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Science And Nature

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

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

    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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