Resisting the Devil in Barlow

July 5, 2008

Note: I wrote this column 13 years ago to the day. I drove by the same field yesterday, and thought I ought to put it on this blogsite. Enjoy.

If I had been paying more attention to my driving, I would have missed it.

A dust devil, a big one, kicking up a fuss in a freshly harvested corn field.

When I was a kid, I used think they were baby tornadoes. A favorite game was to run into them, to see what they’d do. The really little ones would break up, as though I had killed them. Maybe I had. Now and then one would be big enough to get me off balance and I’d fall. Fair enough, I suppose.

As I got a little older, I played with the idea that they might be, after all, some sort of supernatural entity. One could almost believe it, seeing one darting around the pitcher’s mound on the playground at school, a funnel of dust 50 feet high, tossing leaves and scrap paper high in the air.

Science tells us they are really only spirally rotating high velocity winds that rarely last more than 15 minutes and hardly ever rotate faster than 50 mph. They occur during times when the ground heats up quickly with a cooler air mass lying over it. The dust is really incidental, and one can travel over a debris-free area and be essentially invisible. Call them stealth devils.

Science also tells us there is evidence of dust devils on Mars, and on Triton, one of the moons of Neptune. The ones on Triton are estimated to be more than six miles in height, with tails extending horizontally for more than 60 miles.

I saw this local one just after I had made a left turn onto the Barlow Road. It danced along, throwing dust, small clods of dirt, and dried corn leaves all over the place, traveling the length of the field at a pace a little slower than I drove along the road. I pulled onto the shoulder, stopped the engine, and walked to the side of the field to watch.

The devil slowed and stopped, about 100 feet away, dancing back and forth over the same area. I could hear the rustle of the leaves, and the small sound of dirt clods bumping along the rough ground. I looked at my watch. I wasn’t going to make the staff meeting. The devil wiggled a little, teasing me. I dare you, it seemed to say.

I checked my watch again. The devil tossed a piece of white paper, a page from a newspaper, I think, high in the sky. I climbed back into my van and drove away. The devil swayed in the middle of the corn field, wearing a crown of dust and leaves.

The staff meeting started late, so I was on time. Would have been, in fact, even if I had yielded to temptation and run through the devil, to see if I could knock him down.

After the meeting, the editor asked me if there was anything new in my neck of the woods.

I almost told him there was a devil dancing in a field in Barlow, but thought better of it.

Besides, he’d want to know if I had taken photos and had gotten comments from the neighbors.

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