The first time I ever experienced a tornado warning, I was maybe 4 or 5 years old & living smack dab in the middle of tornado country (Iowa). My parents woke me up in the middle of the night (which was probably 10 or 11pm, really) to tote me downstairs, making this mystical “tornado” thing seem like it would be the end of us all. In other words, I thoroughly believed I had about a 50-50 shot at dying before I made it to kindergarten.
I proceeded to lie on my back on the carpet & cry. Like a tiny, terrified hamster, I burrowed, shielding my face with a couple of pillows. To a child with little conception of the force of nature, I guess this seemed sufficient for protecting me from the flying glass that was–in my mind–imminent. It was at about this point that the nausea hit. One of my parents–I don’t remember which one–was given the task of going back upstairs (into the eye of the storm, I thought) to retrieve what we fondly termed a “puke bucket.”
We had a number of these buckets–just recycled trick-or-treating bowls–to be carried around & rinsed out accordingly. One decorated with little shadowy witches rode in my mom’s van between the two front seats. (I only remember having to use this one once.) The puke bucket of the night, however, was shallower–white with a looming ghost face embossed upon it–& I spent a good two hours hugging it for dear life.
Afterward, when the sirens had stopped & the rain had quieted, I was released from my downstairs captivity & trudged back to bed. Though I still felt pukey (you can bet I took that bucket to bed with me), the overarching feeling was one of annoyance. Completely unshockingly, I’ve been prone to spectacle & excitement since I was an infant–but not spectacle that fails to deliver anything at all.
I definitely didn’t want my roof to be ripped off or for my grandparents to be trapped in their house, 45 minutes away–two scenarios which had been made to seem significantly likely over the course of the night. My normally stoic-to-a-fault 6’3″ dad paced back & forth from the basement door to the couch, his mouth & cheeks softened into an expression that was utterly foreign to me: fear. I doubt, if you asked him today, he’d tell you he was afraid of tornadoes. And maybe “afraid” isn’t the right word, really–maybe it’s more “apprehensive” or “cautious”–maybe “aware.” But he’d grown up in tornado alley, shuffling from Iowa to Oklahoma & back, & was appropriately wary of tornadoes.
Nonetheless, he always seemed to hold a fascination for them. He’d be pallid, lips fidgety, but would staunchly refuse to go into the basement. Instead, he would stand outside the screen door on the back porch, getting hailed on as he eyed the sky suspiciously, mentally tracking any change in the color of the clouds. Green meant tornadoes, he taught me. My grandma also told me that the leaves turn upside down before a storm. I treasured this knowledge, fancying it to be some kind of grand Okie wisdom. (I still excitedly throw out “The leaves are upside down! It’s about to storm!” any chance I get, despite having since learned the science behind it.)
I doubt, though, that it was science that provided my dad with a hearty respect for tornadoes. His comments revolved around the sheer devastating power of the storms–that they could decimate your house in nothing flat, imbue harmless branches with the slicing power of machetes. Tornadoes, I suspect, gave him contradictory senses of empowerment & helplessness. In the face of a twister, no one–regardless of physical or mental strength–can do much to protect themselves or their families. At the same time, though, he didn’t hesitate to tromp outside to investigate, demanding the rest of us stay inside & go downstairs.
This bravado impressed me to no end as a child, & of course, it made me want to do the same. I only remember one other time I went to the basement during a storm–my dad was still at work & my mom had ushered us downstairs after having driven us across town through a torrent of rain & sirens. I was still in elementary school when I started traipsing outside during tornado warnings. I wanted to see the green skies & golf-ball-sized hail. I wanted the honey-like humidity to slop itself onto my skin.
As I got older, I would convince other people to not only go outside during a storm, but to go chase it. The tornado siren was an instant shot of adrenaline, & watching from the porch or street wasn’t enough anymore. Once I had that energy, I wanted to be closer & closer to the eye of the storm.
I think this desire–one I still possess–is multi-faceted. Diving into the eye of a tornado takes me back to being ten years old & standing on the stoop with my dad, mesmerized by the bizarre patterns above us. It lets me–in a transparent act of mimicry–act out the bravery (bravado? recklessness?) I learned from him. But I also don’t have the fear of tornadoes that he had. I find them to be enthralling–sometimes a little anxiety-provoking, but not scary. It’s strange, really, that I’m not scared of tornadoes, seeing as how I’m scared of nearly everything else on the planet. Maybe my refusal to be afraid of storms is a way for me to subconsciously one-up him. But then again, I’m not sure I could name five things–even tiny things–my dad is afraid of. Maybe my psychological triumph over tornadoes is my way of finding something I can (at least in my head) protect him from. It’s not much, but maybe it’s what I feel like I can offer.