Rune Rofke - Glenn Emery

Taking Athens by Storm

July 1980
Athens, Ohio

It took me longer than I expected to hitch back to Athens. Sometime mid-morning I got dropped off by a park with a reservoir on the east end of town. I walked the rest of the way, picking up loose change on the side of the road. By the time I hit downtown, I was 54 cents richer.

It was already oppressively hot. I walked around for a bit, hoping to find food. I went over to Ohio University and located the cafeteria, but it was pretty clear I wasn’t going to eat there without a student ID. I got it in my mind to look for a job, washing dishes or making pizzas or something real simple and basic that wouldn’t take up all of my time. So I looked all through downtown for help wanted signs but never saw any.

I wasn’t discouraged though. I’d finally made it to Athens. I sincerely believed someone in this town was waiting for me. All I had to do was find them. I felt certain I would meet them within a day or two. I wasn’t worried, just a little hungry.

During my exploration of the town I came to the Hocking River. There was a broad bike path and flat expanses of green lawns, but everything was pretty much deserted. It was too hot to be active. I followed the bike path upstream, where the river made a giant U around the southern end of Athens. As I walked along I saw a group of large gothic buildings across the river, up on a hill. Even in the daylight they seemed gloomy and menacing. As I got closer, the sight became even more ominous and evil.

It was obviously an aging state institution of some kind, and my instinct told me it was a mental hospital. It just had that vibe. I can’t really explain. All I knew is I did not want to go up there. Without knowing anything about Athens, I could feel those buildings harbored a history of unspeakable pain and suffering. If Satan had an address in this town, that was it.

I got to Richland Avenue. I could go left across the bridge, which would lead right up to Satan’s house, or I could go right toward downtown. Without hesitation I turned right and put Satan behind me.

The long circular walk tired me out and I spent several hours lying on the campus green. My legs ached and the fatigue seemed to press me into the warm earth. I laid there dozing, half expecting God to send whomever it was I was supposed to meet directly to me. Of course I knew it wouldn’t be that easy, but I wouldn’t have complained if it had happened that way.

It didn’t. By the time the sun went down I was no further along in my mission than I was when I hit town this morning. I still had had nothing to eat, and now I needed to find someplace to sleep. It was so warm out that I decided to sleep under the stars. I also wanted to claim the town spiritually, so I looked for the highest point. It appeared to be a hill just to the east, so I walked down Mill Street toward the river.

When I got to the bike path, I looked across the river at what appeared to be a small derelict structure on the opposite bank. It was bleak and uninviting. The roof was gone and trees and vegetation were growing all through it. I studied the contours of the land, and it seemed to me that there had been a bridge here at one time, but it probably washed away in a flood. In any case, I couldn’t get across here.

To my left was a large bridge, several hundred yards downstream. I headed for it and pretty soon was on the other side and climbing a steep grassy hill in the dusk. I got to the top and sat down. Athens at twilight stretched out before me. All the city lights and the dwindling remnants of daylight reminded me exactly of van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” Nothing had really happened yet, but everything felt right.

I prayed to claim the city for God, and almost immediately had a vague mental image of a group of people, gathered in a circle. It seemed to me they were praying too. I chalked it up to wishful thinking on my part and closed my eyes to go to sleep.

If I had been watching the sky more closely, I would have noticed a dark line on the horizon a few hours earlier. By the time it was on top of me, it was almost too late.

Lightning hit the hillside just behind me where I slept, jolting me awake with a monstrous explosion that shook the ground. The bolt must have been perilously close. Ozone filled my nostrils. The sky over Athens was arcing with electricity. I could see the rain moving rapidly toward me. I had to find shelter immediately before I was drenched. The wind was howling and when lightning lit up the clouds I could see them spinning. I fully expected a tornado to reach down at any moment and crush me like an angry finger.

Climbing the hill at dusk had been difficult. Racing down in the dark was suicidal. It was full of small holes and hillocks that could easily snap an ankle. But I had no time to be careful. It was already starting to hail, biting my face and arms. The hair on my neck stood up with static. I fully expected at any moment to know the truth of a million volts. I scrambled to the bottom in quick little hops as fast as I dared and prayed I didn’t get struck by lightning or break a leg.

The bridge overpass was too far away. I’d be soaked before I got there. The only shelter was down by the river, the derelict, roofless, overgrown hulk I had seen from the other side. I ran toward it just as giant drops of rain began to slap the ground all around me.

