Night Sky Julian, Ca., December 2012, looking north.
I was standing beside my grandparents’ open grave.
The occasion was the burial of my grandmother, Hazel, in a cemetery plot she would share with her predeceased husband, Kemp.
It was a nasty winter day in St. Louis, Mo. The day before a storm dropped about eight inches of wet snow, covering ice and slush already on the ground. It was snow heavy enough to crack off tree limbs and bring down power lines. It was sticky snow. An icy layer several inches thick would stay on car roofs as people drove.
Now it was warming slightly. The cold remained, but ground fog was forming. The air was absolutely still.
With me graveside at the Lake Charles Park Cemetery on St. Charles Rock Road were my aunt Jean, my two cousins, Kate and Julie and their father Randy, my aunt’s ex-husband. Despite the bad weather we were determined to have some kind of burial service since my grandmother Hazel was a very devout Catholic.
Although the ground was frozen the cemetery workers used a backhoe to dig open the grave, lift the lid off the vault and lower in my grandmother’s coffin down on top of my grandfather Kemp’s.
The cemetery workers, knowing we wanted to do a graveside service had us on standby due to the weather. The workers called saying they opened the grave. It was time to make the 30-minute trek from my aunt’s house to the cemetery.
It had been uncertain whether any kind of burial service would take place at all due to both an act of God – the weather – and to Catholic entropy. The five of us were the only mourners who could make it. We were about to conduct what would be a very private and somewhat makeshift graveside service and last blessing for a most devout Catholic woman who spent much of her life volunteering for the church.
This is where Sister Mary Margaret came in. She was the other person present at graveside. She was only one of us that could deliver a real Catholic blessing.
In her early 60s, she was a real nun wearing a real habit and a real attitude. A mostly positive attitude, I should hasten to add, but nonetheless a no-nonsense attitude reminiscent of Jack Webb as Detective Sgt. Joe Friday in the 1960s TV show Dragnet. She was here to do the Lord’s business.
We were extremely lucky and privileged to have Sister there.
A couple of days prior, the young priest fresh from seminary that was assigned to what had been my grandmother’s parish, Ascension, had simply disappeared. He left behind some dirty clothes and two cats that needed feeding. He had been Sister’s third priest in a year. The parish would close soon and the real estate sold to a Baptist church.
The gravesite itself is part of a gentle upward slope. It overlooks a pond about 100 feet away. The pond is home to couple dozen ducks. The pond was frozen over except for a six-foot circle of water in the middle. Most of the swans huddled around the opening. A handful of the big birds stood on the bank along the edge of shore closest to the grave.
Sister Mary Margret said her prayers for the deceased, the five of us lapsed Catholics fumbling along with her.
With a sudden movement Sister whips out a holy water squirt gun from under her coat! Embossed with a crucifix, it was a translucent bottle resembling a dishwashing liquid container.
As she said the Last Rites she shot the holy water into the grave.
At the instant Sister Mary Margaret fired the holy water into the open grave the ducks flapped their wings, stretched their necks and as one began a hideous honking howl.
The six of us had come to the cemetery in four cars, which were parked on the access road about 20 feet from where we stood. Each of the cars arrived minutes, earlier rooftop snow packs intact.
At the same moment the waterfowl flapped and howled, the snow packs on each of the car roofs suddenly and simultaneously flew off as if someone had taken a giant stick knocking it off with one horizontal stroke. There had been no sudden gust of wind. There was no breeze at all.
Sister Mary Margaret looked over at the cars roofs, at the birds then us. She turned back to the grave and finished up.
Astonishment. A bit creeped out, a little freaked out. Just plain strange. I think that was what we all felt. It was odd enough that I was glad there were multiple witnesses to what happened and we all experienced the same things at the same time.
Were we getting some kind of message from the deceased that set off the ducks and brushed away the snow? Was it just a strange coincidence given undeserved significance because of the situation and our states of mind?
How did the snow come off the car roofs like that when there was no wind? And how is it that the snow came off all the roofs all at the exact same time? Were demons sent to flight by the holy water?
Throughout history waterfowl – usually swans and geese –had mystical significance for numerous cultures. Were the ducks somehow reacting to a message or some kind of energy?
It started to sleet. We tossed some white flowers we’d brought along into the crypt. We thanked Sister, who refused a donation. I took some pictures with a cheap disposable camera I had, this being before cellphones also took pictures.
Then we went somewhere warm.
Greetings from the intersection of Satanas and Del Diablo streets – Satan and The Devil streets – here on the edge of America.
