Gone with the wind


I hate thunderstorms.

Some people find them relaxing, even romantic. Not me. Storms like that wind me into a sort of controlled anxiety. Growing up in the shadow of the 1974 Xenia Tornado, a thunderstorm always set me on alert, scanning the skies like Chicken Little, certain something terrible would swoop down and obliterate my world.

When I was a little kid, I put together an emergency kit and hid it under the basement stairway. It had a thermos of water, dehydrated ice cream (that gross, Neopolitan NASA museum stuff), a flashlight, matches, candles, and cans of soup. I know it seems silly now, but give me a break. I was like ten, and I thought I was being prepared.

I was always taught that knowledge was my best defense against fear. Over time, I educated myself about the meteorology surrounding tornados and the storms that spawned them. As I got older, the fear dissipated, eventually replaced by scientific understanding and respect. I wasn’t scared anymore. I even went on a couple of storm chases. But one rainy spring day, that newly minted resolve would be tested up close.

It was the spring of 1988, and I was a commuting college student. One afternoon, I’d just arrived home after class, and my parents were making a bedding delivery in the truck. I popped in a video and settled in with some takeout before starting my homework.

The weather had been threatening since mid-morning, and the afternoon brought even darker skies. Our house sat in the center of 25 acres, back a long lane, so it was very quiet there. I was sitting next to the open window in my bedroom, engaged in my movie, when a massive clap of thunder and lightning nearly knocked me out of my chair. The power went out.

I went downstairs and out the back door to look at the sky. An ominous wall of clouds was closing in from the southwest. I hurried around the house and behind our barn, where I could see the livestock. Usually, when a storm approached, the cattle meandered down the hillside into the valley behind our house. That’s just where they were. Smart creatures.

Back at the house, I paused on the front porch step as the wind kicked up. Another bone-rattling clap of thunder boomed and brilliant lightning illuminated the dark sky. That’s when I saw it. Rainwater ran into my eyes as I stood there motionless in the downpour. A small tornado spun down out of the sky like a crooked finger reaching for the ground.

It touched down, moved along the edge of our hayfield, and whipped up dirt, grass, and other debris as it intensified. Moving parallel to my position, the funnel picked up speed, crashed into one of my dad’s grain trucks, and shattered its old wooden sideboards into kindling.

I probably should have run to the basement, but I couldn’t move. Unconsciously, I fought my basic instinct and didn’t move. I wanted to see it. I needed to see it. I never imagined I would be so close and never felt threatened. It was oddly quiet. There was no freight train sound, as most people usually report; it was probably too small.

My ears popped as it passed, however. The funnel continued another quarter-mile, still moving along the field. It was as if a hidden puppeteer controlled it. The thing slipped across the road, narrowly missed a house, and blew apart a small horse barn. As quickly as it had appeared, it was gone, dissolved into the air. All was quiet.

I’m not sure how smart it was to stand there. I knew the tornado, however small, was dangerously unpredictable and could have changed course and come right at me. But sometimes, we just must face our fears and meet them head-on. I was never again afraid.

Since that day back on the farm, I’ve been close to at least three other tornadoes. I still do my best to be prepared. When shopping for my first house, I had only one deal-breaking requirement—a basement. I also have a little more in my emergency kit these days than a can of Campbell’s.

Gery Deer is a Greene County resident and columnist. He can be reached at www.gldcommunications.com.

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