The building offered almost no protection, so I hugged the side as best I could, but the rain was finding me. It was too dark to see, and in hindsight I wished I had packed a small flashlight. I could only wait for lightning, and then use the moment of illumination to try to seek a way out of the storm. Somehow I managed to find a spot that offered modest protection. I hunkered down. The storm grew in intensity. It was now a full-blown tempest.

I thought it would blow over quickly. It did not. The onslaught went on and on and on. Rain was coming down in hard, blowing sheets, and the roar of the wind was awful. All I could do was squat there in the darkness. I was scared shitless. There was little doubt in my mind I was going to die. Either lightning would kill me or a tornado. I had never been in a storm this severe before, and never so exposed.

The swirling rain kept hitting me. I was starting to get wet and the wind was getting cooler. For the first time, I was starting to feel cold. If lightning or tornado didn’t get me, it looked like hypothermia might. I didn’t think to bring a jacket because it seemed unnecessary in July, which now proved to be another stupid decision. I pulled out my little towel and wrapped it around my head like a scarf. It wasn’t much, but it would help conserve body heat. I had learned that at Outward Bound when I was 18.

The rain forced me deeper inside the disemboweled concrete shell. I was afraid to guess what hazards might be in there: broken glass, jagged metal, bent rebar, holes in the floor. The lightning was still going crazy, but I could hardly make out anything. So I just inched my way forward as best as I could. I was terrified I was going to slice open a foot or hand or stumble and impale myself on something long and sharp and lethal.

I eased my sneaker forward -- and nothing. I had come to a ledge, and in the dark I had no idea how far down it went. I felt for a rock and pushed it over the edge. It hit a moment later on what sounded like a concrete floor. Thank God it wasn’t water. I carefully eased myself over in the dark, terrified my feet would never feel the floor. But they did and now I was inside.

Because there was no roof, the rain was pouring in from all directions. I felt along the wall and miraculously there was a recess. In the darkness, I made out what I thought was a small metal staircase and I carefully ducked underneath. Just as I did, a small animal scurried past my legs. As if I wasn’t scared enough already, being startled by some creature I couldn’t see was the last thing I needed. But I couldn’t dwell on it. I had to get out of the rain. In a few more minutes my clothes would be wet and I’d have serious problems.

I crawled into the tiny space and hunched there in the darkness for hours. I listened as the rain drummed on the steel steps over my head, forming large gurgling puddles in the dark all around me. I was cold and miserable and hungry and scared, but at least I was relatively dry, and right now that was absolutely the best I could hope for. My legs cramped as I squatted, but there was nothing I could do about it.

It was easily the longest night of my life. The rain continued for a couple hours, but as the intensity subsided, so did my fear. I realized I wasn’t going to die in this lonely spot after all. I just had to stay calm and wait for morning.

Eventually the rain stopped completely. The air was much cooler now and I was very chilly, but at least I had stayed dry, so it wasn’t as bad as it might have been. As soon as it was light enough to see, I came out of my hole and for the first time in several hours I actually stood up. It was a beautiful pain to stretch my legs after hugging my knees for so long.

The interior of my sanctuary was every bit as dangerous and forbidding in the dim light as I had imagined when it was in total darkness. The place looked like a bomb had gone off. There were sharp jagged edges everywhere I could see. One bad step and I could have easily bled to death here on the banks of the Hocking River and my body probably wouldn’t be found for days, maybe weeks. It was a horribly depressing thought to consider what could have happened.

I wanted very much to lie down, but I saw only one possible option. There was a short piece of rusted conveyor track, the kind with the large steel rollers, on the other side of the room. The room wasn’t large, but the journey from where I was to where it was had plenty of perils in the half light. I slowly picked my way across a floor littered with roofing boards studded with rusty nails and broken glass sticking up like icicles. It took a long time because I had to make very sure I could see where I put my foot with each step and pray I didn’t lose my balance and topple onto something deadly.

The steel conveyor track was only about four feet long, so I wouldn’t be able to stretch out. But at least it was off the wet floor. I put down my tiny towel and used my nylon bag for a pillow. The rollers were cold and hard and dug into my spine, but it was all I had.

The rest of the night I stared up at the stars where a roof had once been, wishing this godforsaken night would be over.

As soon as it was light enough, I escaped my riverside tomb and ran to the Stimson Avenue bridge. As I crossed back into town, I glanced at the river, which was now thick and brown and moving quickly. It had come up a couple feet during the night and was almost up to the floor of my forlorn little hovel. I had nearly gotten flooded out and didn’t know it. Mentally I added drowning to the list of things that could have killed me during the night.

I made a beeline for the campus. 

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