Tuesday, February 07, 2006


hog of a storm

One of my favorite small spaces as a child was my grandparents’ storm cellar. Folks outside of Tornado Alley probably don’t have these, and many of us in harm’s way don’t either! My parents didn’t have a cellar when I was growing up, which is why Grandma and Grandpa’s came in so handy.

Of course, it’s pretty rare that we actually needed to use it for shelter. Mostly, it was a place for me to play! The cellar was made of concrete and came up about 4 feet out of the ground. It had a large metal door that could be raised with a pulley. I spent who knows how many hours playing outside the cellar, taking my child-sized lawn chair to the top and pretending it was my castle. I also spent a lot of time jumping off the sides when Mom wasn’t looking.

But I also loved going inside the stormcellar. The metal door opened to a long ramp leading to a small area, maybe about 8 ft by 6 ft. This is a pretty unusual construct for storm cellars, but my grandfather was paralyzed, so it needed to be wheelchair-accessible. Grandpa, however, was not one to shy away from a storm, and I doubt that he went down in the cellar one time in the forty years he owned it.

I wasn’t allowed to play inside the cellar. I think my mom, who is over-protective by nature, envisioned me being snapped in half by the big metal door slamming down on me. So being in the cellar meant TORNADO and DANGER and I LOVED the drama of it. If the tornado was close enough that my family stopped looking out from under the roof of the porch and actually decided to get in the cellar, THINGS WERE LOOKING BAD. There were two benches to sit on, and everyone in the neighborhood knew that Helen and Leonard had a cellar. When they saw that we were headed there, they’d come over too. Once we must have fit about 10 people in there for an hour or so, everyone tense but talking lightly as we listened to the storm outside.
Of course, we always took a portable TV so we could keep updated on the tornado’s progress.

Everyone in Oklahoma thinks they are a weather or tornado expert—usually they think they are both. We needed the TV to follow the storm’s whereabouts, predict its movements, and just generally commentate during the whole dang thing. Now when a tornado occurs in central Oklahoma, our normal television broadcasting comes to a screeching halt. Because, HELLO, it’s time for our local weathermen to shine! They bring out all the fancy equipment, have storm-chasers following the weather on the ground and in helicopters, and basically spend the next hour or so scaring the shit out of everybody, saying, "Okay, this is the real deal, folks. Now is the time, if you have a storm cellar, you need to get in that cellar NOW. If you don’t, you need to get to a central area in your home with no windows. The tornado is moving into your town RIGHT NOW!"

Everyone stuck in the cellar showed off their knowledge of tornadoes. The storm chasers film coverage of the storm, and we’re right there with them predicting the movements.

"That sure is a nasty wall cloud. Very dark."
"Is that a finger? I think that’s a finger!"
"I think that finger is turning into a funnel! Oh my goodness, it’s a funnel now!"
"Look! Power surges! There must be another one back there!"

This stuff can be addicting. In fact, there are crazies besides those employed by the news stations that go storm chasing for fun. Me, I prefer to stay home and watch it on TV, occasionally going outside to scan the sky myself. I’m dedicated to Gary England’s coverage (no wishy-washy Mike Morgan for me!), because he is absolutely the most outlandish weather forecaster we have. He is the first on the TV predicting hellfire and brimstone and he stays on the longest. A couple hours in, his tie is loosened and he looks like a war reporter who’s been at ground zero for days. His are the most apocalyptic warnings, mixed with bizarre tidbits that I remember long after I’ve forgotten the tornado: "It’s a hog of a storm out there, folks."

I used to sit in the cellar with all the grown-ups and imagine the worst going on outside, all the while knowing that it couldn’t REALLY be all that bad, or the adults wouldn’t be having such a good time. It was actually a fun and safe place to think about tragedies, to envision them even, without really being scared. Tornadoes were to me what scary movies are to other people—a fun way to scare yourself without really scaring yourself. (Unfortunately, scary movies actually scare me so much that it is not fun AT ALL, but that is another story).

When Gary England would report that our town was safe and that it was now moving into THE NEXT TOWN, YOU SHOULD GET IN YOUR CELLARS IMMEDIATELY, we would go ahead and emerge from the small, cramped cellar. Every time, my grandparents’ home was safe. Sometimes limbs or whole trees came down, but never any that were large enough to do real damage. And every time, my grandpa was sitting in his wheelchair on the patio, grinning and shaking his head at us. We had missed a hog of a storm.

My grandparents had a storm cellar at their house when they lived in the country, only theirs was referred to as 'the fraidy hole' cause that's where you go when you're afraid of the storm. Duh.

That was one of my favorite places to play when I visited my grandparents. Their cellar was made of concrete and came up several feet out of the ground, too. It made the best sounds when you stomped around on it, and it was ideal for getting juuust the right leverage for mooing at the cows in the neighboring field. And, of course, it was fun to jump off of. Repeatedly.

I think the weather only got bad enough for us to go out to the fraidy hole ONCE, and I made my grandma make us sandwiches before I'd go out there because ya just never know how long you'll have to hold out down there in the fraidy hole. Grandmas are such good sports.
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