Monsoon storms have rolled through our desert valley since Thursday. (I don't understand why they are called monsoons, since I live nowhere near an ocean or sea, but they are continually acknowledged as such by meteorologists, and so...there you go.)
They were forecasted for this whole week. As the cloud cover and humidity built up, so did my anticipation, and with each day that I saw no rain, I became more and more virulent as I talked to the clouds. And my children became concerned that Mama thought she could have a conversation with the sky.
Just when I had given up on the ability of these clouds to deposit moisture in the desert, the wind began to whip our eucalyptus trees around and drove the rain with such force that it slanted through our main air-conditioning vent and drenched the hall carpet.
By early Friday morning it was a calmer drizzle as my children and I enjoyed it from the patio. I sat in a chair with the baby, watching the birds line the branches of our African Sumac tree. My older three were happy to stand and collect the rain in buckets as it streamed from the roof, because to them rain is almost as wondrous as snow. To me it is a good friend too little seen nowadays.
In Tennessee rain was expected, but there was always the possibility that a storm system could bring tornadoes with the rain in spring and summer. True, we did not technically live in Tornado Alley, but I recall hearing tornado watches come on the television quite often, and we had a few warnings.
As soon as the television began its irritating warning beep, Dad listened intently for the message. When our county was included, he quickly abandoned his chair for the porch. I joined him there a few times. As I stood beside him in my cowboy boots, he would gaze at the sky with such intensity it was as if he expected to receive a secret communication from it, one which I hoped to interpret by carefully watching his face.
A couple times when I was small the television went static while the tornado warning was trailing across its screen. Dad did not hesitate at that point; we were told to grab a stuffed animal and blanket and head for the basement. We would navigate the narrow, rickety stairs and wait for the storm to pass in that musty cellar lit by its one feeble bulb. As we squeezed our teddy bears, we tried not to think about the spiders and various other creepy-crawlies that would not take kindly to our intrusion.
But during one of the scariest incidents of my childhood, we were not at home and therefore had no basement to scurry to.
Mom and Dad worked in the woods, rolling wreaths and digging valuable roots for a living. On this particular summer day, we kids had gone with them to explore a new stretch of wilderness while they worked. Mom and Dad quit early; there was a bad storm brewing.
We kids were hustled into the car. Dad had the radio on soon after we left the woods. The winds picked up, and the sky deepened to an unusual hue of slate blue. As we turned down Spann Road, the last leg to home, Dad was watching the sky, glancing in the car's side and rear mirror more and more frantically as the car's speed increased. I knew he was no longer examining the possibilities; he was searching for the reality of what we could hear building from that strangely-colored sky.
Because a noise which was more than that of a gale had grown out of the storm as Dad sped along the rutted dirt road. I didn't see the twister, though I remember turning in terror to look out the back window as the roar of it amplified. Suddenly, Dad swerved off the road and braked violently by a decrepit barn near the fence line.
"We won't outrun it," he said. Then he turned. "Kids get down on the floor and start praying."
Annie, Nate and I huddled down quickly. Vinca held Mom and Dad's hands in the front seat. We three in the backseat were praying aloud; one often does when desperate, I suppose. As I prayed I longed to be in the front seat with my parents. I thought about climbing the seat, because if I had to die, I wanted at least to be with Mommy and Daddy when it happened.
But in the midst of our supplications, the strange growling suddenly died. The tornado was gone, sucked back up into the clouds that began to lose their angry color shortly thereafter. The twister must have been of the fickle kind that touches ground for a few miles on a lonely piece of earth, thankfully leaving little indication of its passage before vanishing like smoke. In the eerie calm that followed, Dad started the engine, we kids climbed back onto the bench seats in that old car, and we drove the last couple miles home in silence. When I looked back I saw nothing but the rain falling on the fields, stands of trees and fence line behind. The barn which had witnessed our terror stood indifferent and untouched.
I can't help finding tornadoes fascinating because of their power. Perhaps that is because I am removed from their reality here in the Southwest where they are practically nonexistent. It has been a long time since I stood on a porch and gazed with my Daddy at the threat of an angry southern sky.