Thursday, June 9, 2011

Walking Into a Tornado is Not Like I Thought It Would Be: Also, The Failure of Television and Youtube

As an escape from teeth, I thought I'd write about a tornado. Plus, it was requested! And I like requests. Seriously, if you would like to pick my brain on some topic or other, drop me a line (or just leave a comment) and ask away.

So! Twisters. Yes. This is the story of how I walked into a tornado. But this story requires some backstory.

Last year was tornado year in Southwestern Ontario. With the extra hot and humid summer, we had an over-abundance of tornadoes swing through the area. And the backstory really starts a couple of weeks before the main story. A large F2 hit a nearby town, coming off Lake Erie and tearing through. It destroyed houses and trees. There was this great park, called Seacliff Park, that was full of huge and ancient trees, these massive oaks and maples. Sixty or eighty feet high, and four to six feet thick in the trunk. The tornado shredded them, uprooting or snapping in half about two-thirds of them. And houses didn't fare much better. My aunt-in-law lived right in the path of it. Her fence was lifted off the ground and tossed down like kindling. The forty foot metal TV tower was torn down and wrapped around the house (symbolism! be warned). Luckily, her house itself didn't take too much damage, but the house twenty feet to the right had its roof ripped off.

We drove through the area, and it was amazing to see the sheer power of the twister, what the winds could do. One small house in the county was tumbled over, as if attempting to spin a cartwheel with wooden limbs and a cape of shingles.

Luckily no one was killed. But the damage itself was both fascinating and horrifying. It lingers in the head, small winds haunting the imagination. And more storms were coming, each one providing a tickle of fear, a touch of awe, and a dash of curiosity.

A couple weeks later a vast storm system was pulling in, coming up out of the States, set to swing across the Detroit River and Lake Erie to scythe over Southwestern Ontario. Tracking in. Targeting.

We could see it coming. It was evening, still and humid, the air seeming too heavy to move. We were putting the kids to bed. Locking the windows. And the huge storm filled the horizon, growing larger. It spread, flushing up across the sky--a green and limpid sky, as if heaven itself was sick, its insides twisting and turning. The humid stillness was touched by a momentary breeze, and there was a sudden rustle of leaves and grass. Stillness. A rustle, again, a little stronger. A wet, clean scent on the air. And it tingled. The wind shivered with what was coming.

The dark grey-green clouds roiling closer, a tangled lashing in the sky, rushing on an invisible wind. And then the wind could be seen, visible now in the fields as it came, bending the crops before it, flattening them as if beneath a vast wave. The trees swung and tilted and the wind roared around us, the storm following on its heels.

I'd had a premonition. Listening to the news reports, watching the storm approach, I'd had a feeling. It was an odd feeling, but quite certain. We were going to be hit by a tornado. I brought the kids down, kept them close. Because I felt like we were going to be hit.

I rationalized, of course. This is what happens when you see the wreckage of a tornado. It haunts your thoughts, and haunts your ideas of the future, a nightmare swimming in the dreams of possibility.

It was coming.

A premonition ignores the rational. It was coming. This was a certainty.

The winds harassed the house. The rain pelted in. The clouds twisted above. And the storm passed over.

I watched the news. There were tornadoes, but none struck us. North and south, but we were safe in the middle.

The feeling faded. The storm missed us. A tease, nothing more. Eventually we went to bed.

The story was done. We settled back into our daily routine.

A week later we were at our in-laws, a few minutes drive away. Another summer storm was rolling in. A tornado warning was mentioned, but now I had another certainty. We were safe. I caught the storm bluffing once, and that was it, that was the way of it. A news report in some other town. Not entirely real.

And then my wife looked at me and said "We left the windows open in the house."

The grey storm was coming in, and already the rain was hitting down. I ran for the car, hopped in, and spun the car in the direction of home. I buzzed into the driveway, parked by the huge tree in the backyard. I ran into the house. No big deal, really, but who wants puddles in their house?

I sprinted between windows, closing and locking them. The computer was still on. I stopped, checked the computer, and then turned it off. I walked down the back stairs. The back door is blind. There are no windows, there's no way to see out.

I opened the door and ran out, as if I could outrace the rain drops. But, outside, there was a lot more than rain in the air. Hail plunked down, denting the ground. And there were branches in the air. Leaves and branches, whipped horizontal in the air, giving the air a quality of greenness, a jungle blur.

I held my arms up over my head. My only thought: Holy shit, this is crazy.

And that was it.

I ran for the car. I was simply moving. I wasn't thinking, beyond anything other than this is strange. Strange. That's what I thought.

I ran into my car. A couple who were visiting my neighbors were sitting in their car, trying to wait it out. (Later, they said it was the most terrifying thing they ever lived through. And, apparently, they thought I was crazy.)

