Friday, June 06, 2008


In Which We Head for the Basement...


If you've been following along in the margin, you may have realized that while I have not been very industrious with the blog-posting of late, I have been busy on Twitter, which has proven very useful and fun in the way of providing brief updates (in the assumption that anyone cares) when I've been otherwise preoccupied.

As in the case of this series of Tweets last night:

magazineman Tornado just touched down <10 miles. Sirens blaring. On TV urging everyone seek shelter. Wife + baby downstairs + just carried kids t ... ... about 2 hours ago from web

magazineman Sorry got cut off. Everyone safe in basement. Taking laptop down Siren sounds like end of world. Never seen a TV weatherman so pale < ... ... about 2 hours ago from web

Although we've lived in an area prone to tornadoes for some time now, this is the first time in ages I could remember being so close to one--indeed, I'd probably have to go back to my youth in Kansas. When we first moved there from New Hampshire, tornadoes were both wondrously real and strangely legendary. I remember well my first week at school there, which was also the first time I ever experienced a tornado drill.

In the event of a tornado, as I would come to learn over and over, we were instructed to open all the windows in the classroom (something about the change in air pressure could cause a building to implode if you didn't open the windows. Everyone knew that) and then repair to the corridors outside the classrooms. This took me by surprise the first time it happened. Having seen The Wizard of Oz on TV, I assumed we'd be marched out back to the root cellar. Except the school wasn't equipped with one. It had a proper basement, of course, but it was not one that was large enough to accommodate the student body. And so, once in the hall, our instructions were to simply sit on the floor and curl up with our heads down, arms clasped over our necks, and wait for the tornado. "They might as well tell you to bend over and kiss your asses goodbye," my father remarked with a mix of disgust and...something his expression, when we demonstrated the tornado-drill pose for him that night.

As you can imagine, this kind of drill had a cumulative effect on the imagination of a child, especially on one like me, who had been raised on a regular diet of disaster scenarios. We saw tornadoes in school films and on the news, but now that we were in Kansas, the very heart of tornado country, I longed to see one for real, in person.

By the end of our first summer in Kansas, I came as close to a tornado as I (in hindsight) would ever like, when one briefly touched down on the roof of our house in the middle of the night. And while the damage (when we eventually discovered it) was impressive, I still felt a bit cheated, because at the time, I'd had no idea I was underneath a tornado, and also it had been pitch dark, so there was no chance of seeing it.

The next summer, though, was something else again.

My brother and I were riding our bikes up and down the driveway one afternoon shortly after the school year had ended, so that would put it in--what?--early June, I guess. It had been a hot day, but now a refreshing--and I must add, increasingly potent--breeze had sprung up. We delighted in pedaling to the end of the driveway against the wind, and then turning and stretching out our arms to see if the wind was strong enough to blow us back to the house. In the case of my Big Brother, who wore billowing t-shirts and had a lot more surface area than me--it actually worked.

And then the siren went off.

I'd heard the tornado siren maybe once before--it hadn't even sounded the night the tornado hit the roof--and when I'd heard it, it had been while we were in school and we were so busy opening windows and bending over to kiss our asses goodbye that I hadn't really noticed anything about the noise.

Such as the fact that when you're standing outside, the siren is really loud. The sound of it seems to almost go through you, shaking every molecule of your being as it passes. As I heard that powerful yet sickly warbling tone, as I felt it set every structure in town a-thrumming, I realized that I was listening to pure dread distilled in sonic form.

I wasn't the only one. BB half-jumped, half-fell off his bike and sprinted for the safety of our immense stone house. But I stood there, rooted more by fear than anything, I'll admit. I felt almost queasy as I tried to stuff that sense of dread back down my throat. But as I managed to get a purchase on my fear, I began turning slow circles there on the driveway, looking out across the horizon for something. To the west, some spectacularly purple clouds--where had they come from?--were filling the sky. The wind picked up and almost picked me up, so I hunkered down in classic tornado-drill position, but didn't bow my head. The siren droned on, my ears almost numb from the sound of it. The clouds kept rolling in. Trees in our yard were bent almost parallel to the ground.

And then, in the space of a blink, something strange happened. The wind just stopped. Just like someone had thrown a switch. Leaves that were swirling in the air in front of me just froze in the midst of their frenzied dance and then fell straight to the ground as though weighted. The air itself seemed to take on weight too. An unseen, oppressive force was suddenly pushing on me. I could feel it, especially in my ears, which suddenly wanted to pop.

It was then that I noticed something else: the sky had turned green. Not just the bruise-purple clouds, but everything else too, as though someone had replaced my glasses with lenses made out of old-fashioned green Coke bottles. The whole world was green.

