It was around 10pm, on June 5th, and Claire had been in bed for an hour or so. My hubby and I were exhausted from spending another day playing with my nephews, and we had settled into the comfiness of our friends’ entertainment room.
The local weather had taken over the airwaves, and a fierce rain storm was howling outside, the sky alive with dramatic displays of lightening.
Things were getting rather heated outside, and the weather department was hopping. There had been tornadoes spotted, and every show was being interrupted with continuous updates.
When we moved in 1999, I was happy to leave the tornadoes behind. In our Mountain Time Zone home, tornadoes are rare. Yes, they have been known to appear in this state, but if they do, it’s usually out on the plains and not near the foothills that we call home.
This is not the case in my childhood home.
I’ve lived through a tornado, and it pretty much scarred me for life. That sounds so dramatic, and maybe I’ll forget that night….eventually…but I doubt it. It was the year before I went into Kindergarten (1978 for those of you playing along at home), and it’s all as clear as though it happened yesterday.
Anytime I see Tornado Watches and Tornado Warnings flash on the screen, I feel a tightening in my chest. I find it hard to breathe.
I am one of the few people I know who can describe to you, in great detail the difference between a Tornado Watch and a Tornado Warning. They are not the same. One means that conditions are right for one to appear, and the other means one has been spotted. They are both serious, but the warnings make me tense.
I grew up on a farm, miles and miles away from any type of warning system. Our chimney would whistle, and if that happened, it was time to go the basement. Now.
So, the weather guy is blabbering on and on about these storms, and I’m creating an escape plan in my head. Claire is in the pack-n-play. Her sandals are clasped on the handles of my bag.
Sandals? Why sandals? After the tornado in 1978, there was so much broken glass throughout our house that my parents sat me and my two year old sister on kitchen chairs with the instructions of not to move. My sister remembers that vividly. You can imagine the severity if someone who was just two years old at the time still remembers it.
Anyway, back to the plan. I could put my purse in that bag, grab her and the bags and get to the safe room in a matter of seconds. I could put her sandals on in there. We’re already on the basement level, so that’s one less step. How much time will we have?
I’m probably being silly.
We probably won’t need an escape plan.
Maybe they’ll miss us.
10:29pm Central Time
The tornado siren starts blaring.
My worst fears are coming true. My hubby and I bolt for the guest room, and I grab Claire and my bags and head to the room, as planned. Our friends join us with their two sleepy girls and their dog.
In my head, it was 30 years ago, and I was the scared 4-yr old huddled in the basement fruit cellar.
The shaking of foot-thick concrete walls.
The clanking of my mom’s canning jars.
So worried about our dog Susie, an outside dog.
Would she be okay? Where would she go?
There had been no warning, the weather radio crackling “partly cloudy skies.”
My dad had heard the chimney whistling and determined that something wasn’t right, and we’d fled to the basement.
His instincts were correct and saved our lives.
The electricity goes out and we’re left in the dank fruit cellar in the dark. I can smell the dirt on the potatoes. This room has always kinda scared me, and now it’s the only safe place in the house.
Then I hear that sound.
That deafening, horrible, powerful sound.
From that day forward, I’ve always wondered what tornadoes sounded like before there were freight trains.
Years later, I sobbed through the movie Twister, my friends not sure I should see it in the theater. “I need to see it,” I told them. “I want to get rid of this fear.” It helped a little to cry. A little…but my fear is still here.
They got the sound in that movie dead on.
I will never forget it.
Susie was fine. Some of our neighbors weren’t. Their home was destroyed. Two of them lost their lives that day…a dad and his daughter. She was my age. My dad had been part of the National Guard, so he was one of the first people on the scene and helped with the bodies. I can’t even imagine. I get tears in my eyes just thinking about how hard that must have been for him. A little girl my age. A father like him. Not spared. The mother survived but spent her remaining years in a wheelchair.
Lives ripped apart in an instant.
Flash forward to now…
I’m the mother. I’m clutching my little girl as if her life depends on it, as if my life depends on it.
This room is too big. Something smaller would be safer. Right? Would it matter?
We haven’t lost power, so that’s good. Right? If the walls start shaking, where will I go? Where will I huddle with Claire? What’s on these huge shelves that could come crashing down on us if they give way. Nothing dangerous or heavy. I’m going under there. If the walls start shaking, I’m going under there. I don’t care if there are spiders.
We’re listening to the weather radio. They are taking calls from outside callers. Things are sounding pretty hairy out there. “And, now we go to Ed. Ed? You’re on the air. [dead silence] Well, folks, it seems as though we’ve lost Ed. Next caller…”
“Oh no!” I try to joke. “They’ve lost Ed! It must be serious!” I try to say with a laugh. Maybe levity will belie the fact that I’m crying inside. And that I can’t stop shaking.
Please let this be over soon. Let it hit so I can react, or let it pass so that I can breathe again.
The sirens stop.
The weather announcer gives the all-clear.
There was no shaking of walls or clanking of jars.
That storm system that chased us to the safe room traveled almost 60-miles north and east toward the farm where I grew up, and where we’d been the last two days. My sister and her husband heard the freight train around 1am and were able to get their four boys to the basement before the brunt of the storm hit.
A huge old tree having landed on the lilac bush, two uprooted apple trees, and a bent basketball hoop later, the storm had passed. The house and garage were still standing and didn’t sustain damage. The dog was covered in mud but happy to see everyone. The family members were safe.
You really can’t ask for more than that when you live in a Tornado Alley.
In the phone call that next morning with my sister, I asked her if we should reconfigure our trip and try to come up to help them clean up. She declined, saying she understood how hectic our trip already was. Plus, with four boys, they had a lot of helpers. So, we traveled on as planned, and they started the process of cleaning up the debris.
My little childhood state and other areas of the Midwest are taking a beating right now. If people aren’t being blown away by tornadoes, they’re being flooded out of their homes.
And, my heart goes out to all of them.