Thursday, August 12, 2010

WARNING: This might only be a watch!

Tornado warning number 15 this summer, during the Ann Arbor Art Fair. Doesn't look that bad to me! (photo by Lon Horwedel)

For my mother, who was smart enough to die in March before the official start of tornado season.

I’m not sure just when, but the rules changed somewhere along the line when it comes to tornados. Conditions that one constituted only a tornado watch, suddenly have everyone scrambling for cover every time it dumps a little rain or farts a little thunder.

The meteorologists now feel that any rotation in the clouds constituting a storm front is enough for them to fire out a tornado warning – whether a funnel cloud is spotter or not. This has led to a long summer of wailing sirens and repeated trips to the basement.

Not that I’m not used to repeated trips to the basement, but it’s been a while. It was the summer of 1974, to be exact, when my mother made it her personal mission to keep every one of her offspring safe from the ravaging dangers of the “killer” tornado that was sure to level our town.

She was scared to death of thunderstorms anyway, but when a true “killer” tornado hit Xenia, Ohio earlier that spring, killing 33 people (it was one of a record 148 tornados that touched down in a two-day period, April 3-4) it put her over the edge.

Her paranoia got so bad; we were heading to the basement on days that were only partly cloudy! I still remember sneaking a peek out the dirty, narrow windows of our dark, damp basement as the neighbor kids played in their yard.

“Mom, I don’t think it’s that bad out.” I’d say from the floor of the southwest corner of the basement, head safely tucked between my knees in the official tornado-disaster position.* 

“Yeah mom,” my sister complained, “the sun is shining!”

My mother would have none of it.

“You two shut up and get your heads back between your knees!” She’d shout. 

Then she would go on to tell us of the telltale signs of a tornado approaching: the hail, the eerie calm (maybe she got that one mixed up with the eye of a hurricane) the Aqua-Velva-green sky, the sound of a freight train, etc.

As she warned us of our horrific fate, she’d dart from window to window, scanning the sky like a hawk looking for anything vaguely conically-shaped in the clouds. Oddly enough, my father always was left out of the mix. More often than not, he was upstairs sleeping on the couch when all hell would break loose.

“Shouldn’t dad be down here too?” One of us would ask.

“He’ll be fine.” She’d shoot back.

Even though I was only 9, I got the feeling that for years my mother secretly was devising some wicked plot to rid herself of my dad – mostly because she told me so every chance she got – so I figured the thought of the house caving in on my poor father while he slept on the couch offered some solace to my mother as she paced the basement.

Folks watching the radar in the basement of the Michigan League where all Art Fair patrons were sent during a July tornado warning in Ann Arbor. (Photo by Lon Horwedel)

Somewhat amazingly, our house never got leveled that summer, or any other summer for that matter, and near as I can figure, my dad safely slept through roughly 1,367 family trips to the basement during my childhood. I suspect he’s slept through every warning this summer as well.

But somewhere along the way – maybe it was the gigantic frogs, or the big hairy spiders, or perhaps the centipedes that often nestled with me in the infamous “southwest corner” - I got to thinking it might be safer to be outside in a potential twister than in our dark, moldy, critter-infested basement. It was at that point that I actually started wanting to see a tornado, or at the very least a funnel cloud.

My mother thought I was crazy, but by the time I was 18 and had a camera in hand, I not only wanted to see a twister, but photograph one as well. Several times in the past 27-years I thought for sure I would succeed. I’ve seen the Aqua-Velva-green sky, I’ve heard the freight train, and some of the hailstorms I’ve experienced looked like a for-sure a twister was on its way - still, 27-years and nothing.

That’s why the rash of warnings this summer has me somewhat befuddled. One glance at the less-than-ominous-looking sky and I hear myself asking, “Are you serious?” My kids, however, seem to have inherited their grandmother’s genes when it comes to “fear-of-the-twister.”

“Dad, shouldn’t you come down to the basement with us?” They’ve asked me at least a dozen times this summer.

“I’ll be down when the first shingle flies off the house.” I tell them. “Oh, and stay away from the southwest corner, you’re better off hulking under one of the steel support beams.”

Hey, better safe than sorry.

