~ Dorothy Gale from Kansas
(The Wizard of Oz)
Before my world became cockeyed, the worst things that happened in my life were dead animals, various minor head injuries, and tornados. The head injuries, results of careless play in a carefree childhood, left no lasting impressions to speak of. Our scaled-down animal cemetery rarely included a cherished family pet, consisting primarily of turtles kept too long in boxes, emaciated goldfish won at school carnivals, and naked baby birds toppling from rooftop nests. Tornados, however, are the type of things that stick to a person’s soul.
A drive through Gravel Ridge these days may yield a landscape of overgrown yards and dilapidated homes, but in my childhood it was the perfect blend of suburbia and countryside. It seemed every home contributed kids to the population, and together we managed to turn the neighborhood into a virtual fantasyland. There were the woods next to the churchyard, with dark trails and abandoned cars hidden in the brush. The long, winding, shallow creek bed managed to yield a collection of catfish and crawdads to the patient and diligent among us. A large crater in the soil behind one row of houses became the ultimate fort, furnished with remains of broken swing sets, a sundry collection of planks and bricks, and a variety of items confiscated while our mothers weren’t looking. One home had a trampoline, and while the family was less than pleasant, we all extended cordiality in exchange for the opportunity to jump, flip, and occasionally fall to the ground. Front porches became home-base for rounds of Colored Eggs and Hide-and-Seek, or stages for impromptu talent shows. Often, the most enjoyable moments would consist of sitting around on someone’s driveway, discussing the irresistible scandalousness of Madonna, until our mothers called us home for supper. After we ate, of course, it was back outside for a rousing game of Flashlight Tag or Ghosts in the Graveyard.
It’s been said you can never go home again, and for #4 Hula Drive this is absolutely the case. The original house was blown apart by a subsequent owner with poor coping skills, a bitter yet appropriate end for a structure that withstood twisters, alcoholism and my parent’s divorce. I learned to weather both the literal and figurative storms of life on that lot, in a house that is no longer standing, but is ever present in my memory. Practically a landing strip in tornado alley, Gravel Ridge was prepared for strong, unpredictable winds. The two largest structures around Aloha Circle were both built with tornados in mind. Northwood Junior High School, where the “big kids” spent their days, was a thick concrete building burrowed into a hillside, with nothing but a row of small windows peering out from the summit. The nearby church, whose front field provided a prime location for three-wheeling and touch football, offered a basement-level fellowship hall providing subterrestrial protection from nature’s fury or the wrath of God, depending on your perspective.
When a storm was brewing, you could smell it in the air, feel it in the humidity, sense it in your bones. It was a promise that something exciting would happen this evening, that a night of community would replace an early bedtime, and there would be plenty of stories to share in the morning. We could hardly contain our excitement, dressing in our pajamas and curling up on the couch as if awaiting the arrival of Santa Claus. Televisions stood in silent reverence as outside limbs clattered in rapidly intensifying wind gusts. Mothers gathered tennis shoes, coats and portable snacks for the impending exodus. Neighborhood canines sounded their sirens from yard to yard long before the radio announced “If you are near the path of this storm, please seek shelter immediately.” In latter years, in other houses, we would retreat to a closet or bathtub or inner hallway. In Gravel Ridge, however, this was the call to depart on a journey.
We exited the door to an entire street of families descending from porches or emerging from carports, and joined the parade to one of the two underground destinations. A rag-tag looking bunch if ever there was one, our strolling caravan came bearing gifts of freshly buttered popcorn, Capri Sun drinks and decks of cards. If the sirens were already sounding, or the rain was intense, we may end up next door at the church. Not the destination of choice, especially for us rambunctious types, the church required a quiet atmosphere and the posture of an overly-extended fire drill. On more fortunate occasions, we would be granted the opportunity to venture a few blocks more to the school, where there was freedom and mayhem to be had. Older siblings would hoist their younger counterparts into overstuffed lockers down unoccupied corridors. So as not to arouse parental frustrations in close quarters, games were limited the understated variety, such as Heads Up, Seven Up and Mother, May I. As the children entertained themselves, parents listened for creaking windowpanes, blasting wind gusts, and tumbling debris. Above all, everyone listened for the siren. Not the emergency siren, sent out to warn people of the approaching storm, but the siren sent out by the twister itself, letting you know it had arrived.
Resembling the loud, shrill whistle of a freight train, a tornado always proclaims its presence both in word and deed. Long before a survey of the aftermath is performed, anticipation of the damage breeds anxiousness and concern. Windows popped in the distance, trees crashed into unknown destinations, and rains flooded vacant streets. Someone’s father would turn up the static-filled transistor radio, bending his ear toward the speaker and announcing to all the storm had passed. The general sentiment among those of the younger persuasion was one of disappointment that our time together was ending. We would file languidly back to our homes, assessing damages and fumbling towards beds without the assistance of electricity. Occasionally we would return to scenes of flattened porches, their columns whisked away, large oak trees displaced to rooftops, and overturned picnic tables. For the most part, however, the storms of my childhood were mild, mere training grounds for what lay in store.
There would be tornados that flattened towns, and struggles that would flatten my resolve. There would be rebuilding of communities and relationships, and neither would be simple tasks. There would be false alarms and unexpected disturbances. Life would toss many obstacles in my path, but I learned during those formative years that, despite the debris and destruction, life does go on. Sometimes moving on requires the help of neighbors, or space to grieve, or even the freedom to rage, but renewal comes. And that renewed life has a stronger foundation, a richer soil, a deeper hope. Stepping outside your door, facing the coming storm, bracing yourself with the reassurance, “this too shall pass”, before wisdom kicks in and reminds you to duck-and-cover… it’s a risky venture, but one worth tension.
Everybody look around, 'cause there's a reason to rejoice you see
Everybody come out, and let's commence to singing joyfully
Everybody look up, and feel the hope that we've been waiting on
Everybody look up, and feel the hope that we've been waiting on
Everybody's glad because our silent fear and dread is gone
Freedom you see, has got our hearts singing so joyfully
Just look about you owe it to yourself to check it out
Can't you feel a brand-new day?
~ Dorothy, friends & the Emerald City Citizens (The Wiz)