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.

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