Twister: Tornado Stories

I’ve never been to Kansas. No skinny legs have ever shriveled up beneath my house. Okay, okay, we do have our share of little people here in the township, but that is a story for another time.

But, I would just like to declare to those in charge ENOUGH WITH THE TORNADOES!

A long long time ago, I was a twenty year old Pennsylvania girl transplanted to an army base a little north of Nashville, Tennessee. I had a brand new baby, two weeks old, and a pilot husband on active duty with the 101st Airborne. He was never home, especially during bad weather, which I was to learn over my three year stay there, occurred every afternoon from April through October.

I got used to the sky turning greenish black in seconds. After you have been warned tornadoes are on the ground about five hundred times, sometimes three or four times a day, you kind of get complacent. Get a “I’m gonna wait to panic til I see the actual funnel cloud” attitude. Until the day you do.

I was in my living room on an afternoon late in May. It was hot. It was humid. My baby son was asleep naked in his playpen. I remember his precious little head looked like a slightly damp egg. I didn’t turn on the tv or radio, or play any music for fear of waking him up. We were still getting to know each other. Later I would learn he actually slept better with background noise.

Saying SUDDENLY, forming the thought and the word, does not express how quickly the sky outside the huge windows turned blackish green. No rain one second, the next – hail and rain started driving directly into the panes. I could see my funnel cloud, finally. It was moving slowly, methodically through the valley, I guessed, about a mile away.

Without thinking, I went to the hallway closet and got out two motorcycle helmets – the kind with the full face? I grabbed my sleeping baby boy, and shoved him into the helmets. Miraculously, there was a roll of duct tape on the coffee table. I used it to strap the helmet together around him. This takes longer to tell than it actually took to do. I sat back down on the steps (WHY do homes in tornado alley never have basements?) and watched as the tornado moved towards us in a freakishly random matter. It reminded me of a huge toddler left to wander at will. Very soon, I couldn’t even watch it, because it was so dark, so loud and the rain and debris made it impossible.

Maybe three minutes after I first saw the cloud, the pointy end of it must have been at the bottom of the hill just below my windows. And it bounced.

Bounced up and traveled directly over my house. The wind howled with an agony, everything was vibrating, water started coming in through the cracks around the doors and windows. Yes, it sounded like being under a train. No other way to describe it.

My front door blew open against the hinges. With a commonness of purpose, all the front windows blew out at the same explosive moment. And then it was over, and all was silent.

Of course, the sirens started soon after and because we were on an army base, big green trucks started showing up, unloading people here to help. I didn’t have to do a thing, except undo the duct tape and hold my screaming baby boy.

Fast forward thirty five years.

It’s an afternoon in June. I am sitting in the living room of the house I share with my baby boy, now full grown, with two sons of his own. The darkness of the sky out the windows to the south catch my eye. Hmmm. That’s strange. I get up to look. The view out the windows to the northwest is a curtain of rain and wind, moving horizontally across Rt.82. My trashcans fly past the windows. My grandsons are in their part of the house, which I have to reach by going out on my kitchen porch. At the same moment I get to their door, my eldest grandson opens it and says, “Mom called. There is a tornado on the way.” I said, “Get your dog and get into the basement.” I went back in my house, snapped leashes on my dogs, dragged them out into the howling wind and into the kids’ half of the house (because of the construction of the addition, you can’t get to the basement of either house from inside my house any more). 

Youngest grandson is pushing their English Bulldog Bob down the basement steps. Apparently dogs do not have a special knowledge of impending danger, because at this moment, all four wanted to stop and sniff butts. Down the basement we all went, the boys and I, and four dogs, climbed over piles of tools and supplies for the construction, and stood at the sliding glass door watching branches and random bits of trash blow past. It occurs to all of us, after a very loud CRACK that it might not be a good idea to be here in front of all the glass, and we get under the steps.

Five or six minutes of the loudest thunder I have heard. Five or six minutes of mysterious crashes and bangs. Here I am, under the steps this time, with the babies of the baby I put in the helmet. My grandsons love that story, the thought of their big strong father inside helmets, duct taped together, to ride out the storm. You would think I was scared. You would assume that I would be anxious about protecting them. You would be wrong.

What I learned under the steps is that my grandsons are calm, collected and capable during scary times. At 13 and 17, they are mature and even funny when stressed. There was just a feeling of waiting it out, that nothing bad could happen to us. I would rather be in a tornado with them then anyone else I can think of. The dogs were so relaxed, they all laid down, taking the opportunity for a quick nap.

While waiting for the storm to pass, we chatted about how we knew a storm was coming – I told them the trashcans flew past the windows. They told me their mother called to tell them she watched a tractor trailer blown over in the parking lot of her business. They went around and unplugged everything, closed all the windows. And then, went looking for Nana. That would be me.

As suddenly as it came, the storm was gone. We had no electricity, of course. Eldest grandson went across the lawn and checked on the animals in the barn. The horses were already out in the pasture grazing like nothing had happened. The goats don’t like being wet, so they were hanging out inside. The chickens were all under the coop, not in it, which we thought strange. Well, except for one Barred Rock, who had ridden it out on the fence behind the coop. We imagined her there, wings unfurled, beak clenched, facing into the fray. She got a new name: Fearsome Bitch!

The three of us sat on the porch in the rockers and enjoyed the breeze. It was about ten degrees cooler! My daughter-in-law arrived home from work, and we surveyed the damage: broken dining room window, huge branch out of the crab apple tree. It was a little like that game you play, where you try to figure out what is different between two pictures. Was this here, was that broken before? A pillow from my bed we find in the side yard. There is a mysterious pile of slate shards that wasn’t there before. You can see where the wind ripped the ridge cap off the metal roof, and left it flapping. Upstairs my bed is soaked – I didn’t have time to close the windows. There are piles of leaves in the hallway. A bedroom window broken. Some shutters hanging by their hinges. All in all, not too bad for a 150 year old house.

We pile in the car and go on the destruction tour, waving at our neighbors who are out on their lawns or controlling traffic in orange vests. We lose count of the number of trees down, or the miles of cable hanging from broken poles. On our cellphones, we call everyone we know and compare stories. We drive over to check on my daughter-in-law’s parents who live about two miles away. They have some trees down, no power and some war stories of their own.

Over and over we say, “Nothing that can’t be fixed.” It’s a feeling of a bullet whizzing by your head. And if this hadn’t happened, how exactly would I know, so completely, that my grandsons are tough as nails? And knowing that is a gift to me. The kids are alright.

  • Published on Jul 27, 2010
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