Friday, June 5, 2015

Born to laugh at tornadoes: a personal history

[Photo by Harald Richter/NOAA Photo Library]

On May 22, 1962, I was a one-and-a-half-year-old playing on the front porch of our house in Cedar Rapids, Iowa when the tornado hit. It boiled up so quickly, my mother said, the warning sirens never went off. As she ran from the back of the house to snatch me up, she watched through the windows on that side of the house as the unattached garage next to us wrenched out of the ground and leaped into the air.

I was watching it, too, tracking it as it sailed over our house and dropped neatly onto the house next to us, causing considerable damage.

According to Mom, I was laughing.

What’s so funny about tornadoes? Nothing and everything. Someday I mean to ask Don and/or Dave Was why they named their 1983 pop album “Born to Laugh at Tornadoes” (check it out, it’s weirdly brilliant)(1), but of course the title resonates with me. The first seven years of my life, my family and I lived, voluntarily mind you, smack-dab in the middle of the Midwest, in the crosshairs of Tornado Alley.

Now, of things in life that are inherently funny, violently rotating columns of air that destroy life and property are not high up on the list. Culturally, it doesn’t seem like we’ve ever really integrated this phenomenon into our collective psyche. In our books and movies, tornadoes serve as plot points, agents of drastic change. In the era of digital effects, they serve as ends in themselves – spectacles of termination, the putative death-wishes that we seem so fond of in our disaster films.

My pump was primed. The first time we watched “The Wizard of Oz” in its then yearly showing on network TV, the twister made its appearance and I was done for the night, bawling and blubbering. Even on our crude little black-and-white model, it looked uncannily like the real thing. (It’s amazing what they could do with a 35-foot-long muslin stocking.) With lots of emotional support in place I made it through the next annual screening – but never without a twinge of dread.

“Oz” didn’t give me nightmares – my dreams were regularly interrupted by sirens every summer. Almost worse were the sudden interruptions on the TV or radio – the high-pitched C-note tone, the slow crawl of information, the scratchy-voiced cut-in of some Weather Service guy’s voice, flatland accent burring the r’s, outlining the danger area. We were well-rehearsed in emergency measures. Many comics have made hay out of the fact that the warnings usually include these little nuggets of info: “Seek a low-lying area such as a ditch,” and immediately after, “Beware of flash flooding.” Hmmmmm.

We spent all summer every summer on Grandpa Ralph’s immense (to us) Missouri Valley farm, which sat splendidly on the highest point of the ridge overlooking Underwood, Iowa, from the west. The passage of decades’ worth of tornadic activity had led to indifference from the old folks, who were as unperturbed by rushing, thundering storms as we were sent to furthest extent of frantic.

My other set of grandparents, across the river in Nebraska, were much the same. I remember standing with them at their kitchen window at night, them sipping coffee and eating cake while watching the honey locust rive in twain from a lightning bolt. “Whew, that was close,” my grandma murmured casually, lighting another Pall Mall.

(During one tornado, my dad insisted it wasn’t that bad and drove us home 20 miles from his parents’ house, madness in itself. They secretly tailed us in their car all the way back, “to make sure we got home OK,” then went home again – all while the storm howled around them. We were too dumb to live, too tough to die.)

There were many exciting tornado stories, which we pleaded for from grandparents, uncles, and aunts. We also learned a slew of exciting and entertaining misconceptions. We learned that if you shut all the doors and windows of your house before the twister hits, it will, due to the sudden drop in air pressure surrounding the dwelling, explode! COOL! Not true. That a tornado will drive a straw through a telephone pole. A pretty thought, but unsubstantiated by a rigorous scientific study. Cows turned inside out? The mind boggles.

Now, a couple of these old wives’ tales have some truth in them. First, I don’t care what they say, I’ve never met a twister that didn’t like a trailer park. They are referred to at our house as tornado magnets.

Second, the green sky before a tornado. I’ve seen it. You’d think that an atmosphere full of debris would be gray or brown. I guess, though, that the sheer mass of torn-up vegetable matter suspended in the wind torrents gives the air a greenish cast. On one afternoon before a dash to the basement, I watched the slow drift of grass and twigs past a window. The dim cloud-filtered light gave sunlight with no shadow, a green teeming like a neglected aquarium illuminated from within.

The closest call is a bit harder to pin down, sometime in the late 1960s, late, late at night on the farm. The usual  array of warnings hadn’t deterred us from hitting in hay in our usual beds.

Something kept blowing the door open, I remember. Over and over again. Then it blew open and stayed there, the doorknob punching through the plaster. My mom was up, moving swiftly, grabbing first myself and my younger sister off of the couch we shared.

“Go,” she said. A calm voice, but one that riveted my attention with its absolute earnestness. We moved through the living room, met halfway across the kitchen my her mother, similarly bent. All four of us sped for the screen porch, the access to the basement.

I looked out. It was the dead of night. All the power was out. No lights, no stars. But I saw something out there, something close, something moving, something darker than the darkness. I heard it moan – just like the rumble of a train across a trestle, I thought while being half-dragged across the floor in my pajamas. It took such a long, long time to cross that kitchen floor.

We made it to the cellar door – exactly like the “Oz” one, flat with a ringbolt set into it. We heaved it up, fastened the heavy slab of wood, and padded down the concrete stairs into the musty depths. A pile of coal in the corner. The ancient washtub. This and that, dusty. We settled down on a pile of blankets. “Sleep,” said our mother. We slept.

In the morning, we surveyed the damage. Here an immense tree had been uprooted, then lifted in the air and thrust down inextricably between two other giants. Wagons, implements, scattered around the landscape. Shingles like fallen leaves on the grass. Huge rents and furrows in the yard, branches stabbed into the hillside.

We couldn’t see the town, which sat in the valley below us. We sat in the kitchen nook and waited for the light to come up. Finally, we could see. It looked like the town had made it.

No wonder strong winds unsettle me, and I follow severe weather with the avidity of a religious acolyte. I have been caught in various storms since then – an uneasy night at a motel in Ogallala, and a whopper of a storm in the middle of Texas in 1994, undoubtedly made more frightening by my friend and I’s brilliant decision to split a tab of acid to keep us awake on the non-stop drive from New Orleans to Denver.

In 1967, my family moved to Denver, a climatological refuge. Rare floods, no earthquakes, fires only in the foothills, and snow that melts almost as soon as it falls.

Except recently. Climate change means much more rain than I can recall in 45 years; and tornadoes pop up closer to the mountains every year. The insulation from severe weather is rubbing thin here.

I won’t be happy to clamber down into my crawl space if one plows through my neighborhood, but I am grateful for the previous exposure. It calms me down. It doesn’t hurt that I can tweet and post my obsessional life away during a storm, alerting all and sundry. You’re welcome.

And I’ve grown more indifferent as well, just like my ancestors. Still alive after all these years, I’m not so impressed with a faceful of disaster. Tornadoes are just as unfortunate and random as many of the other calamities we deal with and, sometimes, the best thing to do is hunker down and wait for them to blow over. And laugh defiantly.

1. One of those albums that wound up getting engraved on my brain, such as the original cast album of "Jesus Christ Superstar," 10cc's "The Original Soundtrack," "Another Monty Python Record," and "The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway," that I can recite/sing/chant word-for-word with other fanatics at parties until I go on for so long that it gets rather embarrassing and we have to leave.

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