Rain on a tin roof was a childhood lullabye

Published 6:46 pm Tuesday, June 14, 2022

The bedroom my brother and I shared while growing up was tiny and generally uncomfortable. With no upstairs heat, it was cold in the winter and, this being long before the days when most country folk even thought of air conditioning, it was hot in the summer. Very hot, as I recall.

In fact, every upstairs farmhouse bedroom I ever occupied during overnight visits to aunts, uncles and friends was hot in the summer. It was just an accepted fact.

Our room did have windows on three sides and that was its saving grace. If any air was stirring, it would usually find its way into the bedroom. On those nights when there was not a breath of air — and there seemed to be many — we often went downstairs and spread a quilt on the hall floor, which also had cross ventilation and was generally cooler simply because heat rises. My sister, whose bedroom was also upstairs, would join us in the hall and there the three of us slept, enjoying the relative cool of the first floor.

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Outside our bedroom windows was a crimped tin roof covering a wrap-around porch on two sides and the one-story wing of the house on the other. Whenever it rained, we would have to close one or two windows, depending on the wind direction, but one of the three was almost always open, and the sound of rain on that tin roof lulled us to sleep many a night.

If you’ve never heard rain hitting a tin roof, you’ve missed one of life’s great pleasures. If it rains hard enough, and the roof is uninsulated, the sound can actually become annoying, but a gentle rain hitting tin is one of life’s great auditory experiences.

I’ve kept track of rain my entire life, having grown accustomed to doing so as a child. It was so important to our existence on a small farm that we seemed to watch the sky constantly — and hopefully.

There were no radar apps back then, and only minimal weather reports. We subscribed to The Virginian-Pilot, and it carried forecasts, but they were pretty basic, as all forecasting was back then.

Once our family had purchased a television, though, we had Joe Foulkes. He was a veteran World War II Navy meteorologist who took weather forecasting quite seriously. For years, he was known as Hampton Roads’ weatherman. Mr. Foulkes relied on visuals to tell us what to expect. His earliest television graphics consisted of weather maps on which he would draw cold fronts, low pressure systems, high pressure systems and wind direction arrows as he described what we could expect over the next couple of days.

Joe Foulkes was a nightly companion for many Hampton Roads residents, working first at WTAR and then, in later years, at WVEC. With a resonant, gravelly voice that was immediately recognizable, he would walk the region through an evening forecast. When he was done, he would sign off with a Navy salute, while pocketing his marker pen.

The thing I most remember about Joe Foulkes, though, was that he was unemotional. A line of thunderstorms converging on Hampton Roads was treated like — well, like a line of thunderstorms. He recommended that we respect electric storms and not venture out in them. But I never recall the kind of hype that accompanies even modest weather events these days.

A line of thunderstorms today is treated much like the End Times. We’re all gonna die. The radar projections on local television and the storm alerts we receive over our cellphones are indeed helpful, but they’re also enough to frighten the bravest among us.

In fact, however, what often happens is that we treat warnings much like the cry of “wolf.” The warnings are so numerous and dire that we begin to ignore them until one day, there really is a wolf at the door. It’s that way with hurricanes. We begin to think we’re immune until we’re not.

We didn’t have that problem back in the days of Joe Foulkes. If he told us to be worried, then we were worried, and it was usually justified.

All of which strays quite a distance from rain on a tin roof, a memory which carries no fear, only warm nights of gentle rest.


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is j.branchedwards@gmail.com.