The devastating spring storms of last week have caused me to reflect on those times when I've been lucky in my life. The first product from that reflection was my writing this diary, A Tornado is Coming at YOU! What Should You Do?, which I urge each and every one of you to read if you haven't done so. It's loaded with information to help you make a plan and stay safe should you be caught in a severe storm or tornado.
The second product is this diary, one of my earliest memories, which I share with you today. So on this Earth Day, get yourself prepared for bad weather, then relax and read this terrifying tale of a twister. And stay safe, everybody.
I once read somewhere that most people have no conscious memories of their early childhood before the age of four or five. That might be true for some, but not for me. I have several distinct memories from my third year of life on this planet, and today I'm going to share one of the most vivid with you.
My paternal grandmother was the most important woman in my life. I spent most of my time as a child with her, and it was from her I learned many of the life lessons that I hold most dear. She taught me to garden and cook, she taught me to forage, she taught me how to raise animals humanely, how to take their lives humanely when the time came. And she let me know that as long as she was around there would always be someone in this world who would love and protect me. A good grandma was she.
When I was three years old, she and my grandfather lived in an old farmhouse in a beautiful valley surrounded by the lush, green hills that make up the transition between the flat prairies of northern Missouri and the Ozarks to the south. In front of that house ran a narrow road, a blacktop as they're called there, a paved lane with no lines for guidance. Going a couple of miles to the west, this road formed a T with another blacktop, which took you to two tiny towns, one on either end. A couple of miles to the east this road brought you to the banks of the Mississippi, where my grandpa and I could often be found in a dented john boat setting trotlines or baiting cane poles from the bank.
I don't recall much about the house itself. It was gray in color, matching the rock foundation it sat on. I remember it was two stories tall, but I only remember the first floor. There was the kitchen, where grandma cooked on a wood cookstove and made the best food I've ever tasted. I remember the front room, where there were rocking chairs and heavy couches, a big wooden radio and one of those new-fangled TeeVees. There were two bedrooms on that floor, one that my grandpa slept in and one that grandma slept in. The beds were made of cast iron, and I shared grandma's bed when I was there, which was most nights. The floors were wooden, the curtains in the big picture windows were hand-tatted lace that my grandma made. The house always smelled of fried chicken, biscuits and warm pie.
In the front yard was a huge oak tree where a tire swing hung, right in front of my grandma's bedroom window. There was an old barn to the left of the house where grandma's milk cow came for milking every morning and evening, and where sows gave birth to warm, sweet-smelling piglets with hard little bodies, tightly curled tails and tough little noses. They would squeal and wiggle when I picked them up but then settle in close as I held them, rooting in my armpits while making soft grunts. Behind the house were grandma's washtubs and clothesline. Beyond the clothesline and to the left was the chicken house where we gathered eggs every morning. To the right was the outhouse, a brand new one as I recall because my sister, 10 years older than me, had caught the old one on fire while burning the trash, resulting in a new one being hastily built. My sister was sort of an accidental pyromaniac, in that over the course of her childhood she managed to burn down three outhouses and a wheat field while burning the trash. You'd think they'd have caught on the first time, but apparently not. In between the chicken house and the outhouse was the cellar, a hole in the ground approximately 10ftx12ft with rock walls and ceiling and a dirt floor. The door into it was on the right side of the cellar at a very slight angle, nearly flat on the ground, the steps down into it were wooden, the roof covered with dirt and grass. The cellar had shelves on the back wall where grandma stored vegetables from the garden, and on the left wall was a bench. It was a good cellar in its day.
The memory in question began on a night pretty much like any other spring night. My dad and uncle had come in from the fields to eat supper, then gone back out to work the fields until dark. It looked like storms might be blowing in and they wanted to get as much planted as they could before it rained, then head home in opposite directions. After supper my grandma did the dishes, then sat in her rocker reading a book and listening to the radio. Grandpa was rendered profoundly deaf after contracting measles as a child, but he had these new fangled hearing aids which screeched and whistled at odd times. He didn't like the radio because it would cause a bout of screeching and whistling, so when grandma turned on the radio, grandpa turned off his hearing aids. As it grew dark we all headed to bed, grandpa taking off his work boots by the back door and setting his hearing aids on the bedside table next to his bed. Grandma and I put on our nightgowns and hopped into her bed, where she told me all manner of bedtime stories and quoted poetry to me until I was asleep. For several hours we slept, grandma snoring like a hibernating bear, me snuggled in her armpit, and grandpa in his room oblivious to everything around him in the darkness.