And then I was yanked from the hunkering position to my feet. My mom, displaying strength and speed I didn't know she had, half-dragged, half-carried me back to the house. Just before we reached the door, the wind came back in one terrible crash and all the leaves that had fallen to the ground began blowing in their frenzy again. Dirt and debris suddenly filled the air as they hadn't before and I had to shield my eyes from it. I couldn't see, almost couldn't breathe. And as we staggered those last few steps to the house, I heard a squealing of metal from the west. I peered up and looked out across the yard, to the bridge that spanned the railroad tracks near my house. It was shaking in its foundations. And behind it, the great black wall of the funnel cloud was spinning towards it. And me.

It was the last thing I saw before my mom dragged me through the door and we collapsed to the floor. Every window in the house was open and so we heard the wind roaring through, heard doors being slammed open and closed upstairs, heard flower vases and picture frames falling from tables. We crawled to the back wall of the house, where the stone was laid thickest, and put our backs to it, curled up, arms over our necks--like the school, our house had no basement either.

The tornado passed right by, thankfully, missing the bridge (although it got twisted off-center and had to be fixed by the road crew) and our house and skipping off towards our neighbor's sorghum fields. But that cured me of my tornado curiosity forever, let me tell you.

So you can perhaps imagine my reaction last night when, for the first time in all our years at the Magazine Mansion, we heard the siren go off. The wind hadn't been kicking up all that much, but the siren put me on full alert. As I shook Her Lovely Self with one hand, the other was reaching for the remote. The TV blared to life and was tuned to our local news, where the pale weatherman was pointing to a map of the metro area and showing the radar overlay that clearly indicated a funnel cloud in the town next to ours. I left the TV on and bolted down the hall.

Having been raised by my mother, I naturally devised a disaster plan against this contingency, although really all it amounted to was agreeing that HLS would get the baby and I would get the other kids.

Unfortunately, it took some doing, as neither older child would wake and so I was forced to carry the Brownie under my arm and hoist Thomas on my shoulder, an effort that nearly put me in a tangle of broken limbs at the foot of the stairs. But at the last second, Thomas partially woke and walked himself down to the basement, where he promptly threw himself on the bed down there and went back to sleep. Ever the nervous one when bad weather is afoot, Thomas surprised us all by snoring through the whole thing. His sister did too, sprawled on the downstairs bed, one arm across her brother's back, both legs up on Blaze, who slept at her feet.



It was a long wait there in the basement, as the siren droned on. Having brought my camera with me, I took a few pictures--and in a couple of these, you can see a shadow of the expression my dad had all those years ago, when I first demonstrated the tornado-drill position. I realize now his expression was one of disgust and stark terror at the thought of his children curled in a hallway while a storm approached. Then, having also brought the laptop down, I used Twitter to fritter my own terror away.

magazineman tornado <5 miles out. Spotter cameras showing something funnely. Havent been this close to one since age 12. Sure different when hav ... ... about 2 hours ago from web

magazineman Meant to say "sure is different when you have kids to worry about." Jesus. about 2 hours ago from web

magazineman Still here. Cable/power flickering but tornado appears to be moving away to the East. Please let everyone in that direction be safe about 2 hours ago from web

Eventually, after forever, the siren spun away to a murmur, then nothing. In its wake, a powerful thunderstorm rose up and shook the house with its rumble, but we already knew the danger had passed. I eventually got both older kids back up into bed while Her Lovely Self put the baby back down. When she came back into our room, I was sitting up in our bed, staring out a window while outside, rain lashed against the house.

"Why are you sitting like that?" she asked, and I realized that I was curled up, knees to my chest, head slightly down, arms clasped behind my neck.

"Oh, this? Just bending over to kiss my ass goodbye," I joked, unfolding myself. But a while later, as the rain continued to pour down and our sump pump began its subterranean roaring and the pale weatherman on TV now called out his flash-flood warnings, I found myself resuming the position. Not because I thought it would save my life, but because in its way, it felt strangely comforting. It surely was a different thing to experience storms now, with a family to worry about, and the knowledge that there really isn't anything you can do against the hard weather when it strikes, except perhaps to huddle up and hunker down.

Maybe the school administrators who came up with our tornado drills knew what they were doing after all.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

That first picture is quite nice. Love the panicky blurriness.

I grew up doing tornado drills in Kentucky, but never had a tornado experience until I was a junior in high school. I was in the (top floor) library attending a Beta Club meeting when all of a sudden there was a loud noise and everyone started diving under the tables. I thought, "Hmm, I guess if everyone else is doing it, I should do it too," and climbed leisurely to the floor.

After the tornado picked up the roof, blowing the windows in and scattering glass everywhere, I discovered glass on the chair where I'd been sitting. So that long moment where I pondered what to do must not have been very long, after all.

