This I Believe

Melody - Albany, Oregon
Entered on October 18, 2007

I believe the power of a story can connect human beings together across time and space.

Almost thirteen years ago, I was driving cross country and got caught in a tornado in Texas.  A few of my friends have seen the video footage. One little girl died in that tornado.

Storm chasers must be vast inside themselves, craving knowledge of the divine. Even I wanted to run right out and chase up another storm after the one I went through in Texas. I am not a religious person, but that was one of the few moments in my life I felt close to God.

I remember the trip in bright bits, like flashes of vivid dreams. I was driving across the panhandle, having just come from the Oklahoma federal building where they razed it’s skeletal remains. Texas truly felt like the lone star state, with tumbleweeds and tiny hills that seemed to float on eternally. The sky grew cloudy and I turned on the radio. The weather stations all said there were tornadoes afoot.

Rain started to spatter the van and then lightening hit the sky. The lightening was like angry whip-lashes, touching down and hugging the earth in a too-long embrace that belied the illusion of electricity meeting ground. Every time the flashes came and held themselves in eerie elongation, I would suck in my breath. I was excited but also afraid of what it could do. Lightening no where else I’ve been looks like it does in Texas preceding a tornado.

The raindrops started getting huge and the radio station was getting fuzzy. As the raindrops got bigger and bigger, I realized I just wanted to get to Amarillo, but I was about a hundred miles out. Then the rain turned to hail. The sky turned a dark, ominous green. Aunt Belva had said the sky would turn green when a tornado was coming. I looked at the glowing color radiating from the horizon and was amazed at the FEEL of that green sky. It must have been the barometric pressure or the static in the air.

As the hail got bigger, I recall driving slower and slower. The hail would snap the windshield with great vicious CRACKS! and I would jump in fear. The windshield started to chip like it does when big rigs throw rocks up at your car on the interstate. I was totally positive it would break with the next hit and we would be laid bare to the bizarre elements around us.

Diesel trucks pulled over and some cars slowed down. Still others sped up, hoping to make it to a safe haven somewhere in the suddenly soggy dust bowl. I kept my wits and slowed the van down, crawling to the next exit. That sign said “Welcome to Shamrock, Texas”.

I pulled off under a motel awning. I got out and went to the office window and beat on the glass, hoping someone would take pity. By this time, there was flooding everywhere and the hail was the size of oranges. I remember the cataclysmic roar of the hail on the tin roof. I remember seeing the hailstones hit the huge puddles and bounce as high in the air as my head. I actually recall thinking I needed to pin this one on the poster board of my brain, or I’d never remember it with any clarity.  And I wanted to be able to remember it.

Finally, when the air raid sirens went off, a woman I have absolutely no memory of except her actions came to our rescue.  She walked from her little motel office took us and everyone else with her. We all filed into one room situated in a corner of the motel, and she explained it had been built as a bunker. It was solid concrete on all four sides, she said. I didn’t think to ask about the roof. We watched t.v. and followed the progress of the tornado, when we had reception  I can’t recall a single conversation. Everyone watched that t.v. screen. Someone said they were heading straight for Amarillo when the tornado stopped, so Amarillo became a gleaming icon of safety to me when we left that motel.

When we finally left, we drove past devastation. There were cows tipped over in the fields and debris scattered randomly. Even the water tower was tipped over. Cars were totaled. I drove past a diesel and looked at the cab through the rear window of my van. The windshield was blown out and it looked like a steel graveyard.

I’ve probably told this story a million times. I don’t tell it like this in person. No one can ever know what it’s like to stand in orange-sized hail under a green sky with air raid sirens blaring until they’ve been there. So maybe I’m going to be one of those little old ladies with a gleam in my eye and a hundred stories. Like Helen.

Helen was part of a salon group in I joined back in the nineties. It was a group of amazing people of all ages and faiths. We’d set a topic and then later get together to discuss it and share our ideas. Sometimes we’d play devils’ advocate with each other just because we could. Sometimes we’d raise our voices. But we always told great stories and we always listened to one another. I learned a lot from that group, but Helen was by far my favorite. Helen had a grace I have rarely seen in anyone since.

She was old. I think I recall her being 81 or 91; something like that. She was wizened and leathery and had expressive hands that waved gently as she spoke. But she looked like a living Methuselah. I will never forget her talking about a grocery store clerk saying “this little old lady needs such and such” to someone and how Helen said she wanted to wring her neck! Helen said “I wanted to yell at her ‘who are you calling a little old lady?”‘ I bet Helen had a thousand stories.

So if someone talks your ear off, and you’ve heard it before, be patient. Story-tellers have the impression the things that have burned themselves into our memory are as fun to hear about as they are to experience or recall. Most of us love listening to your stories, too. Some day I will recall the words of your story like a gift. It may not mean anything to anyone but me but maybe someone I tell your story to will get a clear picture in their minds and it will touch them in some way. Maybe it will bring them just a little closer towards feeling like a part of the ever-more scattered human race. Just maybe.