my older sister Karina’s eleventh birthday was spent at Newfound Lake, a pristine state park in New Hampshire. It was our favorite place to spend our summer days. Along with our family, a handful of my sister’s friends were also there to celebrate the occasion.

Following an exhaustive effort of doing underwater handstands with my brother Ben, I stood on the shore with a towel draped around my shoulders.

Burrowing my toes into the gray sand to feel the cool, velvety grains against my skin, I daydreamed about my own upcoming birthday. I would be turning eight and hoped to have a beach party just like my sister’s.

I watched the sunlight sparkle like gold glitter across the water’s rippling surface. Suddenly, I noticed a cluster of dark, threatening clouds gathered at the far end of the lake.

“Dad,” I called, “I think a storm is coming!”

My father glanced in the direction I was pointing.

“Oh, I think we’ll be okay,” he said, turning back to tend to the bountiful spread on the picnic table at the tree line.

The entire rest of the sky was cloudless and pale blue. Aside from that mysterious mass in the distance, all signs pointed to a normal day at the beach.

Despite my father’s reassurance, I became preoccupied with the unexpected weather phenomenon. Having recently learned in school about natural disasters, which terrified me, my gaze remained transfixed.

The clouds proceeded inland, and within minutes were directly overhead, blotting out all traces of blue sky. A gale of wind tore paper plates and plastic cups off our picnic table, sending them swirling around us and down the beach. All the other children in our group charged out of the lake to congregate near the table, screeching as they grabbed at towels and anything else threatening to fly away.

My parents moved quickly to pack everything up. Sandwiches, chips, soda, and the birthday cake — which we hadn’t even gotten to enjoy yet — were unceremoniously stuffed back into the cooler and grocery bags in which they’d arrived.

I ducked underneath the table, clutching my towel around me, my white-knuckled hands trembling against the terry cloth. Through the space between the tabletop and attached bench I could see that the lake had turned a dark gray. 

A tornado is coming, I thought. A big cone of wind is going to suck us all up and send us far away.

The tall trees lining the beach creaked as they swayed, their leaves rustling fiercely. Although I couldn’t make out words, I could hear shouting in the distance as other families also rushed to pack up and leave.

My father dashed to the parking lot and returned with our van, backing it right onto the beach. He jumped out and called to us kids to get inside, while he and my mother scrambled to pack our supplies into the back.

With every child accounted for, my parents closed up all the doors and we departed. There was one bench seat, at the back, where my younger siblings sat. The rest of us kids sat on the black, plastic floor, huddled around in damp bathing suits, wet hair hanging limply.

We all looked to the windshield when it started to hail. Balls of ice pummeled the roof of the van like tin cans being picked off by a BB gun.

Resting my chin on my knees, I wrapped my arms around my legs and looked quietly over at Karina. She wore a scowl on her downturned face, the bitter disappointment of a birthday ruined.

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