Thursday, April 28, 2011

i was surprised to be at a retirement party the other evening when a tornado siren went off and people didn't go directly to the shelter; usually they waste no time and go straight to one even if it is a dank and mildewy place. after all a tornado in 1925 wiped out a couple of nearby towns and nearly everyone was related to someone in at least one of the towns; from then on they developed the art of tornado warnings, giving them, responding to them immediately, practicing them every tuesday, folks warning each other and being generous with the information.

they say this is the worst season since 1974, with hundreds of tornadoes in southern states like arkansas and north carolina, but in 1974 i was traveling and was actually in mexico in tornado season, or maybe out in california, and don't remember much of it...i do however think about a train trip i took with the boys one time, the big ones who were little at the time, because it started in poplar bluff which is now on the brink of flood disaster, and spent a good amount of time in arkansas, stranded. that train trip was in a bad winter; poplar bluff was more or less empty, but it's the nearest town, maybe forty miles away, where you can get the st louis-san antonio train to cut down southwest instead of going straight south. we got stranded by an ice storm, somewhere north of little rock, and we were playing cards with a presidential deck, it had a president on each one, when some arkansas kid pointed out to his mom that one card had pray-ezi-dayent dyick-hayed on it. she was embarrassed and told him to be quiet, but i appreciated the souvenir of the place and have heard it in my ear ever since.

now what this has to do with a tornado is this: the shelter is a small, enclosed place, white, where you sit with your family or whoever is close or there, and you're kind of suspended in time; you wait for the tornado to pass, and it seems that at the same time you are acutely aware of your exact geography, and where a tornado is, and how far it is from where you are, you are at the same time nowhere, suspended in space, kind of out there, under the earth, yet nowhere at all. the ice storm was like that. ice hung on the trees. the train stopped and the conductor wouldn't say when it would start again. we played cards with a kind of suspended-in-time like glee. actually we were lucky to have a seat in the club car; lots of people, now, wanted in.

down in the shelter, which we have become quite familiar with, it's a bit mildewy and hurts our lungs, but the radio works and we hear the names of all the nearby towns, and slowly become more familiar with the ones in missouri since the vast majority of tornadoes, the one in 1925 included, come up through the bootheel and ruin all those towns before they even get to us. lately arkansas has taken a huge hit and i wonder what's going on that so many of them are staying down there...alabama? north carolina? when i was a kid it would be places like grand island nebraska, or sioux city or someplace like that that was always getting hit. tuscaloosa? one reason they are so destructive is that peoplen in the south, i suspect, don't even have basements, don't have a sense of when to head to the local elementary school where there is often a brick cafeteria or old basement that you can huddle in. they're just not used to it.

in san antonio in the middle of the night i woke up and the train was rattling; they were taking our car, and putting it on the westbound train. out the window was a huge mission which i mistook for the alamo (which I now know is actually quite small; i didn't know that at the time). this place certainly looked like the alamo to me, though of course, it was huge. what did i know? the smallest kid woke up, awaken by the massive shakes of the train, and i showed it to him and told him to remember the alamo. again suspended in time, the light of the mission bathing the train, we sat wondering what would happen next; the older brother never awoke. both boys are now out there; we have to hope they'll find shelter when the worst of tornadoes come through. murphysboro, the town six miles away that was devastated by the '25 quake, is now under a few feet of water; roads are going under; the water is rising, and people are getting nervous. the last time it was this wet a bad wind knocked down thousands of trees most of which haven't even been cleaned up yet. with the ground this wet there's nothing to hold them; especially the pines and the huge hard oaks are the most vulnerable but anything can fall, and if it can fall, it can fall right on you, or at least on your house or car. can and will. my wife is getting more and more taken by pictures of tuscaloosa, pictures of some ravaged place in north carolina or arkansas, some story about a guy out there camping. there for the grace of god, say i, but i keep my head down; i'm not camping; i'm hanging at the work building, which is square, angular, solid, cement, not going anywhere. it's where i was in the 2009 straight-wind tornado, when we saw huge trees fall all over campus and over the area, and when we lost power for what, about a week.