The tornado struck with no warning. There wasn't time to even consider going to the cellar. One minute I was blissfully warm and dry, sleeping the sleep of the innocent and the next minute there was a great crash and a tree on the bed. It was the tree from the front yard. The tire swing was no longer attached to it, but was laying on my feet. Shards of glass were strewn across the blankets. The tree had blown in through the window, taking out a good chunk of the wall. The fork of the tree had fallen in such a way as to be split on either side of the bed, with many branches covering us.
The noise was deafening. The tornado roared like a freight train, angry and persistent. Flashes of lightening produced thunder almost instantly, but you could barely hear it over the roar. The wind was fierce, wet and dirty. Grandma was screaming, "Andy! Andy!" for my grandpa, but he couldn't hear it. There was debris flying everywhere; grandma's pretty curtains, boards, shingles, big pieces of glass, leaves and branches, chunks of blacktop. Everything was swirling and spinning above and around us, but the tree seemed to protect us, a canopy of branches and leaves making a cocoon that deflected most of the fallout.
I should have been scared, but I wasn't. I knew grandma was scared, she kept screaming for grandpa and making this sort of humming sound, a tuneless song of terror. But I didn't feel afraid at all. I laid there watching the whirling debris, watching toys I'd played with in the front yard that day rise up and disappear in the darkness, watching grandma's lace curtains torn to tiny bits that swirled and whirled and then fell like snow through the canopy to land ever so gently on the bed. I was entranced, fascinated, I wanted to stand up and reach into the wind, feel it swirl around my hand, like when you stick your hand out of a car window when speeding down the highway. Something awesome was happening, and I wanted to touch it.
And just as quickly as it hit, it was gone. It bounced into the house and back across the road, twisting a few trees, uprooting a few others, tearing up patches of the blacktop as it spun back and forth across it, then disappearing into the dark clouds of the night sky as if it had never been there at all.
The rest is sort of sketchy. I remember my grandma holding me tight as she tried not to cry. Grandpa came running in after the fact, awakened by the change in pressure that hurt his ears but hearing nothing, climbing over the tree in his old-fashioned underwear that looked like a thin jumper, dragging me and grandma out and into the safety of the kitchen. I remember grandma had cuts on her arms from the flying glass but was otherwise okay. I didn't even have a scratch on me, not one scratch.
I heard the story recounted many times over the years from grandma and grandpa's perspective. The tornado had spun up from the Mississippi, taking an unusual course from east to west, and charged up the little valley, bouncing back and forth from hill to hill, then fading away. There was no damage to speak of except to some trees, the blacktop and to grandma's house. The house was shoved from the foundation at a cocked angle, and many neighbors and my dad and uncle came with their trackers and jacks and dragged it back onto the huge gray stones where it belonged. The tree had taken out the bedroom wall and part of the flooring above it and the wind had done some rearranging of the furniture, but the house was otherwise unscathed. And again, the neighbors were there to help effect repairs. In a matter of days it was all fixed and painted, looking as if nothing had happened at all except for the missing tree. Fifty years later that old house is still there, a family lives there now. Grandpa planted a new tree that spring to replace the old one, and now that tree guards the front of the house like an old soldier. Life goes on.
You'd think that such an occurrence would have made me afraid of storms, terrified of tornadoes. But it seems to have had the opposite effect. I love storms, I love to watch them roll in. I love to make myself as safe as possible and experience the awesome display of power that only Mother Nature provides. I'm fascinated by storms, tornadoes, hurricanes. I do dislike wind, though I take it as one of the things that must be tolerated to experience the other aspects that thrill and inform me.
What that tornado did do was give me a healthy respect for the power of Mother Nature and the wisdom to prepare myself for disaster should it strike. I try never to be unprepared when venturing out into Mother Nature's domain. When I headed south after Netroots Nation in Austin to ride out hurricane Dolly just over the bridge from South Padre Island, I educated myself on the possibilities of what was to come, sought out the locals as to what to expect and made preparations for what lay ahead. Being prepared allowed me to take part in a profound experience that has enriched my life and allowed me to learn anew the lessons of Mother Nature's awesome power from a perspective I'd never before experienced. She cares not what man does, our pitiful attempts to bring her to heel and to thwart her ways are fruitless.
In a game of chicken, Mother Nature always wins.