The rehearsal dinner was over and the storm had done its damage — stripping cornfields and beanfields and shredding every single flower and shrub in the lush beds the parents of the bride had tended all summer.
It covered the ground in ice. It blanketed the farm in Platte County where Natalie German grew up with leaves and blossoms and sticks.
A bridesmaid took a photo and came up with a hashtag as they scooped up the muck: #Hailmarry.
“Good old Catholic education right there,” said German, 31, a newly married woman with a hail of a story to tell about her wedding weekend.
A weekend that included a Friday night freak storm that didn’t stop the Nebraska-raised scientist and a Rhode Island-raised music teacher named Arthur Thovmasian from saying “We Do” on July 28 at the Catholic church in tiny Tarnov, or celebrating afterward with 225 friends and loved ones at the family farm.
In the end, it wasn’t that hail — nickel-sized pellets that piled up like snowdrifts — that made the wedding so memorable.
It was what happened after, said Christine Korth Reha, the Snapchatting bridesmaid.
“People just started showing up to help. Friends and relatives, people who weren’t even invited to the wedding. It made me want to cry.”
* * *
Natalie met Arthur at a high school track near Fenway Park.
She was training for the San Francisco Marathon, part of a group raising money for leukemia and lymphoma. Arthur wasn’t fundraising, but he knew some of the other runners, so he ran along.
They were both in graduate school on their way to Ph.Ds. He was at Boston University; she was at Harvard.
She’d graduated from St. Francis in Humphrey, a town of 800, and moved east for college; Arthur grew up a city boy in Rhode Island.
She noticed him that first night, but they didn’t talk, and then he went away to Austria for the summer to play music.
By the time he came back to Boston and back to the track, a few of the runners were dropping out.
And then a few more.
“Pretty soon, we were the only two who came,” Natalie said last week.
They’ve run five marathons together in the past 10 years. Arthur proposed on a trip to the islands off Portugal. He’s a high school music teacher and band director. Natalie consults with biotech companies on drug treatments.
They considered having their wedding in Boston.
“But it meant more to have it back home,” Natalie said. “I was excited for his family to see Nebraska.”
It took some doing to convince her parents to host the reception on the farm. The weather could be tricky in late July, they said. What if it’s too hot? What about all the work getting ready while the crops needed tending?
But the farm had been in Natalie’s family for generations. Her dad, Allen, grew up there, her grandfather and his father before him, all the way back to the 1800s.
So her dad and uncle got to work building an outdoor bar out of old wood and tin. Arthur helped.
Then her dad and her mom, Cheryl, set to work on the flower beds.
“They were absolutely beautiful,” said Christine, the bridesmaid. “Every flower you could imagine and giant bushes, shrubs in full bloom, every color.”
They ordered a big tent and rented tables and chairs and a dance floor. A fancy port-a-potty with a real floor.
Natalie came home to help a week before the wedding.
“Everything was pretty much perfect already,” she said. “But we swept out the barns. Any piece of litter within a two-mile radius, we picked up.”
And that’s how the farm looked — prettier than a portrait — when the wedding party left for the rehearsal dinner at a bed-and-breakfast 10 miles away that Friday night.
The storm blew up quickly. Clouds and lightning in the distance. Over by the farm.
Allen watched the radar on his phone, a small but mighty cell with a pink center. He texted a neighbor and got the news and headed home.
Soon everyone was heading to the German farm, south and east of Humphrey, worried about what they'd find.
As they got closer, they found themselves in a strange white fog. Peering out their windows they saw cornstalks without leaves and soybeans stripped to the stalk.
They turned up the lane to the big two-story farmstead and saw trees without leaves, flower beds without flowers.
“When we drove into the farm everyone was in shock,” Natalie said. “It looked like the middle of winter."
* * *
Allen German doesn’t remember anyone asking questions that night.
They just found shovels and opened pickup beds and started to scoop. Relatives who had been spending the evening in nearby towns converged on the farm.
“Forty different cousins and aunts and uncles and our neighbor and his kids and all these people just showing up,” Natalie said.
She lent out tennis shoes and flip flops. The power was out so they hooked up a generator.
They worked until 1 a.m.
At one point, early in the chaos of it all, Natalie remembers her mom saying: We can’t have a wedding here.
And answering back: We will have a wedding here.
As midnight neared, Christine pulled out her phone and took a photo of the soon-to-be-married couple, cool and collected in the aftermath of the storm.
She posted it on Snapchat with a hashtag.
“I kept saying this is going to be a great story down the road.”
* * *
The sun was shining Saturday morning.
Natalie woke up early. Her bridesmaids arrived to have their hair fixed and their makeup done.
Outside, pickups and cars pulled into the yard.
The crew from the night before had returned. They were joined by relatives who hadn’t made it the night before because the storm had shattered their windshields and they had their own messes to clean up.
Even their wedding planner from Lincoln pitched in.
Together, they wiped mud from tables and swept floors clean. Raked ice and twigs from the manicured grass, 27 pickup loads by the time they were all done.
“At one point, I looked out and saw people putting hail in a front-end loader,” Natalie said. “It was a friend whose dad had cancer.”
Flowers started showing up, too.
Bouquets from gardens and potted plants from flower shops. Big vases of hydrangeas to take the place of the blooms that were striped from the shrubs surrounding the house.
“They bought out the local nurseries and put fresh flowers in pots where the gardens used to be,” Christine said.
Natalie’s mom had cried seeing all the beauty gone. Months of work creating a perfect backdrop to her daughter’s wedding day.
But the tent held up and the tables and chairs and the dance floor were all in one piece, even if the siding was cracked on the house and a window busted by the hail.
The bar the men had labored over still stood, too, and the old library table that belonged to Natalie’s grandparents held the guest book. Heart-shaped tree rings from the maternal homestead in Newman Grove served as sentimental wooden centerpieces.
The reception was beautiful, Cheryl German said. Like a big family reunion. Like a community barn raising the night before, the beauty of everyone pulling together.
“No one got hurt," she said. "It all worked out.”
They lost most of their crop. But they witnessed something special that Friday night.
“People just pitched in without us even asking," Allen German said. "They were making jokes and staying positive. I don’t think I heard one cuss word all night.”
* * *
Natalie and Arthur are back in Boston.
School starts at the end of August and Arthur will be back in the classroom.
They have their wedding photos already. The two of them posed in a Platte County farmyard — green grass coated with white. Winter in summer.
They look happy.
They look back at that weekend, at the words they wrote, read by the priest that sunny Saturday: It is so easy to look at the world and think the sky is falling. But there is so much compassion, love, patience and care, if you manage to stop focusing on the bad and start looking for and working for the good.
The couple flew to Thailand in late July and spent most of their honeymoon in Bali, Natalie says.
At the end of their first full day there, they ate a seafood supper outdoors on the beach.
The #Hailmarry couple felt the ground start to move. It kept moving, 10 seconds, 15 seconds. They heard someone say the word tsunami.
“We stayed for a little bit longer and finished our meal,” Natalie said. “Then we felt a second tremor and we said, ‘OK, we’re getting out of here.’”