January 13, 2005


Not my choice of a political candidate, but a uniquely southern expression for "tornado". I was four years old the first time I ever saw a funnel cloud, and the shape has informed my nightmares for the last thirty-odd years. The tornado is, to mankind's residual cave-man-level instinct, the incarnation of Nature; the Sky God taking a shape out of formless chaos to descend and rape the swan, the almighty Hand of an angry deity forming in the sky, right before your terrified animal eyes. Don't pooh-pooh the nader's intense scaring power, either, not until you've seen one come out of the sky yourself. That's an underwear change, people.

We were out on Pappy's farm in North Carolina. My mother and father and I were there for Sunday dinner; it was early spring, and the first green things were beginning to poke exploratory shoots aboveground, to test the air. We'd eaten around my grandmother's huge dining-room table - my little nuclear family unit, my aunts and their husbands and children, and my grandparents - and the adults were enjoying the ritual post-prandial retreat to the withdrawing room. Cigarettes were smoked, waistbands discreetly loosened, and a baseball game roared (Pappy was mostly deaf) on the Curtis-Mathis, a circa-1970 television in an ornately carved wooden casing the size of a light truck, with a 20" screen.

We children were turned out into the front yard; screaming hooliganism was strictly verboten in my Gram's withdrawing room. Somewhere in the back of my mind I made note of the darkening sky, but rapid climactic changes were far less interesting than the game of Red Rover my cousins were putting together. We played, slamming into each other's arms with as much ulna-snapping force as possible, being mean little rednecks; we lost ourselves, as children do, in the game.

The next thing I knew my mother was running towards me, screaming my name, a paralyzed look on her face. She dragged me into the house, and as I looked back over the farm field, it was clear: the awesome shape of a funnel forming in the sky, dipping lower and lower, towards a spot not too remote from the farm. It wasn't raining on us, but the rain falling from the wrathful cloud was clearly visible, as was lightening. We heard the sound of thunder.

My family survived that day intact, of course. All the family herded into the cellar until the storm passed; Pappy didn't lose so much as a fencepost. It barely even rained where we were, but underneath the storm they had a gullywasher. Lightening strikes and hail, too. The tornado we saw actually touched down over five miles away.

Later, when my family first moved to Lower Alabama, the nader experience became more common for me, if not the sight of the naders themselves. Small and brutal - not like the magnificent cat-five whoppers in the plains states, the ones in the movies - Lower Alabama tornados were common offshoots of the nasty thunderstorms that marched through town in the summertime. I vividly remember one particular sticky-hot summer in the late seventies, because it seemed as if there was a tornado every weekend for a month. My parents and I spent so much time in that little niche below the basement stairs during tornado warnings that I equipped it with books and snacks, just in case. Invariably, a terrible thunderstorm would blow up on Saturday afternoon, a tornado or two would touch down at dusk, and then we'd ride through the trailer-parks after church on Sunday, surveying the damage. Seeing who needed what, out of Christian charity, and gawking at the carnage for the pure entertainment value.

While Mister MacFarland and I were dating, years ago, a tornado came down the very street he lived on. We slept through the whole thing, with the windows open, no less (well, it was a nice night, before the tornado hit) only to be awakened at six in the morning by a phone call from his mother, demanding to know if we were okay. We stuck our heads out the front door, and saw the news crews picking their way through cars flattened by falling trees, the wreckage of the awning for the neighborhood tennis enclosure, live, downed power lines, and other hazardous storm debris. We were amazed; neither one of us heard a damn thing.

The high winds and rain have stopped now, for the most part, save for a light drizzle that wouldn't hurt a flea. We were spared the wrath of a nader in this particular thunderstorm; so may it be forever. Even so, I think I've heard the word "tornado" one too many times today - thank The Weather Channel for that. I know that tonight I will have tornado dreams, where funnels slip menacingly through lowering, blackened skies, chasing me and my bags full of neuroses with far more intent and malicious purpose than a real tornado ever could.

Dream tornados can be much scarier than real tornados. If you let them.

Posted by Queenie at January 13, 2005 10:17 PM

Having grown up in Oklahoma, tornadoes have been a constant part of my life. I couldn't tell you the first time I saw one, as funnels appearing in the sky are a pretty regular sort of event in spring, and not too unusual in autumn.

But on the great May 3 tornadoes (when the tornado that broke the F-scale and all its kids went tearing through the whole state and more or less took down entire cities), I was living in a house that on the news was sitting right where three or four of the damned things were supposed to intersect. Seeing that's a uniquely knee-weakening experience.

But most of the time, there's a joke that you know you're in Oklahoma when the tornado sirens going off means it's time to go outside and have a look.

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