Archive for March 2004

Tornado Time

Destruction in Oklahoma City

I grew up in the Midwest – that’s the part of the country that most famous people fly-over as the travel between east and west coast – or so they would have you believe. Most of America’s movers and shakers actually hail from this part of the country – Brad Pitt (Missouri) and Madonna (Michegan) leap to mind. I have spent quite a lot of time in basements, waiting for storms to pass, and listening to the National Weather Service.

The American Midwest has more tornados than any other part of the world. This fact is due to the Gulf of Mexico, which sends streams of warm moist air northward that then collides with cold air coming down from Canada. Twisters are the result, and most Midwesterners have seen them up close and personal. Tornados are frightfully awesome things as is the weather that spawns them. I have ridden out storms in Africa, survived typhoons in Japan and earthquakes in California – but there is nothing like a Spring or Summer storm that brews up in the late afternoon on the American plains.

Imagine looking out a window at the sky, then taking black spraypaint and covering the sky with it. It may seem an exaggeration, but ask any Midwesterner and she’ll tell you that it looks kind of like that – just the clouds are darker. The rain comes down sideways as it is whipped by strong winds. Looking up at the clouds one sees layers of black, the lower layers moving faster than the upper ones as lightening streaks binds them together and the resulting thunder rumbles up through the ground and groans its way up your bones. Then amongst the rain you begin to see what appears to be larger rain drops that fall vertically through the windswept rain, then bounce off the ground. That’s the hail that usually precedes a tornado.

At this point a true Midwesterner decides it’s time to shoot some pool in the basement rec room. Before a funnel cloud appears, Nature’s drama quiets down. The rain and hail usually lightens, as does the sky which takes a pale green color. It’s a rare color to see in the sky, and everytime I’ve seen it a tornado is usually nearby.

The funnel itself often starts off as nothing more than some low clouds spinning in a circle. The tail slowly forms and is often whipped sideways by the prevailing winds. If one is close enough – one begins to hear a low barely perceptible sound that yes, does indeed sound like a distant freight train.

I’ll have to stop there with my description because after that point I’ve always been in the basement – whether placed there by the calloused hands of my father or by the good sense that my mother gave me.

I still dream about tornados. For me they are an archetype for change. I’ve seen them in my dreams whenever something big is happening in my life: a trip abroad, the birth of a kid, etc. I’m seeing them now.

Unfortunately, there are quite a few Midwesterners who are seeing them up close and personal and not just in their dreams. As of the time I write this, 42 have died – and we’re not even halfway through tornado season. The America media, mostly based on the East Coast, is reporting about these storms – showing the devastation, interviewing survivors. What many of you may not know, especially the large portion of you (about 40% according to my site statistics) who live outside the USA, is that Midwesterners are the tough of the tough. We come from tough stock – Swedes and Norwegians in the northern states, Germans and Irish in the middle, and French (the pre-1789 variety) and Irish in the south. We tend not to whine. So far all of the survivors I have seen interviewed are smiling – not crying. Why? One said it all: She was happy to be alive. She had ridden out a tornado in Oklahoma with her three grandchildren in the basement. Her house wiped out completely. She joked, “Well, I’ve always wanted a sunroof.” Her home had no walls – let alone a roof.

I am a firm believer that adversity is the true test of a man. One learns what kind of person one is when times are tough. One also learns who one’s friends are, or how strong one’s organizations are. The people of the American Midwest are facing some serious adversity, and I think that their fortitude and strength is not being appreciated by those of you who do not live in the region. You are also not aware of how well institutions like the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Red Cross are functioning. If you want to see how good your insurance company is, see how fast their reps show up in Kansas and note how fast claims are paid.

The Midwestern Americans are going through some very tough times right now. Many have loved ones serving their nation abroad; others have lost their jobs and now their homes. The worst have lost their lives or their loved ones. A Fox News reporter standing in the middle of a wiped out subdivision cannot accurately portray how devastated the people who once lived in those homes really are. But they are the toughest of the tough. I am reminded of Tom Wolfe’s quote about Americans:

  Americans are childish in many ways and about as subtle as a Wimpy burger; but in the long run it doesn’t make any difference. They just turn on the power.  

Keep that in mind but don’t forget that Midwesterners deserve a place in your prayers though they are too proud to ask.