Tornado!

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This might come up on the TV screen, interrupting programming, when there was a tornado warning. The image still makes me uneasy.

I was probably 45 years old before I stopped getting nauseous when there was a tornado watch or warning (I was well acquainted with the difference between the two – and either one caused the same reaction).

Before reaching 45, though, the atmospheric conditions present when tornadoes were possible seemed to inhabit my body. My insides were as unsettled as the air outside. The ominous clouds scuttling across the sky mirrored the feeling in my stomach.

My fear of tornadoes began in Illinois in 1968. Growing up in Canarsie (Brooklyn), I had not experienced tornado watches or warnings. If they happened, I wasn’t aware of it. My awareness of twisters was informed mostly by watching The Wizard of Oz and as long as it remained on the TV screen, I could handle it.

When we got to Illinois, where my Dad attended graduate school for three successive summers, I learned about them first hand. It seemed like there were tornado watches almost everyday. I spent a lot of time studying the sky and feeling queasy. My brothers had quite a different reaction.

One particular afternoon things got serious. Fat raindrops started to fall. First there were gusty winds and then it got very still. The sky had a yellowish-greenish tint. We had been playing outside the graduate student housing where we lived when adults, including my Mom, emerged to gather us up and shepherd us into a ground level apartment. Lawn furniture and toys were pulled inside as well.

I immediately went where I was told to go and sat huddled in a corner, away from the windows. Snacks were offered as a distraction. The idea of eating a potato chip turned my stomach. I declined the offer.

The radio was broadcasting emergency instructions repeatedly. The static-y voice kept telling us to move to an interior room and under a heavy piece of furniture. I wanted to find a desk to sit under, but there were a lot of us in the apartment so I just stayed put in my corner. My Mom sat next to me, trying to comfort me, until she realized that my brothers were nowhere to be found. Apparently they thought it would be exciting to actually see the tornado. They were 10 and 12 years old (I was 7) and they had either never come inside or they snuck out. My mother found them running up the hill behind the building trying to spot the funnel cloud. Hearing the frantic tone in her voice must have registered with them because they did come back. I think the offer of snacks may have also influenced their decision. Most of the kids’ appetites were undisturbed. Meanwhile, I concentrated on not throwing up.

Eventually the storm passed without doing damage to the immediate area. I don’t think the funnel cloud touched down near us. The fact that nothing happened, though, didn’t lessen my anxiety about the possibilities. Throughout our entire time in Illinois, I dreaded the interruption of a television show with a weather bulletin. I’d listen carefully to the locations – for a 7 year old, I was very aware of the geography around me and knew the names of the nearby towns and how close the storms were.

Many years later (around 1985 while Gary was in medical school at the University of Pittsburgh) we went on a camping trip with friends. Yes, you read that right. Those of you know who Gary well, know that camping is not his cup of tea and this trip confirmed it for him. We were coming back to Pittsburgh from our adventure along the Cheat River in West Virginia, where Gary imagined hearing lions and tigers and bears outside our pup tent. While I did not share his anxiety while we were in the woods, I had my share of worry on the trip back. I was sitting in the backseat of the car, looking at the sky and feeling uneasy. I had that familiar feeling in my stomach – the one that said “Tornado!.”

Since we had made it to the interstate highway, nearing civilization, someone flipped on the car radio. My instincts were confirmed moments later when an emergency weather bulletin was broadcast. There was a tornado warning in the area. Not knowing enough about the surrounding geography, I didn’t know how close it was to us. The others in the car barely paused in their chatter. I sat silent, my head on a swivel, scanning the sky in every direction, plotting what to do if I saw a funnel cloud, willing us to get back to our apartment in Pittsburgh safely.

Fortunately, other than spotting some ominous clouds in the distance, we didn’t encounter any difficulties. We arrived back to our sturdy brick apartment building and the roiling in my stomach subsided. Another bullet dodged.

Although we have lived in upstate New York for the last 30 years, with climate change, we have experienced tornado watches, warnings and actual twisters touching down in the area with increasing frequency. Sometime after our children were grown, I can’t pinpoint a date or event, I realized that I didn’t experience the queasy, unsettled feeling anymore. I’m not sure if it was a physical change – my body stopped functioning as a barometer – or if it was a psychic change – or both. Either way, I let go of the fear. I resigned myself to nature’s uncertainty and my inability to control it, and it happened while I wasn’t looking. While I won’t be doing what my brothers did any time soon, nor will I become a storm chaser, I have come to peace – at least with tornados.

8 thoughts on “Tornado!

  1. Why not say that was your first migraine attack? The doctors said not to dive from the high board at the pool. The doctor I called in NY (he did the surgery) couldn’t diagnose your vision problems without seeing you. It wasn’t till much later we were told if was classic migraine. Despite everything Illinois was a great time for all of us. I still remember the root beer floats and your games

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    1. Mom, this is a perfect example of ‘stories we tell ourselves.’ I tell myself a different story – the one I wrote on the blog. I don’t remember my fear of tornadoes as my first migraine. I remember my first migraine happening in Illinois, in our third summer there, and I may well write about it because I do have clear memories of it (and the issues it raised since I don’t think doctors thought children got migraines). In my mind it is not connected to the fear of tornadoes, though. So that is why I didn’t write that. I do have great memories of root beer floats and July 4th parades and playing ‘Bloody Murder’ and ‘Red Rover,’ etc. while we were in Illinois. Like many things in life, there were wonderful times and painful times.

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  2. Linda, I really enjoyed this story. Not of the fear you felt, but reading about the unpredictable weather conditions in the Midwest, something not seen around the East coast very often.
    Like you, my frame of reference where tornadoes were concerned was The Wizard of Oz, and later Places in the Heart. We grew up listening to my Dad and Gramma’s vivid recollections of the Worcester Tornado in June 1953. Years later when the Fujita scale was developed, it registered a 4.0, which was incredible devastation. Our imaginations far exceeded any video, if it existed. Fear mixed with excitement.
    June 1, 2011. The TV news stations are full of reports of a Tornado watch in the Springfield area, 90 minutes away. Then comes the news a tornado has actually touched down. The stations have a countdown clock and cartoon graphic, indicating when the tornado may hit your town. Zach is home alone and frantic with worry. We are instructed to take cover in a basement or tub. Thankfully it changes direction, but I have never seen a sky before or since that looked anything like what we saw that day.

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  3. First of all, I must commend the outstanding writing. Your ability to so beautifully describe what you saw and what you felt is really amazing. And that is my biggest take home from reading this blog post. But I must also mention, after reading what you and your mother wrote, that what you witnessed was not a tornado and was not a migraine. It was a malfunction of the root beer float machine sending ominously colored droplets into the sky. If only the blender hadn’t broken, none of this would ever have happened. Of course, I could be wrong.

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  4. I do recall the tornado event and running outside to the dismay of Mom to actually view the tornado. I don’t believe I actually saw it. I must say I was not fearful of it, at least then, I am not so sure I would have the same bravado today should a similar event occur now. I have a vague remembrance of you being worried, I think about me though being outside and such, and not the pending storm. I truly don’t recall any other tornado warnings during our time in Illinois. I guess I was just oblivious to it. All in all those three summers in Illinois were quite good.

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