Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Tornado Alley

We moved around a lot when I was a kid. Many of those places were tornado prone, but none more than Oklahoma. No one ever had to tell me a tornado was coming. I could feel it. To this day, I associate that feeling with dread. The sky would get a certain color and my stress induced asthma kicked in. I fought for every breath as the air grew dense and pressed down on me.

Then either the claxons would go off, or Pop would announce, "Everyone out to the car," and I knew a funnel cloud had been sighted. His hands would grip the steering wheel until his knuckles went white and he'd peer into the rear view mirror more than he'd look at the road as we headed for shelter.

We were lucky to live in a college town. The Student Union was built of red brick and the first story was underground. It was built to be a tornado shelter. When we got there, half the kids we knew from school would already be sitting on the white tile floor with their backs to the bricks. Some did homework, some played, some read. The adults stood in clusters and spoke quietly while sipping coffee. Late comers would come in with wind-whipped hair and tense faces. WOur groups scooted closer togehter to make room. Even though we were underground, if the claxons went off again, everyone would look up, as if we expected to see sky.

I never knew how word got out that the danger was past. Sometimes we'd only spend an hour at the University and then everyone would suddenly pick up their stuff and head for their cars. Some nights we used our coats and school books as pillows only to be shaken awake in the early morning hours.

The drive home always seemed to be in the dark. Usually it rained, or hailed. Sometimes, we passed destruction. Most of the time there was nothing to see. We'd hold our breaths the entire way home. No sounds. No fidgeting. Then we'd pull into the driveway and exhale great relief that our house, our block, our neighborhood still stood.

Back then, we didn't snicker like people do now when we saw mobile home parks ripped to shreds. It didn't occur to us that it was funny that kids we went to school with had no home left to go home to. We didn't realize that poor people somehow deserved that. Oh wait - I still don't.

Tornados always seemed to happen at night, but once, as the final bell for school rang and we swarmed the doors, our teachers suddenly pulled us back and told us to shelter in place. We could see it coming. A great column of twisting dust was headed right for the school, and for our mothers parked outside in their station wagons. Some kids broke free and ran for their mothers. The rest of us did as we were told. We shoved our desks into formation against an interior wall and climbed underneath, pulling the end ones down to seal off our little fortress. It was claustrophobic and the smell of dirty kids was overpowering. Maybe that was the scent of fear. My ears popped. We could hear glass shattering. Kids cried. So did my teacher. Then it passed, and we bolted for the doors to see if our mothers were still alive. It was the longest twenty minutes of my life.

I have a reasonable fear of what nature can do. I'm grateful now that I live in a place where tornados are rare. But they do happen. One touched down in Malibu a couple weeks ago, and even though that's miles away, I still felt that old dread creeping over my skin when they told people to seek shelter immediately. I couldn't even bear to look at the news on TV. I felt the same way when I heard about the tornados in Tennessee last night - that horrible feeling of helplessness while waiting for it to pass. My heart goes out to you if you were in the path.


Ashley Ladd said...

I'm scared to death of tornadoes. At least I was when I lived in Ohio and Nebraska. They're not as nasty or as many in South Florida - except during hurricanes and we get a few days warning at least.

Kathleen Bradean said...

I saw Xenia, Ohio a couple years after the one that ripped through that town. Two blocks wide and five blocks long of downtown were nothing but empty lots. That's the worst devastation I'd ever seen in a city until I saw the 9th Ward in New Orleans.