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Poem: ‘My Father Flies into a Hurricane’

He’s read about these trips: to enter the gyre’s

racket of wind and rain, the crew harness

themselves in place. Between them and death,

two pilots’ strength—no parachutes; ejecting

futile in winds like these. He’s wanted to feel

how frail humans are against the force

of atmosphere, to feel its energy,

a bow to what he’s studied all these years:

his, the fifth American doctorate

in meteorology. The War made the field:

so many forecasts crucial to success in invasions

or bombing raids. He judged jet stream effects,

then returned, afterwards, to equations—physics

of air and water, the way they interact—

but he’s wanted to go inside the living fact.

The Center called him once the storm had blown

past St. Lucia, Haiti, Jamaica, its eye

sliding between Cuba and the Yucatán.

Towards the eye wall, the storm grows wild—

winds strongest, noise loudest, no turning

around. He wonders why he’s left the ground

as the plane pulls, jerks, falls and climbs

in the hurricane’s judder and thrash. Updraft

(pressed hard against his seat) and down

(dropping many feet abruptly; his stomach

turning). Stowed gear rattles at the latches.

Updraft (harder, longer) and down (harness

cuts into his shoulders as he’s thrown about).

He wants out; he wishes he hadn’t asked.

And just as he thinks he can’t stand more,

they’re through the wall, which rises behind,

a cliff of cloud, steeper than a stone canyon

and deeper. They turn in the light, sun overhead

in the calm, open space inside the eye,

then spiral down to look for a sailboat reported

lost. No way to see a thing so small

in such high waves. He’s surprised how tiny the plane’s

whirring sounds after the din in transit.

He thinks of how, on the ground, birds sing

in this brief reprieve. But here he can see the edge:

the plane must turn into the hurricane

again, cross the wall, cross into

disturbance, only now they know:

this one’s big. They’ve got air pressure

readings lower than any they’ve seen.

A category five, they reckon, and strengthening:

winds hitting 190 miles per hour.

They cut through the wall, adrenaline high.

No escape. Only the wind’s unholy

engine, its sharp shifts in all directions.

So long as the pilots’ combined strength can keep

the plane level and on course (they fight for control),

so long as the plane holds together (it cracks

and creaks), so long, he thinks, as his nerve holds …

But unlike the first half of this flight, when chaos

deepened the further they went, now however

wild the wind, they know it lessens; the battering

eases. They cross into sun: below them, glints

on the ocean’s surface. But since they’ve mapped the winds,

crossed the eye wall, over and back, they know

more. Which saps pleasure in rediscovered

calm. He finds his body’s damp—shirt soaked

and stinking; he finds standing again an effort.

On his wall he’s hung the storm’s huge spiral

and the date: August 7, 1980.

From space, the satellite registered its shape—

almost fetal, outsized head around

an eye, wisps of arms as if a sonogram

had gathered this “Allen” before landfall,

his massive fetch, the sum of possible destructions;

the given: thrum of wind and roiling waters

and the taken, 269 souls.

Fifth then among Atlantic hurricanes

on record, that’s the flight he asked to join.

And why, I wonder, do I imagine him now?

Perhaps I fancy a kind of bliss at the core

of disorder—a blue-sky temporary respite:

assurance that all this trouble will blow over.

How then can we account for ourselves, my father

and I, then and now, as we cut across asphalt

to head home through tangles of evening traffic?

As if nothing has happened.

This article was originally published with the title “My Father Flies into a Hurricane” in Scientific American 327, 2, 24 (August 2022)

doi: 10.1038/scientificamerican0822-24


    Fionna M. D. Samuels is a 2022 AAAS Mass Media Fellow at Scientific American. She’s pursuing a Ph.D. in chemistry at Colorado State University. Follow her on Twitter @Fairy__Hedgehog

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