* The southwest corner was the official “safe zone” in our basement.  The theory being that most tornados strike from the southwest and if one actually did destroy our house, all the debris would be sent flying over our heads and into the northeast corner – a theory I never quite bought into. As for the official tornado-disaster position (on your knees, tucked, hands over your head) I guess the experts figured it was better to have your spine and the back of your head crushed to a pulp than any other part of your body.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

August - The Sunday of Summer

August - Summer's almost gone. (Photo by Lon Horwedel)

(note: After a month off, I'm back to writing on a regular basis starting with today's post. I'll also be working on a few other book projects this fall as well. I'll post a few excerpts from those projects in the coming weeks. Hope you like them! - Lon)

As I stood bleary-eyed over the toilet this morning and began the oh-so-annoying start and stop ritual of emptying my aging bladder, I looked up at the calendar hanging on the wall over our toilet and noticed the date was Sunday, August 1.

Fitting, I suppose, that the first day of August would fall on a Sunday. I mean the whole month of August feels like a Sunday to me. The Sunday of summer. The beginning of the end of the best stretch of the calendar year.

In between my poorly aimed, weak spurts of urine, I started thinking about our summers here in the northern hemisphere, more specifically, how they relate to a typical weekend.

It all starts with June, I realized – the Friday of summer. So much promise, so much time. If you throw away a day here or a day there, who cares? It’s only June. But June is short - way too short if you have kids in school. This year my kids weren’t released into the world until June 18th, giving them a mere 12 days of June to enjoy before July marched in and took over. But I guess that’s the way Fridays go. You waste more than half your day at work, and then try to make up for it from 5 o’clock on.

Before you know it, it’s Saturday – the best day of the weekend. July is the Saturday of summer. A great time to just relax and let the chips fall where they may. July lasts forever in a 31-day package. It gives you time to plan by not planning anything. Maybe you’ll take in a ballgame, maybe not. Maybe you’ll go see some fireworks, maybe not. Maybe you’ll go to the pool on a hot day, or the Dairy Queen at night. Maybe you’ll camp out in the back yard and catch lightning bugs with the kids. Maybe you’ll even take them to Cedar Point. It doesn’t really matter – nothing really matters in July, the best month of the entire year.

But now, today, it’s August 1st, and that’s not cool. Yesterday was just fine, it was still July, still Saturday, but today is Sunday - the Sunday of summer. Today will be a little shorter - maybe by only a few seconds, but still shorter. Soon the air will be filled with the nauseating sound of cicadas buzzing. The grass will stop growing and start to turn brown. The corn stalks are tall, sharp and itchy. It’s hotter than hell, but I’m tired of going to the pool.

I don’t wear sunscreen in August. My arms already have turned a deep, dark brown, so why bother? But my skin no longer has the suppleness of youth. It looks old and tired, like a worn-out ball glove. My Aunt Lori had skin like that, especially after she lost a lot of weight. I used to marvel at how wrinkley and brown her forearms looked by the end of the summer. Now I can’t help but notice that my arms look the same way, on this, the 45th August of my life.

I saw a maple tree yesterday that already started turning orange. It won’t be long now. I better get off my ass and do something before it’s too late. I never went to Cedar Point with the kids. I didn’t catch one lightning bug. I still haven’t been to a ballgame. I rode my bike one stinkin’ time. What the hell have I been doing all summer?

The kids will be in school soon. I have to start planning something – anything! They’re not getting any younger you know. What were you thinking? Soon they’ll hate your guts and never want anything to do with you ever again. You better come up with something good. You better not blow this. You’ve got one month buddy – one lousy month to take that family vacation you’re always talking about. It’s now or never asshole – just do it! Come up with a damn plan and do it!

Wait … shit, I forgot. This week is Shark Week on the Discovery Channel. I love Shark Week!

But what about your plans you idiot? You told yourself you were going to come up with a plan for the family vacation today. You’ve been saying it for three weeks now.

Ah hell, it’s only August 1st. I’ve got plenty of time. Besides, it’s Sunday – the Lord’s Day, a day of rest. I’ll figure out what we’re going to do later tonight, or maybe tomorrow … by the end of the week for sure.

After my last pitiful attempt at a final squirt, I put away my weapon of mass disruption, wiped pee splatters off the floor, the toilet seat and parts of the wall, and then washed my hands and went back to bed.

It was only 6:30 a.m. on Sunday, August 1st.