I almost slept through my first tornado. I was eight years old when it hit my hometown in northeast Pennsylvania and already in bed when the warnings flashed across the bottom of the TV screen, but my parents woke my brothers and me and hurried us to the basement. We huddled under blankets on an old couch while my mother read to us as the wind lashed the house, rattling the windowpanes and snapping tree limbs outside.
For a short time, Laura Ingalls’ classic—Little House on the Prairie—distracted us from the storm. We were intent, instead, on the adventures of Laura and Mary and Ma and Pa and their good dog Jake as they traveled west across the Kansas plains. The storm raged on outside, but it may as well have been a hundred miles away; we weren’t in Pennsylvania anymore. The world collapsed to our basement, and we were alone, like the Ingalls’ in their covered wagon, adrift on the endless prairie. Wrapped in the cocoon of the old wool blanket and my mother’s voice, I felt safe and protected, as if nothing could touch us down there. I don’t even remember how long the storm lasted.
Later, though, I felt a little cheated. I never saw the giant black funnel snaking down from the sky. I never saw any cows flying through the air, or buildings flattened and destroyed. That might be a blessing to most, but when you are eight years old and everything you know about tornadoes you learned from The Wizard of Oz, you have certain expectations.
One thing I didn’t expect was the storm itself. I knew tornadoes belonged on that prairie with Laura and Dorothy, not in our Pennsylvania hills. Even the word itself sounded foreign. Later, I learned it is—a corruption of the Spanish tronada, meaning thunderstorm. The Spanish took their word from the Latin tonare, meaning to thunder. Both are fitting derivations, as it is within thunderstorms that tornados are born. At the time, though, I knew nothing of the science or etymology of the storm. I knew only that it was exciting, that I had missed something, and that I wanted it to happen again.
I was on the Kentucky side of the Ohio when I got my wish. I was an archaeology student at Southern Illinois University, there to excavate the Indian mounds on the other side of the river. I was in a bookstore in Paducah with some classmates when the lights flickered out. We ran for Arby’s, the only business on the strip still with power, as rain hammered the pavement like machine gun bullets and thunder boomed like artillery.
We split a tray of curly fries and watched the shimmering sheets of rain cross the parking lot in waves, until time forced us to make a break for the van. We drove like maniacs, flying down the strip and across the long metal bridge that linked Paducah with Brookport, Illinois. The girl riding shotgun rolled down the window and stuck her hand out, feeling the stinging drops on her skin. Water hit us in the back seats, and we laughed and turned up the radio as the lightning lit our way into the night.
Chris was the driver. Older than most of us, he had fought in Afghanistan with the Illinois National Guard and still drove like he was trying to outrun the Taliban. But that wasn’t why he put the pedal to the floor that night. No one said it, but we all felt it—we were the only people in the world. It wasn’t the same warm, fuzzy feeling I had in the basement as kid, though. This was a high, heady, intoxicating feeling, as if we were defying nature simply by being there.
The Mississippians, the tribe that built the mounds we excavated, worshiped storms. Some think they built them as sites for their temples, an effort to be closer to the sky as they prayed for rain to water their crops. That night, as we sped across the bridge, I understood why the natives turned the weather into gods. The feeling the storm evoked was a primal one, an awareness not only of being alive, but also of just how powerful nature is.
In a way, we still worship storms. We still name them, a personification which shows our awe, but also gives us the illusion of control. We give them labels that sound like your grandmother’s—Agnes, Katrina, Sandy—as if this somehow makes them less fierce, less destructive. But we don’t pray to them. Instead, we measure and rate them, as if by quantifying them we can reduce them to something manageable, something tame.
Quantifying anything naturally leads to a search for the pinnacle of that standard, and so today, instead of stories of the storm gods, we are obsessed with the idea of the “perfect” storm. Despite being the subject of studies, books, and movies, though, the truly perfect storm remains elusive, like the Emerald City at the end of the Yellow Brick Road. Maybe it doesn’t exist. Maybe a truly perfect storm can’t exist because our standards are too stringent, nor can we create standards that encompass all the variances in nature. Or maybe we’re all wrong—maybe perfection in a storm shouldn’t be measured in wind velocity or dollars worth of damage. Maybe, like the Native Americans, we should look at what the storm gives us, rather than what it takes.
The storm hit in early July, the summer after my junior year of high school. She had long blonde hair, and her eyes were the brightest, most vivid shade of aquamarine. She was a year younger than me and had just returned from a family vacation to Italy, her skin bronzed by the Mediterranean sun. The phrase “taken by storm” conjures images of soldiers assaulting ramparts or policemen kicking in doors, yet the only force she required was what little it took to flash me a smile as she hopped into the passenger seat of my dad’s car.
We drove out of town to a little picnic grove by a creek off the main road. We lay on an old sleeping bag at the water’s edge, gazing up at the moon and the stars until clouds obscured them and fat drops began to fall. We took the sleeping bag under the pavilion and spread it on the ground between two picnic tables. There we lay as the storm grew in power and intensity, as if it were an engine, and someone was slowly squeezing on the throttle. She kissed me as the lightning flashed. The air tingled with electricity and desire as I pulled her to me, and the ground beneath us seemed to shake with the thunder.
Like that first tornado, I don’t remember how long it lasted. I do know it ended the way it began—gradually, as if the same hand squeezing the throttle was now letting up on it and slowly powering the machine back down to a steady idle. We lay in silence after it was over, tangled in each other and the sleeping bag. The only sound was the occasional patter of water drops as the trees around the pavilion began to drip-dry, and the slow, steady rhythm of our breathing.
I wanted time to stop, for that feeling to last forever. But time is like a storm; the only sure thing about it is that it passes. Just so, then, passed that summer—and my time with her. That was still to come, though, and at that moment there was nothing—no future, no childhood, no other storms. There was only the night, and the summer wind, and the sound of the creek, and the girl lying next to me. The storm washed everything else away.