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www.zidao.com Apprentice harmonizer, for sheer fun. Journeywoman writer, for work and pleasure. Starting point was Iowa, current stopping point on this journey is Switzerland, with frequent pauses around the world to watch and listen to the crowd, and occasionally make comments.

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Tulips 2006 for Gran ellengwallace's Tulips 2006 for Gran photoset

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Hail, said the chief

About the photos: we had a great hail storm Monday evening, one of a series of evening storms over Lake Geneva this summer. The air was filled with tension, the heat of the afternoon suddenly had a whiff of cool about it and then, abruptly, thick stripes of rain fell: hail or nearly-hail. Strangely, the whole time it fell we could see blue sky fighting with black clouds. Suddenly, it stopped and the dusk sky took on strange shades of pink then it began again, turning the 18th century artillery storage tower odd shade of greeny yellow.


"Hail," said the chief happily, "is a wonderful thing." The chief was my boss and the hail he referred to fell occasionally, mainly on the plain (prairie) in Iowa. I had a summer job working for National Farmer's Union (NFU) Insurance Company in Iowa. The hail crop division. I was 19 and my mind was on boys and parties and finding a way to leave home. I had come home from college for the summer.

To be honest, it was one of the two most boring jobs I have ever had, and I have dabbled at much in life. The other was for Touche-Ross Accounting in Milwaukee, proofreading tax insurance forms. Most people's taxes are boring but every now and again I got to see how much the rich earned and how little tax they paid, something everyone should see.

The job at NFU also had one redeeming feature, if you didn't count the excellent bakery doughnuts we had at 10:00 every morning. To keep myself awake while flies buzzed and the overhead fan whirled, I kept a running list of the unusual names in the files. Sometimes it was the way names came together. We had Folger Hogg and Holger Fogg as clients. We had Ima Hogg and Iva Hogg. We also had (forgive me, sir) I.P. Rainwater. These people kept me awake while I filed endless bits of information about fields across the American Midwest. They were typed, with carbon paper between the onion skin paper copies in pink, apple green, yellow and sky blue. The colors of the Midwest on a happy summer day when storms didn't threaten.

Our job was to rate crop hail insurance, take in claims and - I imagine, for this was something I never saw - do something about claims. The great thing about hail insurance, as the chief liked to point out, was that every farmer feared hail damage and needed the insurance while frankly, hail didn't fall that often. Personally, I found it easier to get excited about the doughnuts, which also came with pink, green, and blue frosting. I don't think they did yellow at that bakery.

We had an enormous map that covered one large wall, with three or four desks in front of it. I loved that map. It showed all the counties in Iowa, Illinois and Nebraska, the Dakotas and Minnesota, with all the county roads, which were laid out in a neat grid. Whenever hail struck someone put a thumbtack on the spot. The thumbtacks were color-coded depending on the size of the hail and I used to imagine the various members of the Hogg family and NFU agents running around as the hail fell, trying to measure the average ball.

Some corners of some counties got very crowded with thumbtacks. When I mentioned this to an old hand in the office she shook her head and grinned. "That's this year, honey. Next year, when they've all paid up and are running skeered, you won't see one itty bitty ball of hail! That's nature for you."

I might have found the job boring, but I did learn about the amount of damage hail can cause, and what it means in financial terms to a farming family, who sees weeks of work wiped out in minutes. Every time it hails, even in Switzerland, I think of those farmers and agents back there in Iowa, measuring hail balls. I think of the corn snuggling down in its ears, covered with corn silk, hoping for the best.

It hailed Monday around the edges of Lake Geneva, and I took a few pictures. The storm was wild but frankly, the hail was hardly up to a white pin on the wall map, never mind red or black for extreme hail. When it hails around Lake Geneva people worry about the dents in their cars, although grapegrowers worry about the wine for next season, with reason.

I thought about hail and realized I had forgotten whatever I once learned about it. Here is my refresher course.
History of crop insurance in the United States (did you know: started in 1880)
Biggest piece of hail recorded, from Kansas (.75kg/1.67 pounds) - check out the photo!
Duh, here is what it is.

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