My old friend Queenie McFarland once wrote of her childhood experience with a tornado – the frantic gathering of the children, the rush to the safety of a storm cellar, the relief at having survived intact. Her writing resonated with me, for there are few Forces of Nature that strike as deep into the fear-reservoirs of the human brain as do the Tornado.
As Queenie put it, “The tornado is, to mankind’s residual caveman-level instinct, the incarnation of Nature; the Sky God taking a shape out of formless chaos to descend and rape the swan, the almighty Hand of an angry Deity forming in the sky, right before your terrified animal eyes.”
Queenie has had more experience than I with Things Tornadic. There have been only three occasions when we have seen the Finger o’ Gawd dip down from the sky, and none of those qualify as Big-Time Tornado Sightings. And yet…
Occasion One was immediately before our post-honeymoon wedding reception in New York back in 1977. (Post-honeymoon? Sounds strange, no? But here’s the chronology: Wedding and reception in Foat Wuth, mid-June. Honeymoon in Québec, early August. Second wedding reception in New York, early August – this one for the benefit of the Northern Tribes who could not make it to Foat Wuth for the Actual Wedding.)
A scant two hours before the reception, a violent thunderstorm struck, sending a telephone pole through the plate-glass window of the motel restaurant where our friends had been sitting just minutes before. We saw no funnel cloud, but the event had all the hallmarks of a mini-tornado touchdown.
Occasion Two was in the Bahamas in 1983. We were water-skiing off Paradise Island (perhaps “attempting to water-ski” is more accurate) and suddenly, three waterspouts appeared in the distance. As they moved closer, we got the hell out of Dodge and watched from the shore as one ’spout tracked parallel to the beach. It was just a wee bit scary.
Occasion Three was during our annual Destin vacation, July 2003. The weather sucked almost all that week, but nothing is quite as “sucky” as a waterspout, one of which we watched from our second-story terrace in a combination of horror and fascination. Waterspouts, of course, are dinky-ass things compared to land-based tornadoes, but still, nothing to sneer at. They’re still the Finger o’ Gawd… albeit, perhaps, the pinky finger.
But tornadoes, like all Great Forces of Nature, lurk in the very base of our brainstems at the most reptilian level of cognition. And so they come to us at night, in bizarre hallucinatory dreams that are at once terrifying and exhilarating:
I know that tonight I will have tornado dreams, where funnels slip menacingly through lowering, blackened skies, chasing me and my bags full of neuroses with far more intent and malicious purpose than a real tornado ever could.
Queenie had written those lines, and when I read them I thought: “How does she know about my tornado dreams?” Because I have them, you know. And maybe you do, too.
Tornado dreams. The sky is black, splashed by lightning, heavy. And then the funnels come, snaking down through the air like worms. And there are hundreds of them…
Tornado dreams. Tsunami dreams. Somewhere buried deep down in our deepest subconscious, they’re there, where the elemental forces of the planet resonate. But they don’t stay buried, not for me. Once a month, maybe, they will drift to the surface, and I will wake with those mingled feelings of fear and excitement. And I will want to go back to sleep to see what happens next.