I woke this morning mouth parched with dried out nose spurting red snerts. It is February 11, 2016, on Satanas St. in San Diego, California; the temperature at 13:23 is 82 degrees F., 28 degrees C., and rising with 10 percent humidity.
We are now in fourth consecutive day of such weather. At least another week of the same is predicted. Even for San Diego, which claims to have a “perfect” climate, this is unseasonably warm weather is an unusually long-lived iteration of a familiar weather pattern.
Welcome to Santa Ana winds – the anti-thunderstorm.
Strong northeasterly winds, high temperatures and extremely low humidity are Santa Ana hallmarks. Southern Californians refer to this weather condition as “a Santa Ana” as in “we’re having a Santa Ana.”
The National Weather Service defines Santa Ana winds as “strong downslope winds that blow through the mountain passes in southern California.” Santa Anas are a particular breed of wind – a katabatic wind. In Greek katabatic means “to flow downhill,” which defines and describes the movement of Santa Ana winds.
Santa Ana winds are common during the Southern California winter, although they can develop year round.
A regional weather phenomenon, Santa Ana winds are born in cool, dry high-pressure air masses in the Great Basin and upper Mojave Desert. Low pressure systems off the California coast pull wind in a clockwise spiral southward down the eastern Sierra Nevada into Southern California.
As low pressure offshore pulls the airmass west through the mountain passes to the lower coastal elevations, it is heated adiabatically, warming as it descends by approximately 5 °F (3 °C) per 1,000 feet (300 m). The relative humidity of the air – already dried by upper atmosphere subsidence and orographic lift before reaching the Great Basin – plummets, frequently dipping below 10 percent.
Temperatures are often higher at the beaches than in the deserts during a Santa Ana.
And then there’s the wind part. At the same time the air is heating while squeezing through the mountain passes wind speeds sometimes dramatically accelerate, reaching gale force and beyond.
Santa Anas are infamous for fanning wildfires. Santa Ana-driven wildfires burned 721,791 acres (2,920.98 km) in two weeks during October 2003. These same winds have contributed to the October 2007 California wildfires that burned over 500,000 acres (2,000 km). For these reasons, Santa Ana winds are sometimes called “devil winds” across Southern California.
Which brings us to question why these occasionally nasty blustery episodes are called Santa Ana winds.
According to the always-accurate Wikipedia no one really knows why this hot, dry weather phenomenon is called a “Santa Ana.”
A more reputable researcher – Ralph Shaffer of California State University, Pomona – found a Times story published on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 1882 reffering to a reference to the “Santa Ana” wind of the season had taken place on Sunday, October, 15, 1882.
Robert Fovell, professor of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles, found the first published commercial reference to “Santa Ana winds” in a real estate advertisement published in the The Los Angeles Times on Sept. 7, 1886.
In a January 2008 article, Fovell wrote that the Times published a rant in 1893 by an Orange County resident about the “the misnaming of the winds which blow at times over almost all portions of Southern California, and which, unfortunately, in some sections of the southern portion of the State are erroneously called Santa Ana winds.”
The name, the writer insists, leads “nine out of every ten persons in the East” to conclude that the Santa Ana wind is “peculiar only to the immediate vicinity surrounding and contiguous to the city of Santa Ana.”
These winds are “an exceedingly unpleasant feature, especially in the fall before the rains have laid the dust.”
The writer recognizes that the winds “take the name of Santa Ana by reason of their passage through the Santa Ana mountain canyon, which is shaped very much like a large funnel” but insists it is “not a Santa Ana wind any more than it is a Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Riverside or San Diego wind”. “The name,” the writer insists, is “a gross injustice” and “should no longer be used.”
A second Times article mentioning “Santa Anas” appeared in a Feb. 15, 1911, story about duck hunting, according to Fovell.
Orange County boosters apparently started a misinformation campaign of sorts in an attempt to rename the winds Santana and/or claim the Santa Ana name is a corruption of Santana, according to a May 7, 1967, Times story by Bob Gettemy.
Other theories that the winds are named for a Catholic saints’ day, (St. Anne, in this case) or for the “dust storms kicked up” by Mexican general Antonio López de Santa Anna’s cavalry or that name came from a Native American word for “devil wind” that the Spanish turned into satanas and that had mutated into Santa Ana over the years have all been discredited.
Whatever the name, archeological evidence show brush fires driven by high winds have been and aided by low humidity have played a role in the ecosystem in Southern California for a minimum of 5,000 years.
 Masters, Nathan (October 25, 2012). “SoCal’s Devil Winds: The Santa Anas in Historical Photos and Literature”. www.kcet.org. KCET. Retrieved May 3,2012.