Friday, May 23, 2008

A Tornado In Colorado

So different looking at a tornado on TV and going out on our deck, here in the northwest corner of Longmont, Colorado, to see one live. It came out of the southwest yesterday, at 50 mph, heading on a path 5 miles away, which spared our apartment complex. It was heading northeast. The black cloud was enormous as it approached. It didn't look like a tornado, but was clearly a menace from edge to edge, wide, huge.

We think tornado as a thin, whirling spout from cloud to ground, reaching down to finger the earth. This monstrous one was a mile to a mile and a half in width, letting us know that we couldn't dodge and weave out of its path, should it come straight at us. And it was just, and always, down on the ground. A hungry, humongous cloud -- no pillar -- it squashed down on earth, until the area it enveloped and smothered was invisible. A big - black - dark cloud.

The immense girth of it was rotating slowly, not in the ferociously fast spinning of a twisting probe for whatever it could touch and obliterate, but a bulk of blob, swallowing, swallowing without a gulp, then spitting out its vomit. It passed on by, implacable, relentless, roaringly sure in its conviction that it could never be stopped, until it chose to stop. Invincible.

A twister on TV is thin in a spin, scooping  clean a dirty floor like a darting broom. Yesterday's tornado was the vacuum cleaner of the sky, its intake as wide as the mouth of a great river. It was as if Mother Weather had laid down her high-powered sniper's rifle of a twister, to wield the mushroom cloud of a nuclear weapon, or the pyroclastic flow of a volcano as big as our county.  We lost the sun.  As we craned our necks around to the northeast –our deck faces south -- the sun returned. The great black cloud was moving on to the north, down low, real low, on Windsor and Fort Collins, heading for Cheyenne.  

Kevin and I knew that its path could have been straight at us, rather than keeping a few miles away and slanting off to the northeast. Still, it was no noonday devil's show to gawk at. This was a tornado as big as the sky, and we were in it, not dead center, but off on a radius toward its outer circumference. We didn't have to flee and could stay there, near the outer edge of doom, while it came, bearhugged the land to our east, moved on quickly, relentlessly, consuming whatever was below. And then it was gone.

We knew we were safe as observers outside on the deck, but felt like guilty bystanders. Jean was deeper in it, though, closer to the center, driving the RAV4 on her way home from  3 miles away. We were stationery on the deck, but she was moving on and inside the great black cloud. Golf-ball hail, same size as ping-pong balls, but not as harmless, splattered the hood and roof of her car, as if thousands of AK-47s on full-automatic were spewing rounds of crackling whack after whack after whack. All she could see and hear was swirling, saturated black storm and other lost cars moaning and weaving and avoiding each other in the instinct to survive. She kept on heading for home, hands so tight on the steering wheel, she thought it would snap off before the hail bashed the car into putty. Hail and rain eased. Black lightened, lifted into an oozing  grey.

She found the entrance to our complex, and, parking below, she saw a neighbor's car passing by, dented severely from hail that must have been the size of of baseballs and just as hard. A new-car-sticker was still stuck in the left rear window, dealer plates of cardboard were ragged and ripped, and the pitiable car looked as if it were on the way to a junkyard to be crushed for scrap. So did its driver, who must have been out there closer to the center of the storm. As Jean came up the stairs, the sun was allowed to beam, and we began to return to the ordinary comfort and extraordinary adventure of another day on the High Plains, at the edge of the Rockies in Colorado.

Storms come and go. Great storms are embedded in remembery and linger on. The difference in the memories of those storms is that a hurricane terrifies and hangs on for hours, days, but a tornado terrifies and is gone before it comes.

17 years ago, on October 30, 1991, I was in a Nor'easter in Maine, made famous by Sebastian Junger in The Perfect Storm and the movie of the same name. When we visit Linda, Jean's friend in Gloucester, MA, we go out to eat in the restaurant, where the crew of the swordfish vessel Andrea Gail had their last meal ashore. Before that storm became so famous, it lodged deep in memory, because I was so scared. Our house was just 75 yards from the furious raging of the Atlantic Ocean. The building wracked, its picture window slammed by winds close to 70
mph, which threatened to smash it into fragments. Hoping to escape with our lives, I forced our family into the car and took off for the Hendrys, our in-laws in Freeport, Maine.

That drive was only 30 miles, but it took a long time to get there. My hands ached from the white-knuckled fear that comes from being the only car on the road fleeing for safety in a monster storm. A haunting image remains: a old man in a yellow slicker with a hood, hunkered on an older bicycle, pedaling his way through rain gushing over him like waves crashing down on a king crab fishing boat in Alaskan waters. The bike would slow down almost to a stop, teeter, wobble, then creep ahead, as the old man gave it all he could, from every muscle and fiber and bone and nerve in his body, all as determined as he to survive.

Yesterday's experience of the tornado was measured in minutes, maybe an hour or so, from seeing it way off in the south and watching it leave way off in the north. While it moved at 50 mph, it took a while to make its way from Boulder, through Niwot and head up to Fort Collins and Wyoming, about 60 miles. The Perfect Storm of 1991 lasted for hours, as if it liked us so much it wanted to stay for a couple of days. And did. 

Over 50 years ago, I was in a major typhoon in Tokyo, which almost crushed the University. That typhoon in 1955 drove Captain Jack to take his tanker out of Tokyo Bay and head for safety out in the Pacific Ocean. We compared memories one night, after a meeting in Portland, Maine in the 1970s, in one of those moods of reminiscence over stormy events in our lives. Then, there were the earthquakes. In class one day, I shivered in terror, while the students sat calmly and waited patiently for the walls to stop vibrating. In time, calmness came to me also. I was getting to be an old hand.

70 years ago, I sat in our dining room rigid with the stark horror that makes a 9 year old boy freeze, go mute, unable to holler, as the giant elm in our back yard fell towards the dining room window and crashed into our roof. Mom and Dad were rigid in shock. Aunt Anne jumped from her chair, screaming, and crashed to the floor as her false leg broke in two from fright of its own. Little brother Kevin had his back to the window and sat there, wondering why the rest of us were so frantic. That was the evening of September 21st, when The Great Hurricane of 1938, "The Long Island Express", hit Boston. That was my first memory of storm and destruction. It took Dad and me a week to cut up the elm and repair the roof. Neighbors gave me 10 cents an hour to clean up busted, broken trees from their yards.

Remembering these storms awakens a much more conscious awareness of the disaster of Katrina and the shameful failure, persisting still, of our government to care for its people there. Remembery opens the mind to help it grasp the realization of the earthquakes in Myanmar and China in our here and now. One person died from yesterday's tornado. Hundreds of thousands were killed by typhoons and earthquakes in the Far East. In this month of May, there has been a near-record number of 47 tornados, which have killed close to a hundred people. Colorado is the most recent state to join the long list of states from the Plains to Eastern Georgia being clobbered by severe weather.

As guilty bystanders, we conjecture the toll of natural disasters, but cannot fathom nature's onslaught against our humankind. Without experiences of our own, deposited and locked in memory, we falter in compassion. Back in freshman English at B.C. in 1945, Father Paul McNulty, SJ, asked us what Newman meant in "The Second Spring" by using "realization" and "understanding" as if they were opposites in meaning. Our class fumbled with answers and opinions. Fr. McNulty ended the rambling discussion with, "I understand the meaning of the word 'death.' I realize it when my mother dies."

I understand the meaning of "storms" -- hurricanes, earthquakes, typhoons, tornados. I realize them by being in them in 1938, 1955, 1991, yesterday.

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