Shredded tree limbs were alive in the air, spinning and grasping and whirling away only to return. My garbage can went airborn, never to be seen again. The neighbor's glass picnic table was picked up and thrown off the deck, shattering on the sidewalk.


I turned the car on. Pulled out of my spot, started down the driveway. The car shook. Behind me, one of the main trunks of the huge tree I'd parked beside snapped off, and forty feet of wood crashed down where my car had been.


I drove off in my shaking car. Speeding, probably. Outrunning the storm. In a minute it was suddenly better. A bad storm, no more. Had to be careful of hydroplaning, with all the water on the ground. Two minutes away, at my in-laws, it was barely raining.

"Bad?" they asked.

"Strange," I said.

And I never once thought tornado.

This is the oddity of life. I had, in my genius, walked out into a tornado. And yet I had never realized it. It had been too strange, had happened too fast. Just: Crazy. Strange.

When we returned, later, to our house, we were lucky to find the house undamaged, though our yard looked as if God, drunk, had come down with a giant weedwhacker. Limbs, trunks, and branches were everywhere. Green leaves like a carpet, or perhaps like bed covers, pulled up tight and high by the terrified grass. It can't get us under here, the grass said. No windy boogeyman will get us, no sir.

And yet it's the strangeness of the incident that comes back to me now. I remember my premonition, and how it had been right: only, you know, a little bad with dates. Happens to the best of us.

Youtube had failed me. TV movies? A fail. It was always so dramatic on the screen. The empty fields. The sinuous twister pulling down from the sky. The slow advance that can't be escaped. Closer, closer, closer, the black clouds swinging in, the tornado eating a trail along the ground. On the screen you see it coming. You face it. Hide, perhaps, but you face it, watch it come. This is the drama of it. Dorothy always has time to be afraid.

Instead I blithely walked into it. Strange. I ran through the braches, never once thinking "Hey, idiot, this is a tornado. You might want to get somewhere safe."

My own odd and personal idiocy, my own slightly surreal perception of the tornado, inside and unknowing.

It strikes me there is something human about this. It strikes me that this is what I like about great stories. They're not what you see on the typical television show, but rather something a little askew, tilted at an odd angle, and yet for that very reason it seems true, seems somehow real.

Sometimes we don't see the story coming. Sometimes we simply step out into it, unaware. Sometimes idiocy is more profound than courage, or at least more human. And sometimes fools get lucky, thank the Lord and his weedwhacker.


Matthew MacNish said...

Wait. But it's Thursday. This doesn't look like fiction. You don't fool me.

Matthew MacNish said...

I get the sense that perhaps it wasn't idiocy that led you back outside, but possibly a subconscious desire to return to your family and ensure their safety.

And when I was growing up in Minnesota we used to get tornadoes. I never experienced a major one, but there were small ones every year, late spring and early summer being the season, if I remember correctly. Minnesota is very flat, and the thing that struck me most about those memories was the sky. I remember it being just as you've described. The strangest colors would appear: odd pinks and greens, and the clouds would roil in the craziest ways.

It was nuts, really, to see what the world would do when that kind of storm was coming, but it was oddly peaceful, in a sort of not quite rational kind of way.

lori said...

I think your story solidifies the whole idea of have an appointed time to die. My aunt and uncle died in a tornado a few years ago, and I could never get past how random it seemed, that they had just moved to the very spot they would die in. Perhaps nothing is random at all...there's something to write about :) cool story.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

And you were damned lucky! Never been in a tornado, although I watched one race across a field when I lived in the midwest. However I have been through a hurricane, and there's nothing in the movies that captures that sensation with any realism.

Paul Joseph said...

Your post is timely considering how many tornadoes have been sweeping through parts of the U.S. lately. Fortunately, I have never been near one, and I'm rather thankful for that. The photos of all the wreckage in the south and Joplin are engraved in my mind. Those things really do a world of damage, and the worst part is, there isn't much we can do about them. They just....come...

Marsha Sigman said...

I grew up in the midwest, Tornado Alley. They are strange and sort of awesome. But if you were in a really bad one, you would know it.

Because you would be the one flying around.

Hollister Ann Grant said...

Awesome, Bryan. I loved it. I'm a storm and weather nut, so it was a real pleasure to sit back on my couch, safe and sound, and read about your strange, green, windy nightmare. I'm glad your roof stayed on the house and nobody was hurt.

Here is my favorite tornado video:

Steve C said...

What a story. And you really nailed that disassociated feeling of not recognizing something when it doesn't announce itself beforehand.

And hey, why'd the couple in the car think you were crazy? You were out in the storm, sure, but you also drove off into it just when you needed to.

And Amen for that.

Raven said...

Wow - that is really fascinating. And you're right: I think that is what good stories are like. Incidentally a friend of mine once drove through a tornado.

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