(Apparently everyone but me had been aware of the tornado watch.)

Fortunately no one was hurt, but the wall and ceiling of the social studies classroom were completely ripped off. It looked kinda cool.

A year later, a lot of us graduating seniors went to see the premiere of Twister. (I can't remember if any of us wore our "I survived the tornado of '95" shirts, though.)
Oh, I'm still waiting to hear if the flooding affected your comics!
In our Wisconsin city, there was a tornado 25 years back or so, and apparently they didn't sound the sirens in time. So now, they're required to let them blare for any severe weather warning...even if it's just a thunderstorm.

You can imagine how often we hear sirens around here.

That, coupled with the whole "I'm a parent and I'm responsible for keeping my kid alive during tornadoes" thing has me a little uptight about the weather.

Ok. A LOT uptight. I pretty much spend the summer months with our local weather radar open in a tab on my laptop.

Nope. Not obsessive at all.

(Glad you're all ok.)
Wow. I'm glad y'all are all right.

I'd subscribed to your twitter feed but hadn't seen those entries. Will have to take another look to see if I misclicked somewhere...
Oh those stupid tornado drills. I have fond memories of them every year in elementary school. But not after. I guess once you hit 12 you were on your own and who cared if you remembered how to "kiss your ass goodbye" ;)
Wow. That sounded scary!

They don't teach us that position anymore... Now we have to squat, and shove our head between our knees. It's really undignified and embarrassing...

I was the same way as Thomas. I hate thunderstorms, but I slept right through my first tornado encounter.

I'm glad you guys didn't get hurt though!

Glad to hear you all are okay, and that the kids slept through it. Nights like that are one of the worst parts of parenting...

I haven't slept much the last couple of nights, due to similar weather. Tonight is all clear, though, so I am going to sleep well.

Of course, it's all starting up again by mid-afternoon tomorrow.

What struck me in elementary school was the stark difference between our tornado drills before we had an F4 rip though town when I was 7, and after (4 people died, one of whom I knew).

Before: Troop down to the auditorium (vast room on ground floor), kneel with head between knees.

After: Troop quickly to brand-spanking new locker rooms, built into the ground specifically as tornado shelters. High-school: Troop to special tornado shelter, reinforced, poured concrete walls, completely underground with no structure above it.

Wake up call to the town...

Of course, now I have no basement, so I am even more paranoid during severe weather...
It's surreal reading about tornado drills from my safe haven in NH, where we are known for having weather. hah. We don't get weather like that here.

We had Hurricane Gloria when I was 13 and I remember walking mindlessly outdoors while my dad was taping up the windows. The sky was a sickly pea green color and the air was absolutely still. We were in the eye and I was enthralled. He grabbed me, much like your mom did, before the winds came and ripped a few trees up from the root in our backyard. Still, it's nothing compared to storms in the Plains.

A girlfriend of mine just moved back to Nebraska, where many tornados were supposed to hit - I couldn't help but wonder (TM Carrie Bradshaw) why she moved out there when she knew as a New Englander that it's so much safer here.
I lived in Lubbock for about two years, but I never had any tornadic close encounters. I see them a lot on weather radar though when I'm at work...always good to plan flights well away from any thunderstorms big enough to produce tornadoes.

Glad everything turned out well for the Magazine Mansion and its occupants.
Your tornado drill position reminds me of the bomb drills we had at elementary school in the late sixties. We'd go out into the hall and assume the exact same position. I laugh about it now. Fat lot of good that would have done us!
Glad everyone is okay.
I lived in Tornado Alley for 20 years. All throughout my childhood I heard those dreaded sirens, then it was down to the basement storm shelter for all of us, with flashlights and battery powered radios until the all-clear. Fortunately no tornado, to my knowledge, ever got close to us. Though one did rip a hole in my Aunt's roof and she lived in the same city.

I'm glad to know that you all are safe. School tornado drills DO pay off.
Your blog is the greatest..... you should write a book or a collection or... wait, that's what's here!

Am just a mite curious about your identity and where you live. So thought, wow, all I have to do is check out the tornados for June 5 and that will narrow it down. Not. They were all over the place the other night.

I am in Kansas and have a healthy respect for storms. But I also know we have a lot of open country which helps.
I've always had the tornado curiosity too - and never having seen one, still sit outside during thunderstorms to watch the lightning with that lump in my belly waiting to hear the rumbling of the wind. We don't get many tornadoes in this part of the world, but every once in awhile, funnel clouds pop down from the sky and everybody waits for something to happen.

So far nothing has... (which in hindsight is probably for the best)

Glad to hear you're all safe and okay!
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