Storms and Communities and Politics

Yesterday, I was in Dayton, Ohio, meeting with several leaders of the Ohio Student Association (OSA). The Ohio Conference (OCAAUP) and our chapter at Wright State University have been supporting the group very enthusiastically. The OSA formed during the We Are Ohio campaign to repeal Senate Bill 5 as a mechanism for reaching voters 18-30. It has become a progressive advocacy group not only focusing on issues of particular interest to young voters, such as reducing student debt and maintaining adequate funding for public education at all levels, but also in demonstrating the linkages between those issues and others–such as the exploitation of adjunct faculty; attacks on academic freedom, tenure, and shared governance; administrative bloat; and the imposition of “right to work” to reduce the impact of organized labor.

The leaders of the OSA are all almost as young as the student activists whom they are recruiting and training, but they already have tremendous organizing skills. Moreover, the OSA is very much engaged in building connections between colleges and universities and the communities in which they are located. They are, in short, building broad progressive coalitions so that their impact can be felt at the ballot box. Our informal meeting yesterday was essentially about how the OSA, OCAAUP, and our chapter might more effectively coordinate our efforts, become even more mutually supportive, to achieve what seem to be very similar, if not identical, sets of goals.

I live about 80 miles from Dayton, and when I left the meeting to make the long drive home, the sidewalks were wet from a recent rain and the sky was uniformly a very dark gray. I drive about 10 miles north on I-675 to the interchange with I-70, about ten miles west on I-70 to the interchange with I-75, and then north on I-75 about 65 miles to my home.

I made it about five miles up I-675 before I felt that I had to pull off the road. It was raining so hard that the rain could not drain off the highway and was becoming deep enough that each car was further reducing visibility by sending up a heavy spray higher than its roof from each wheel. Worse, it began to hail. So I pulled in next to a tractor-trailer that was parked on the berm at the end of a long entrance ramp. This put me well off the road and seemed to block much of the hail.

It took more than a half-hour for the hail to stop and for the rain to start to let up enough that I started again up I-675. But by the time that I reached the interchange with I-70, it was raining so heavily again that I decided that I would instead go a little farther north and take US Route 40, the old “National Road,” that runs roughly parallel to I-70 east to west across central Ohio. I reasoned that if I had to maintain a speed of only 30-40 m.p.h., I would be able to see better where I and everyone else on the road was going.

Everything was fine until I got to Ohio Route 235, which on I-70 is the first exit past the interchange with I-675, about four miles farther west down the road. I was behind a large tanker truck, and it suddenly veered out into the oncoming rain. I thought that it might be avoiding a large puddle in our lane, but I quickly realized that a creek running perpendicular to the road had swollen to about four or five times its normal size, completing inundating not just the short bridge over it but several hundred feet of roadway on either side. The driver of tanker truck had veered into the oncoming lane because the water was coming in large swells over the guardrail on what would have been our side of the bridge. By the time that I got to the middle of the bridge, I was starting to panic. I could feel the rush of water pushing against the passenger side of my car, which was of course not nearly as heavy or as high off the road as the tanker truck was, and the tanker truck was itself producing swells of water that were hitting the front of my car at odd angles. I thought for certain that I was about to be swept off the bridge into what had become an actual torrent.

So, when I made it to the traffic light at Route 235 and it almost instantly changed to green, I was so relieved that I didn’t realize until it was too late that I was in fact driving into another torrent. Past the light, US 40 dips into a trough as it crosses a ditch. There were two vehicles on the up-slope of the trough, waiting for the light to change. The water rose so rapidly in the ditch that the second vehicle, a black van, never made it out. I just barely made it through in the other direction. In fact by the time that I drove another quarter mile down the road, only to find another stretch of the road underwater, and then turned around to head back the way that I had come, the black van was already half-submerged, with water up to its windows.

Along that stretch of road, there is almost nothing but farm fields and woods until the place where the road was underwater again. There, water was running furiously out of large farm fields north of the road and into a small subdivision on the south side of the road. At the edge of the torrent, a driver ahead of me had attempted to pull into a driveway to turn around but had gone a little too far and was stuck. At the end of that short driveway, the water was rising around a brick ranch home. It was up to the bottom of the picture window and two picnic tables in the front yard were entirely underwater except for the tabletops.

The one accessible building along the short stretch of road on which I was now trapped was a bowling alley. I pulled into its parking lot and watched the water rise around the black van until the driver, apparently a young guy, pulled himself rather gymnastically out of the vehicle and sat on the roof. By the time emergency services came to get him in a rubber raft, he was up to his knees in the water—that is the water had risen to within about six inches of the roof of the van.

After he was rescued, I went inside the bowling alley to use the restroom and then discovered that although no one was bowling, there was a small group of about a dozen other refugees from the storm. I learned that it was a good thing that I had not taken I-70 to I-75 because I-70 was under water where both the Mad River and then the Miami River typically flow under it. And a low spot on I-75 between Tipp City and Troy would remain underwater until sometime between midnight and dawn. It was still underwater when I was watching the 11:00 o’clock news, finally safe again at home.

It turned out that this intense storm had not even affected the entirety of the counties through which it had passed. But where it had rained, the rainfall totals were between 3.5 and 6 inches in 60-90 minutes.

Beyond the fact that this seems a good story to tell, as I spent several hours in the bowling alley, it reminded me of the many novels, stories, and plays that I have read in which people are thrust together by unexpected events, often related to the weather, and form temporary communities. In this period of suburban anonymity and digital connectivity, it still happens.

In the bowling alley, there was a young couple whose son was just a toddler, and all three of them seemed to be experiencing mood swings between thinking of it as an unexpected adventure and a very annoying waste of time. There was an older couple, who sat down to eat and seemed very determined to take it all in stride. There were two guys somewhat older than me—that is, in their mid to late 60s or 70s, who had lived in the area for a long time and kept trying to provide some sort of historical perspective, one of them very seriously and the other somewhat humorously. There was a guy who seemed about my age who lived in Toledo but was working in the Dayton area and had gotten to within just a half-mile from his local apartment. There was a guy in his 40s with another guy in his 20s, who I got the impression worked together and who seemed to be calling everyone they knew.

Everyone in the bowling alley, including the woman who managed the place, was very quickly almost amazingly at ease with each other. If it had somehow become necessary, I am fairly certain that we all would have helped each other reflexively and without any second thoughts about doing so.

I called my wife and then a friend, and then settled in, watching the water slowly start to recede and then briefly rise again as the fragmented tail end of the storm passed through and, for the most part, just listening to the voices that surrounded me.

And on the long, slow drive home, along country roads that were here and there still partially under water, I thought about the strange disjunction between our extremely divisive politics and our unthinking sense of community in those instances in which such a sense of community is most needed.

It is a rare political leader and a rare political movement that can largely eliminate that disjunction. And it may be an even rarer leader and movement that can foster a such sense of political community without turning it into a repressive ideology, a demand for conformity that is as alien to a sense of community as strident political partisanship is.



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