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Keeping the weather record
Swint has tracked rainfall, temp, going on 70 years

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

The record is in the feed store, hanging on the back of a post, in back of the counter.

It's dark brown, like the color of thick gravy, and has been there for 69 years, grease-pencil boxes marking the months, across, and the years, down. It's hanging there, unobtrusive, a ritualistic record of all the rain that's fallen on this town.

Willis Swint, a quiet man with a white mustache twisted up into handlebars, keeps this record every day. Each morning, he measures the precipitation and the checks the temperature. He does it at the same time, at 8 a.m., exactly, every day, like it's always been done. He calls it in to the National Weather Service, as he's been doing since he graduated from college, and as his father did before him.

Then, as regular as a priest in prayer, he marks the data down on the chart on the back of the wooden post.

"Dad started in 1940," said Swint, who owns Swint's Feed & Garden Supply. "I think it was June of 1940. They came along and asked him to. We were a rural county then ... I think I took it over in 1950. Something like that. I think it was 1950, when I got out of college."

Swint doesn't remember, now, if he volunteered to keep the ritual of the weather record, or if his father asked him to take on an extra chore, but he's been doing it so long now that it's part of the pattern of his day.

It's part of the pattern, and he knows the charted numbers and the pattern of the numbers. It's part of the way he knows this place.

The average rainfall he's recorded since 1941, has been 58.02 inches per year.

Last year, with the drought, we were 16.62 inches below normal, but in 1954 it was really dry, the year-end total was more than 25 inches below average, coming in at 27.01 inches of precipitation, he said. That was only six years after Swint's records show one of the wettest years.

"We had a lot of rain in '48," he said. "It rained a lot in October. And it was a wet year. The most rain we ever had was in the mid-70s, you see here?" -- he poked his finger halfway down the rainfall record scroll -- "You remember when we had that hurricane come through here and hover for so long? I think it was in 1994 we had that hurricane -- it was in July -- you could see the eye above us. That storm just kept going back and forth, between here and Douglasville or Carrollton, and it just kept emptying out."

The charts aren't just an abstract exercise in remembering, though. The rainfall Swint records is reported to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and all the farmers along all the rivers between Atlanta and the Gulf of Mexico use the data for planning purposes.

Swint, however, is not really concerned about how it's used. He cares that there is a use for his numbers, but for him, it seems to be more about the act of remembering and the work of keeping the record. Asked about the purpose of the numbers, he has the answer about the engineers and farmers, but he fades off when he talks about it, distracted by other, more interesting things.

"They use this," he said. "All this information goes into a database and they use it. They use it for a lot ... of ... things ... Now all this rain I report goes down to the gulf, but if I was to go over yonder, on the other side of the railroad tracks, all that rain goes the other way, down to the Atlantic."

So far this year, Swint has recorded 43.22 inches of rain, catching it in a plastic gauge behind the feed store on Main Street, measuring it with a black metal rod and recording it on the chart in the feed store.

He took the record down, Tuesday afternoon, holding his hand behind it to stabilize the two additions he's taped on. It's a pretty long chart, now, at least as long as his arm, and the end curls up just a little, between 1941 and the wet year of '48.

He added up the amounts, calculating, answering a question only he would ask, about the year's rainfall as compared to Thanksgivings past. He ran his finger along the rows and down the columns, touching generations of numbers, all recorded in regular morning observance.

He repeated the numbers, poking them into the store calculator and ripping off the unspooled receipt, another record and the answer he wanted.

"We're 8.8 below normal," he said. "Through today -- so if it doesn't rain anymore, that's where we're at."

When it does rain, Swint will measure it and write it down and he has spaces, already marked out in black boxes, open and waiting to record next year's rain and the year after that, too.

But even if it doesn't rain tomorrow or by the end of the year, Swint will record that, too, keeping up with the scroll on the post, marking the data down and faithfully keeping the record.