If you're from The sunflower state, you recognize this panel of an iconic mural called Tragic Prelude, by John Steuart Curry, found in the Kansas state capitol. People marvel at the maniacal image of John Brown, but not me. The tornado in the background catches my eye. My nemesis. You see, the summer before my fifth birthday, a tornado destroyed my home.
We sat in the living room on a Saturday evening watching TV and eating hot, gooey pizza delivered to our door 10-minutes prior. An apple pie mom baked earlier in the afternoon rested atop the stove in the kitchen. Life was good, a night of pizza and warm pie to brighten a stormy day. Rain pelted the roof, muffling the sound of the sitcom. My sister and I went into the kitchen to pick pepperoni off the remaining slices. She saw something out the kitchen window, and ran back into the living room. She was frightened, which scared me, so I followed. We had no warning, just the lights going out, a half-second squak of a siren, then the solid oak front door flying open. Dad told us to get to the basement. For once in his life, he had no arguments from the three females he lived with.
Seconds seemed like minutes, life became slow-motion. Yet, the thirty feet from the living room, through the kitchen, to the stairs felt like miles. My little legs clomped down the treacherous incline to the dark pit in record speed. My sister hunted for something to cover us with, hesitating when she yanked on a blanket and a pile of luggage to crashed to the floor. Mom and dad tried to figure out the best place to go in the basement. They debated over the corner under the living room where the tornado would hit last, or the corner under the master suite where it would hit first. They chose under the bedroom, then decided to split up. We ended up huddled under a square card table, three girls cocooned in a wool blanket. It was just rigid cardboard over us, but better than nothing at all. Dad crouched under the ground-level escape window, the kind required by code but totally worthless because no one ever had ladders for every window.
It hit us, full on. We rode it out. I’m blessed, because I can’t remember that part. Strange how your mind does things to protect you.
When silence replaced the roar of destruction, we remained still. Until we heard Dad cursing a blue streak. After all that, rain. Then he realized the water hitting him came from burst pipes. We crawled out from our safe spot and looked around, the once dark basement now illuminated by daylight seeping through the floorboards above. The place hadn’t changed much, still a messy storage area. Except for the ceiling over the living room. Completely caved in, splinters of wood and fluffy pink tufts of insulation dangled a few feet above the cement floor. The insurance adjuster told us later that most likely, at some point after the roof and walls tore off the foundation, the twister flipped one of the cars parked in the garage onto the living room floor then flung it out into the street a hundred yards away.
People above shouted, asking if we were okay. We responded yes, and dad decided to climb up to assess the damage. Remarkably, the stairs held up well, with only small bits of debris littered randomly on the boards: an upright, unscathed, full bottle of Coke; a potato; pieces of glass; a cup; bits of wood. He stood at the top, rays of sunlight bouncing off his white-blond hair. We didn’t pick up on that. There shouldn’t have been sunlight in the kitchen.
Mom wanted out of the basement. Dad warned her she wasn’t going to like what she saw. She didn’t care. She picked me up, grabbed my sister’s arm, and marched us up. I was thirsty so I reached down to the Coke bottle and asked if I could have a drink. She shook me upright and said no. With every step, mom ranted. We were going straight to the garage, getting into the car, and driving away from this hell-hole. She didn’t care where. Just far away. Dad heard every word, and didn’t say a thing. He merely stood there watching us. When mom’s head broke the surface of the floor, her tirade halted. There was no house, no garage, no car. Everything we owned--obliterated.
Dad let her take it all in, then responded with a touch of laughter in his voice, “I’d like to see you try, lady.”
We were barefoot. Mom, dad, and sis got cuts on their feet from wading through the rubble to get out onto the street. They took turns carrying me so at least one member of the family could remain unscathed. But I was already injured. I wouldn’t know how badly until years later.
The dreams started a few months after the disaster. Freakish nightmares of tornados with faces and voices chased and taunted me. They didn’t happen often, and I eventually saw a pattern. Anxious about a test, tornado dream. Worried about the big game, tornado dream. Big decision to make, tornado dream. I conquered them in high school. The nightmares meant I needed to resolve something in my mind before moving forward. I learned how to analyze their meaning, remedy the conflict, then go back to sleep. But they never went away, four decades later, still going strong.
During college in Colorado Springs, I experienced my first wind storm. Granted, the wind blew constantly in Kansas, but this was something entirely different. Howling down the front range of the Rockies, gusts blasted out building and car windows, toppled people over. The incessant wailing and pounding pressure in my ears caused subconscious playbacks of the tornado. During those torturous nights, I wandered aimlessly through the dorm hallways, unable to sleep. Later, as an adult, the military stationed me in four east coast states where I experienced numerous Nor’easters and hurricanes. Hours and hours of the sound of a tornado ran through my head.
The older I got, the more terrified I became. While most people used the new twenty-four hour advanced tornado predictions to watch their weather apps a bit closer, I let them feed my neurosis. I even took off work to prepare for the potential storms, positioning water, clothes, shoes, backup hard drive, flashlights, important papers, journal, toiletries, and cash into a centrally located, small room. I put sturdy boots on, charged up the electronics, and leashed the dog to stay by my side and ensure obedience should a warning sound. I stocked the safe room with protective gear like pillows, blankets, and my bike helmet. Then I sat in front of the TV, glued to the local news station, with occasional breaks to go outside and look at the clouds. Far from normal behavior, it was the only way I knew how to cope.
I eventually settled in San Antonio area of Texas, the land of mild winters, where spring storms rarely produced tornados. Yet I spent one night the first month in my new house huddled in the closet during a severe storm. I was awake, and I needed a way to channel my fear into something positive. Doodling on a piece of ruled notebook paper, an idea emerged about my dreams. With the dog snuggled against my leg, I sat in the corner of my safe room and developed the concept for a book called Daughter of the South Wind.