Rainbows, Particle Accelerators, and Windshields: a short drive from Batavia to Manooka, IL

My uncle stared out the windshield driving 20 MPH. Outside a million pounds of rain poured on us. We couldn’t see the car in front of us, only it’s red brake lights blinking on and off. In less than five minutes the rain would stop, the sun would come out, and we would resume normal driving speed. In the mean time, my uncle struggled to keep driving and not rear-end the car in front of us. A minute ago it was sunny and we were talking about Fermi Lab, which used to be the largest particle accelerator in the world. Used to. Two years ago, Europe built one nearly three times its size. I was asking him what would happen to all the scientists at Fermi Lab, now that had been made obsolete. Then it started to rain. Hard. All day it was like that, raining on and off, in huge waves that clouded the sky and then all but disappeared.

“No” said my uncle “Fermi Lab’s not completely obsolete. But they will have to let some scientists go.”
“That’s a shame” I said.
“Not really” said my uncle “I mean, some scientists aren’t really that important. In fact, they’re useless. They spend their entire careers watching a few rays of light coming from one star a million of light years away. What’s the point?” he asked.
I didn’t say anything. He looked at me and asked a second time, “What’s the point?”
“Oh! You’re asking me?” I said “I don’t know…”
Then the rain came and my uncle had to focus on driving.

Five minutes later it stopped, the sun came out, and we started talking again.
“Thanks for driving me out here” I said.
“Really, it’s no problem” said my uncle.
“But it’s unnecessary. I shouldn’t have forgotten my phone.”

Earlier that day we (my cousins and I) were at my uncle’s. He lives in Batavia, IL. Batavia isn’t that interesting- just another place where Chicagoland meets rural Illinois- except for the fact that Fermi Lab, the (former) largest particle accelerator in the world, is located there. I had been in my cousin’s car and taken my phone out of my pocket and left it there because I was paranoid that it would send out radiation and give me testicular cancer. Funny, because beneath our feet were radioactive explosions on a subatomic level… anyway, my cousin left with his truck and my phone in it, driving about an hour away. I had to take the train back to Chicago that night, and instead of having my cousin ship the phone to me, my uncle said he’d drive me to my cousin’s to retrieve my phone. That’s why I felt guilty. But my uncle really didn’t mind.

“I was at a party” said my uncle “and everyone was on their cell phone. One woman was showing another woman pictures of her daughter. One guy was on his phone with work, another his daughter. I was the only one who left my phone at home, and I was the only one not having a good time”.
“What I hate” I told him “are the woman who take their babies on a walk in strollers, but don’t even pay any attention to the babies. Giving their babies none of that crucial one-on-one face-to-face time that is so crucial to the baby’s development, because they’re on their damned cell phones the whole time.”
My uncle nodded in agreement.
“Worse than that” I continued “are the people who walk their dogs while on their cell phones. Somehow it’s worse, even though it’s a dog instead of a human baby. Because the dog looks up wanting to know where it should go. It looks up still believing that its master is in fact a master. But they’re not. While the owner texts they slow down, taking shorter steps, less frequent steps, until they come to a complete standstill. And it’s completely unconscious! They didn’t even decide to stop walking. The dog shuffles its feet nervously, then the person looks up as if surprised to find themselves outside, and continues walking.”
My uncle was about to say something but it begins to rain again. Hard.

Two million pounds of rain come down and we have to drive 10 MPH. The car in front of us is dangerously invisible and the windshield on my uncle’s truck sounds like its being attacked with nailguns. He’s crouched over the steering wheel and I’m still trying to come up with an answer to his question- What’s the point? What’s the point of spending your entire career studying something useless? After about five minutes the rain stops and things become clear again.

The surroundings are familiar. Its not exactly where I grew up, but close. There’s a lot of corn and it’s flat. Its part rural part suburban. I start to think about the suburbs I grew up in. They used to be farm land. I took it for granted, at the time, that the suburbs came into being in real time. Cornfields and creeks were swept away for neatly organized subdivisions that forgot the local lore, or rather, never knew or cared.

My uncle fixes windshields for a living. I asked him about it.
“Some people think its odd” he said “when they see a fifty year old guy like me coming to fix their windshield. Work a twenty year old should do. But I’ve been doing it for thirty years.”
“You’re good at it” I said.
“Yeah but I miss working for a big company” he said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I used to be the guy who would get a call that such-and-such windshield is broken in such-and-such town. Then I would find a guy who lived in the proximity and send him out there to do the job. It was challenging. Involved a lot of mental work. Now…”
He trailed off.
“What do you do now?” I asked him.
“Now I’m one of those independent contractors. I get calls.”

Another titanic wave of rain came, sinking our conversation as my uncle strangled the steering wheel like it was a string of rosary beads praying he wouldn’t careen off the road into a ditch or telephone pole. My eyes were on the water drops flying off the windshield wondering if they recognized themselves in the glass for a brief second before splitting like an atom crashing in a particle accelerator. That same second, a train left Chicago on its way to Aurora. In two hours I would take the same train back to Chicago, after sitting in the Metra parking lot for 30 minutes chatting with my uncle who stayed even though he didn’t have to, telling me a few of his craziest windshield-fixing stories that usually began with “And then I called my wife to say I loved her, and went into the alley…”

The rain subsided, again, and every drop of rain on every stalk of fallow corn reproduced the sun’s glory in magnificent splendor. We pulled up to my cousin’s house, calling him (on my uncle’s cell phone, of course) to let him know we had arrived. He ran out with my cell-phone, I rolled down my window, he handed me the cell phone, said Hi, and then a rogue rain cloud dumped a torrent on us and my cousin ran back into his garage soaked after only three short steps. I rolled up my window, cell phone in hand.

We started our drive back after that short encounter. All that for a dinky phone. Then, to the east, a terrific rainbow appeared. Rainbows are cliché, but in the flesh they are really quite something. They make primitives who worship gods and fairies perfectly understood. This one was a double-rainbow, and each color was sharply drawn. Both my uncle and I were in awe.

Then my uncle said “I know the light goes through the water like a prism. That’s how you get the color. But why is it an arch?”
I didn’t say anything.
He looked at me and asked again “Why is it an arch?”
“Oh! You’re asking me?” I said “I don’t know…”
My uncle looked disappointed.
“But I bet the fellow who spent his whole life answering that question, was considered pretty useless in his time.”

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