You could usually count on the exercise coming before lunch. Three short bursts of the school bell and we’d be up from our desks and filing into the hallway. “Single file,” the teachers admonished repeatedly, while we formed a line in front of our lockers and then dropped to our knees like supplicants before the Ka’bah, foreheads to the floor and our fingers laced together over the backs of our heads.
What I never understood was why they always told us it was coming ahead of time. There was never any surprise involved in the drills, nothing to simulate the confusion that would have undoubtedly run rampant in an actual emergency. We just plodded into the hallway and knelt uncomfortably for several minutes, until the return bell sounded.
Some would try to pass the time with a muttered joke or two, while the teachers paced to and fro, checking the line. One kid, I remember, would always sing the old Kansas song, ‘Dust in the Wind‘ just quietly enough to be heard by those immediately around him, but not so loud as to attract unwanted attention.
I suppose the little smart-ass thought the whole ordeal was a big joke. At the very least, he doubted the obvious security provided by kneeling at the foot of heavy metal lockers, which were themselves inexpertly affixed to the crumbling walls of a poorly maintained WPA era school building.
Occasionally, one of the other kids would tell him to “shut up!” I guess the song made them nervous. People cling to the rituals that make them feel safer, even when they know better. To challenge these illusions is to make oneself a target.
Perhaps they simply thought that I wasn’t taking the drill seriously enough.
Or they just didn’t like the song.
I dream sometimes of tornados.
I have worked over the years to keep myself always open to what I call the “dreaming world” while going about my walk-a-day life. The benefit of this, for me, is that I feel that I am better able to perceive the various layers of reality beyond the simply mundane. On the flip side, however, I find that I do not dream as often as I did in my youth, or at least, I do not remember the dreams that I do have.
There are a handful of exceptions to this: a selection of recurring dreams that I have been visited by, again and again, since I was very young.
The tornado dreams are almost always the same. I find myself in the house where I grew up. It is a normal day, but there there is a feeling of expectation in the air. I stop what I’m doing and go to a door or window where I see a column of greenish grey destruction snaking down from the clouds and pulverizing the earth, perhaps a mile away from where I stand. At this point in the dream, I usually rush outside to get a better view, or perhaps to seek shelter. There is no rain in these dreams, and the wind ahead of the funnel is perhaps lightly gusting and cool.
And now I am awake to the fact that I am dreaming. You might think that this would improve the situation, that perhaps I would fully awaken, or realizing that it is a dream, bend it to my will and dissipate the approaching cyclone. Instead, my subconscious simple decides to double-down and more funnels drop from the iron-clad sky, whirling ropes of destruction in every direction I turn.
We have been sharing our “Tornado War Stories” lately.
It seems as if we all have them. If you live in ‘tornado-alley’ long enough you are likely to collect a few. We watch the news reports of Oklahoma City getting pounded again and again, not to mention the damage from storms closer to home. The cleanup efforts stretch from days into weeks and you know that it could just as easily have been you, sifting through the rubble, looking for some fragment of the life you lived before.
And so we share our stories, and take comfort in the fact that we are here to tell them.
My own closest encounter took place when I was in my early twenties. I was still in college but working summers with my father in residential construction south of the DFW metroplex. I was driving home from a job-site in my ramshackle car and absolutely captivated by the scene in front of me. The gravel road I was speeding along was bordered on both sides by low hills and trees so that my only view of the sky was an almost perfect ‘V’ rising up from the road in front of me. That slice of sky contained one of the most beautiful sunset scenes I have ever witnessed. A giant glowing orange anvil of cloud rising up and over my vehicle, peeking out from a lower layer of cloud which smoldered with an impossible shade of purple deepening to black. If I’d had a camera with me I would certainly have stopped to take a picture of that sky. Also, I might easily have died.
Instead, I kept driving and as the road turned and dipped down into a little valley, suddenly everything changed. My car skidded to a stop on the wet gravel as I was assaulted by a wall of water mixed with light hail, plummeting from the sky. I flipped on the headlights and pulled as far into the ditch as was possible, wrenching the hand-break up as far as it would go.
Within moments, in the dim glow of my headlights, I watched as the pelting rain shifted from vertical to horizontal. And then I couldn’t see anything at all. The world beyond my windshield was reduced to pitch. There was only the roar, and the rocking of the car on it’s springs, and lost beneath it all the sound of a young man singing “Dust in the Wind”.
And then it was over. The darkness, the noise, it all abated almost as quickly as it had begun. I stayed there, parked at an angle, canted between road and ditch, for several minutes. I rolled down my window in the light rain and was amazed to discover that there was very little damage immediately around me. I think the storm skipped over the top of the small valley in which I had been forced to stop. Further up the hillside, the trees had not faired so well.
As I put the car into gear and began to pull back onto the road, I was nearly sideswiped by a number of vehicles racing down the road in the direction of the retreating storm. It was the first time I had ever seen storm-chasers doing their thing. Their small convoy of two black cars and a van looked a lot like the rival team from the movie ‘Twister’, except of course, that movie was still several years away from release at that point in time.
Over the years, when I have shared that story, some have wondered if a prayer wouldn’t have been more appropriate in what could have been my final moments.
To them I say, “Just read the lyrics.” If ‘Dust in the Wind’ isn’t a prayer, I don’t know what is.
When disasters happen, it’s not uncommon to hear questions like “Where is God?” or “Why does he allow these terrible things to happen?” Sometimes there is even some strange variety of blame involved, as this or that theologian choses to blame the victims for being unrighteous or sinful, and bringing down the wrath of their deity.
People always ask “why” when presented with forces over which they have no control.
The “why’s” are much simpler than most people care to think.
Tornados form because warm and cold air masses sometimes collide in areas where the barometric pressure is low enough to allow their formation. They destroy our stuff and take our lives because we choose to build neighborhoods in the places where they traditionally form.
The storm was there first, has always been there. We built in it’s path. It’s what we do.
The monotheist (who believes that their God makes all the decisions as to who lives and who dies, and when) may be driven to question the storm, to look for a purpose.
I believe in many gods, some of which are manifest, possibly even incarnate within the power of the storm. The gods I believe in may not decide the where or why of our living and dying, but they are there with us in the moment. I have no reason to question the storm. It simply is, and I embrace the power within it, for good or ill.
As many close encounters as I have had over the years, I am still energized and excited by the approach of a severe storm. I’ll stand in my front yard until the rain begins in earnest, reaching out with my mind and drawing the energy of the tempest into myself. Sometimes I can feel the electricity crackling between my fingers, feel the energy flowing out of the clouds and into the earth beneath me. There is a deep spiritual power, a religious awe, inspired by the storm that I cannot deny.
We mourn the dead and we rebuild (hopefully learning along the way to build better shelters), but we need not ask why. We live and eventually die with the knowledge that nothing lasts forever, but the earth and sky.