the reason i like the train story is that we were stranded for a while, suspended, with ice hanging from the trees, an endless succession of president cards hitting the table with little stories accompanying them, kind of a history lesson just by virtue of portraits of old white men on cards like the six of diamonds. also in san antonio, the train was suspended, going back and forth, crashing in front, crashing to the back, we in the car sleeping, each boy taking up two seats but me on the floor as the car shook violently. later, the wide open dusty plains of west texas spread out on both sides of the train as we headed west; the sun came out, and dusty little towns would come and go as the train sailed through them; finally, we crossed a huge wide river valley, and far below the bridge the tiny san juan snaked through dry cactus country south to the rio grande; the president cards were even then still coming, and the boys were beginning to wonder if they would ever get "there"...i remember very little about the other travelers on the train, except for the little boy in arkansas, who had gotten off in little rock or some such place and was long gone. i remember the wide-open, reddish sandy san juan valley as just for a minute or two the train shot across it. i remember mountains shooting out of the sand and jutting up into the sky as we got toward el paso, which as i now say, is spanish for 'it happened,' as opposed to spanish for 'the pass' as in the mountain pass. could be spanish for both, or neither, i suppose.

cairo is a large town down on the confluence of the ohio and mississippi, now being evacuated, voluntarily, whatever that means, as is murphysboro, six miles up from here. the rising water has hit the river towns worst as the rivers are swollen to bursting and those folks are counting these few dry minutes...it has been dry now for about ten hours...as a blessing, may it stretch out wide into another day, and give that water a chance to head downriver. poplar bluff is perched on the brink of disaster as some levee on the black river is 'compromised' - also being evacuated. our eyes are pinned to the computer which is our main source of news though we've found now through facebook that my one good friend in tuscaloosa is ok, as is what other friends i have scattered around alabama; they're trying to make sure all their relatives are ok, of course, but most people, one or two links away from us, seem to be ok. my wife, who has put much of her life, sweat and blood, into this large rambling house and elaborate stone gardens around it, is more aware than anyone that a big storm could wipe the whole thing out in a minute. i myself feel oddly detached from the material plane although it's also my money, my credit, my blood tied up in the thing. somehow i think, i would grab for the instruments, or one of them at least, if it all came tumbling down; the president deck is still around, but now it's missing a few, and it's got that worn feel where they don't come sliding off each other so easily, and a lot of them are faded. i don't know why the storms are staying in the south these days, but as long as they keep coming from the west i'll be at least used to them, willing to go to a shelter for an hour or two, ears to the radio, hoping everyone is ok out there. you hear these ambulences in a small town like this, and half the time, your worries that it might be someone you know are well founded, because as it happens, you know quite a few people out there, and the only thing that saves you from knowing too much, is not quite having enough time to sit and listen to people talk about it. there was a quake here in the early 1800's, biggest in north america, felt all the way in washington dc, made the river flow backward for five days, and wiped out hundreds of homes, but only french fur traders and scattered native american villages were in the area and folks barely even documented it, mostly just picked up and took their canoe full of stuff up the river once again. sometimes these events make the river actually change its course, and that's a big deal of course because the river these days anyway is actually the state line, so any new coure for the river actually rewrites the map, or makes some remote county totally cut off from the rest of its state by a raging river. you can look at this awesome huge volume of water whipping down and emptying out in the lowlands; but the best thing is to get back up on a high hill for a while and hope the sun comes back out. we are, after all, just travelers in this world, and i think you don't really want to settle, some place where a big pile of water might just wash you right down the valley. not that i really know the meaning of the word 'settle'...right now, i'm feeling really lucky: a family around me, everyone sleeping or settling; no rain in the forecast for tonight, and the possibility that some or all of the standing water will find some place to go. trouble is coming, but that's distant- like maybe in a day or two. a lot of water can get on down the valley in that time, and i hope it will. we've been feeling a bit adrift.

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