Men fighting against men. Color against color. Kin against kin. Race pushing against race. And all of us battling against the wind and the rain and that bright crackling lightning that booms and zooms, that bathes his eyes in the white sky, wrestles a river to a standstill, and spends the night drunk in a whorehouse. – “Soldiers in the Dust” from “Bound for Glory.”
I was four and a half on May 4, 1977. A rather boring day, I built a blanket and pillow fort on the couch where I watched game shows all morning. It was laundry day, with my mother going up and down the steep stairs to our concrete slab basement with heaped plastic baskets.
The biggest excitement of the day? Waiting for her to invite me to join her for a little laundry bonding. So when she told me to hurry up and get to the basement, I thought the time had finally come for me to tip-toe peer into the sudsy drum that churned my muddy duds clean again.
Instead of going to the washing machine, she hustled me to the other side of the basement, a dark, webby storage corner. We huddled under a tent of blankets while my mother cried, asking me to pray with her for my dad, who was running his rural milk delivery route, to come home safely.
In the cold dankness, hearing my mother pray for my father, her sobs, and the howl and roar above us not five minutes after Bob Barker instructed his contestants to spin the big wheel for a chance at the Showcase Showdown, was when I learned just how fast a tornado can gnash large portions of my hometown. One minute it’s laundry and Barker’s beauties. The next, we’re praying for our lives.
The tornado was just shy of an F4, with winds over 200 miles per hour. One dead, thirty injured, 150 homes destroyed. 300 damaged in an eleven-mile path. In a town with 20,000 people. Two schools were so wrecked they had to close for the last month of classes.
We drove through town with my grandmother in her yellow VW wagon, and the wailed at the destruction. Under a bright blue sky with sun reflecting the flooded puddles, the new May verdant leaves from trees upended, sharing the ground with balls of pink fluff. Fresh green and cotton candy looks like a wonderland until you realize the pink fluff is the guts of fiberglass insulation, ripped from the soul of the homes when the storm turned them inside-out.
Three years later, it happened again. Once again, we huddled in the basement, our home and family spared. And again in 1982. Twice. The week of Thanksgiving in 1990.
Six years ago a wall of wind descended on St. Louis, leaving us and a million others without power during the hottest week of July. It happened so fast that the windows on the east side of our house were sunny while the ones to the west went black. That one happened so fast there wasn’t time to sound the alarms.
Hurricane Sandy didn’t scare me, because I’ve seen death drop from the sky with no notice. I knew Sandy was likely to hit New York nearly a week before my trip.
Not that this completely prepared me.