Tornadoes

When I was a very little kid, probably four or five, we were visiting my relatives out West, over a thousand miles away. These trips were nothing new to me; they happened all the time, meaning at least during the summers.

This particular summer I think we went to my Aunts, but I’m not sure. I do remember the trailer, the fields; the picnic table . . .

It was a sunny day; a blue one, and the parents and grownups were shuffling food from the inside of the trailer to the outside, putting it on the picnic table. I remember the grass seemed tall at the edge of the yard; there were a few trees – even more off in the distance. I don’t even know if I was able to talk real well – I think I could, but not with many words.

We were standing there waiting as the grownups brought out the plates and dishes, and I noticed – I think I may have been one of the first ones who noticed – a dark band across the sky. It grew darker, coming closer – over the back of the blue and white trailer (I’m pretty certain it was blue and white) – like a dark shroud being drawn over the sky; a solid dark-blue to charcoal gray line that extended from one horizon to the other. And then the wind started to pick up some.

Well even as a child I knew we wouldn’t be eating outside, no time soon. I don’t remember saying anything – just looking at that solid line as the wind began roaring and whipping. The grownups reversed their course, carrying the dishes back inside. We wouldn’t be eating a picnic that day; even I, as a young child, knew that you couldn’t eat out in the rain – and rain was coming; I could smell it in the wind.

I guess it was surprising, at least to the grownups, how quick that storm blew up. As a kid I didn’t know any better – everything was new (therefore normal) to me. The fact that this storm was blowing up in the middle of the day – the blowing wind – was exhilarating. I love the feel of the wind and I like watching tall grass blowing and whipping into the wind. The trees bowing and shaking their leaves. Now as a grownup I’ve gotten a bit more leery of the thing; bad windstorms keep me on edge until their winds have blown away. Not so much thunderstorms – those I can handle – but big winds frighten me, I reckon, at some deep level. And I reckon it’s because of what they did.

The grownups began rounding us up – everyone, young and old – and herding them into the trailer. This was no usual storm; no casual blow-by that just leaves everything wet like the morning sprinkle of dew. This was a real thunder-buster, a real ‘wind storm’ – complete with blowing leaves, falling limbs – and more.

After shutting us all inside, parents and friends alike, we waited on the wind. It grew and grew until it was howling so loud the grownups began to yell and shout at one another in order to be heard. I just wanted to go to the window and see what was happening outside – I would wander over towards it – lifting the curtain from time to time – as the trailer began rocking somewhat, and the grownups got alarmed. I suppose I felt a thrill of alarm at this time – but mostly I wanted to go outside – ride the wind on my ‘wings’ (I used to like holding my arms out in a strong wind, hoping it would come along and help me ‘lift off’.) But the grownups wouldn’t let me, and it grew hot and humid in that trailer as the storm swept on through.

Later on (the storm had passed) we all got in a car – a blue one, I suppose – I don’t really know, not too sure – and drove around on the plains. And everywhere we looked there was nothing – nothing around at all except these empty neighborhoods with boxes standing in them. I wondered about those boxes . . .

The streets – if they were ones – had almost disappeared. You could make out a grid of sorts among the wreckage, strewn constuction materials, and downed trees – just barely make out that it had been a neighborhood at one time. And here and there those mysterious ‘boxes’ stood – and inquiring children’s minds (meaning my own) really wanted to know.

“What are those things?” I asked, pointing. The plains seemed to stretch on forever to the distant late afternoon horizon – empty except for those things. I don’t know what it had looked like before, but I can imagine: a neighborhood sprung into being on those distant plains – only to disappear again before the force of the wind. Nature, it appears, was able to take things down to the ground – one of the first few discoveries of that kind I was to make in my child’s mind. Nature was nothing to be fooled around with.

“Those are the closets,” one of my relatives (I think it was my grandma) explained, pointing. “The people get in them when the tornadoes come – hauling mattresses inside where they hide until the winds are gone. The tornado’s gone.” And it struck me as strange: why should a thing as massive as a tornado apparently is (for I had never seen one) ignore those “little rooms” that were within the houses – while the houses were gone? What kept them there? What kept them from being swept away as well? I wanted to know but nobody could explain anything for my child’s benefit; I either didn’t understand their explanations, or they didn’t give them very good. It had something to do with the people being in those closets and those closets being in the middle of the homes – but so what? If the homes were gone shouldn’t the people in their closets be gone with them?

I don’t recall seeing any people walking around – these endless plains with their stark dark boxes (imagine a field filled with outhouses) – were abandoned, or so it appeared. I don’t know where the people had all gone – there were very few cars, and we were out in the country, or so it appeared. For all I know we had been surrounded by subdivisions – but if so, they were all gone. Blown away like the bits of life that had inhabited them.

From there on nothing catches my attention quite as quick with the weather as a hurricane or windstorm. I am always paying attention to the skies on a windy, storm ridden day – especially if it’s in the spring or fall, which is when most tornadoes come. I have stumbled across the damage in the woods because of some – the trees all twisted around in piles; a narrow path. The one which hit a distant Kroger while it was being built – it carved a nice notch through a cinderblock wall. You could see exactly the funnel’s form.

And then there’s the fact that just about everyone in my family has been touched by a tornado at one time or another. My aunts, my uncles, my grams and grandpas – all have lost something due to a tornado or two. I have heard their horror stories – especially from the one that hit Wichita Falls back in ’94 or so – an F4 or 5, it blew the town right away and affected their lives (and ours) forever after. And I haven’t forgotten the tales of another uncle, who sheltered in a culvert off a highway during another tornado; he was just driving along. He said he was glad that he got to the back of the tunnel, because when the tornado came it started hurling boards down the tunnel like it was a lumberyard – and those who were near the entrance got hurt; some of them killed by boards shooting through the entrance. I take that as a lesson learned.

Tornadoes . . . I find them fascinating, but I’ve learned too much about them to go chasing after some storm. I’d rather follow them, helping clean up the damage after – helping the survivors out of the ruins – because during a tornado you can’t do much good (something I learned as a small child in my childhood). All you can do is sit there and wait things out.

And when the wind blows loud and hard, and you begin to yell and shout . . .

It’s time to take cover, and time to run . . . because tornadoes aren’t very much fun.

And that’s saying enough.

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