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.