One of our favorite Jude moments happened when he was just a little guy of 2. At 5 he’s so tall and already sounding out words to write poems and jokes phonetically. That makes 2 seem so long ago.
He was sitting in between Lolly and Pop in the red swing on the front porch of their Melrose house when a strong wind started swirling the trees. Jude’s eyes got huge.
“It blows!” he said. We agreed, that, yes, indeed it did. “I LIKE blows,” he said enthusiastically. We agreed again.
John and I both like storms and don’t think each other is crazy for running outside to look at the sky instead of for cover when the tornado sirens go off. And that’s what this post is really about: tornadoes I have known.
Side note: What I really, really don’t like is the word “tornadic,” which weathermen and -women so breathlessly toss about. Tornadic activity just sounds ridiculous. (And reminds me of the North Little Rock Northeast varsity/faculty basketball game in about 1972, when a mischievous biology teacher printed “Nads” on the teachers’ shirts. That enticed the crowd to yell, “Go Nads!” Get it??)
Tornadoes blew around the edges of my life in the early years – you can’t live in Arkansas without at least one close encounter. Then for a spell, they got really close. As in hunkering-for-cover-in-the-eye-of close.
The first and so-far biggest encounter happened in February of 1975, on George Washington’s birthday – hardly tornado season, though in Arkansas, well, you know. I was 19 and in college but living at home, Cathy was a sophomore at Northeast, and Mother and Daddy had built their dream house, which was move-in ready the previous fall.
It was a rare Saturday afternoon that found everyone at home. Cathy was watching an old movie. Mother was resting, having had surgery earlier that week. Daddy was probably watching sports or working from home. I was sitting at the table in a corner of the kitchen, deeply engrossed in Vincent Bugliosi’s “Helter Skelter.”
I’d been extremely interested in scary Charlie Manson and his people since the night the Sharon Tate murders were announced on the news (I was babysitting in a different neighborhood), and a good book could totally absorb me.
So when Cathy came in to tell me we were under a tornado watch, I impatiently told her to leave me alone. When she came in frantically telling me she’d opened the window and could see it approaching, I told her to leave me alone.
When Daddy came in and thundered, “Laura, get up and get in the hall now,” my attention was definitely startled. The look on his face scared me, and up I jumped. We all did the tuck-and-cover tornado crouch when I realized I’d seen my cat, Chamaco, frozen in a classic arch on the back of the chair in front of the window facing the approaching tornado.
The air pressure was intense, and I was flat-out frightened by then, but, heart-in-throat, I ran in the den and yelled, “Chamaco! Come now!”
I ran back, tucked and before I could even get in a good ball, all the air sucked out of the atmosphere. Chamaco ran yowling down the hall, but that was the only sound as the pressure built. Suddenly we felt a huge release and heard sounds no one wants to hear coming from their new house. In seconds, milliseconds, it was over.
We all stared at each other. “I’ll go look,” I said – I was closest – and got up and walked to the den. The roofless den with the detached back wall. Oddly, that wall never fell over – just stood upright about an inch from the rest of the house. All the books had fallen off the bookcases, but Daddy’s ceramic Mickey and Minnie Mouse, which he’d gotten in the late ’30s, stood alone on a shelf, unrattled. Tornadoes do wild and amazing things
“Well, it got us,” I remember saying. Mother moaned. One by one they came in the den, Daddy, Cathy, Mother and Katie, our dachshund. Chamaco was in deep hiding for a few days.
Our screened-in porch was gone – I found it a few minutes later wrapped around and around itself and through our neighbors’ garage roof, like some kind of cheapo rocket. The French door from the kitchen to the screened-in porch had exploded into pieces. Rectangles of safety glass were embedded in both walls of the corner where I’d been reading.
A two-by-four was embedded in the wall right where my forehead had been. My book was unruffled on the table.
Cathy had saved my life by heeding the weather announcement on television and looking out the window to see it coming. When the poor kid saw that piece of lumber, she went into shock, medically speaking, I realized years later. In all the excitement, we missed that detail, though when she fainted in the front yard, we should have realized she probably should see a doctor.
Moments before she collapsed, I’d been leading her around — she had a death grip on my forearm – as she said over and over, “You almost got killed. You almost got killed.” I almost did, and she did save me. Thanks, baby sister. I love you. Sorry I was mean at first about you interrupting my reading.
Neighbors arrived almost immediately, followed by police and firemen (we had a live wire down, hopping and crackling and shooting sparks in the back yard of our corner lot) and just as the torrential rains started pouring into the roofless kitchen and den, we began moving furniture.
Adrenaline gives you super-strength,we learned. My friend Kelly’s brother, Lindsey, and I moved a hide-a-bed couch from the den to the living room. Normally we couldn’t have budged it.
Within hours, it was snowing like mad, and we were all dispersed to other places (except Chamaco). Mother and Daddy were at the Carithers’ house (Kelly’s parents). Maybe Cathy too. I went to my boyfriend’s parents – his sister Kathy was one of my best friends and was happy to share her room with me.
We forgot the goldfish, but my dad called and asked Jimmy and me to drive over and get him so he wouldn’t freeze. Transporting a fish in a bowl of water in the bucket seat of a ’68 Camaro was interesting, but we managed — after we persuaded the police guarding our street that we weren’t looters.
We moved back in in late spring, after all the damage was repaired. The next tornado came shortly thereafter. I drove home from my boyfriend’s apartment very late in my little yellow 1971 Super Beetle under the damn thing – I just knew the car was blowing from one side of the road to another. When I got home, the biggest tree in the front yard was laying on the house.
Damage was minor, but the window I always left open for my cat had created intense suction, and my snow-white bedroom was covered in dirt and sticks. Mother was not happy about that.
Later that May, Kelly and I headed for Ft. Lauderdale in my yellow VW (another story for another time). We had a great trip. Why that’s relevant is that on the way home just outside Lake Village, we looked across a field to see three identical black columns – not funnels, but perfectly straight, Romanesque columns – speeding across the field.
I floored it. Neither of us said a word; we just held our breath and held on. We outran the whirling dervishes in a Beetle that was supposed to go 75-80 tops. The gas pedal was on the floor, but we didn’t check the speedometer.
We didn’t care how fast we were going as long as the wheels were on the ground. We’d watched “The Wizard of Oz” together almost every year since we were 3, We knew we could end up over the rainbow if our luck didn’t hold.
The third time was the charm in 1975. And tornadoes still blow me away.