We’re coming up on the first year anniversary of the EF 4 tornado that destroyed Fairdale and parts of Rochelle. Here’s something I wrote about my experience which isn’t nearly as dramatic as others. I didn’t post it then and thought you might be interested in it now.
For two days my heart hurt, especially when I lay down to sleep. It hurt I tell you. Danny Neal, Northern Illinois Storm Chaser, warned on Monday if conditions fell into place, we’d be nailed by very serious weather. On Wednesday he and Candice King of WTVO said if there was sun the next day, we’d be in for seriously bad weather. That night the rain poured like when I dump a bucket. Our basement trickled water. I thought about our broken roof that was even more unprepared after our our roofer was supposed to come in December.
Bruce woke out of bed pulled the sump pump lever to make it work. Our bottom paddock and front yard glinted with water. We tried to get sleep. I thought bad thoughts: what a relief it would be to have the clutter I need to declutter blown away, what a relief to have our old roof damaged, so insurance could pay for the repair. Then the terror of the horses in a barn torn apart. My heart hurt.
When Danny said that he wasn’t going to hold back, that some of the top storm predictors were saying the afternoon storms would be bad, I took notice and began warning my students to pay attention to the weather, to get to the lowest part of the building if the storm hit. Back in my office I watched weather move south of DeKalb, wondered about calling Bruce, to leave, to go home. I chatted on Facebook with two friends when a tall African American man stopped by. Students don’t visit me. I wondered if he was looking for one of my colleagues next door. “You don’t remember me do you?”
I shook my head. I was a total blank. Listen I don’t remember my current students sitting in front of me. I scramble their names all the way to the end of the semester. The detail of writing down credit for every last thing they do wears me out. Their complaining about a grade that only counts for half a point on their final grade wears, wears me down. I am on the brink of retirement. (I have since retired.) I think of how Niagara pauses, rises just a little before it falls into the gorge. This is what that feels like, because I have no clear dream for this time, except to write.
“I’m Eric Bell. I took your class where you taught the Dalai Lama. That book helped me a lot. It changed me. You should keep teaching that book. Your freshmen don’t understand what you’re trying to do. They’re only 18. I was only 18. I didn’t see it.”
“Oh. But I’m thinking of retirement.”
“Try to stay here for three more years.”
I’d just been wondering if God would show me a sign. Last summer a student saying something like this kept me going into this year.
Eric is going to be a lawyer. He finishes in December. I gave him my card and my book. I see, I see how important thanksgiving is to another person, how it has saved me. I need to watch out for that, for things to be grateful for and tell people, even tell God.
When Bruce and I walked out, the air didn’t feel tight, tense, or ready to pounce. It felt cool. But the sun had come out. As we made the turn towards home, I saw a low slung rainbow to the east, very faint. Well, we’d gotten sun and the warning to watch. But I was blasé. We almost went out to eat because the sky didn’t look bad, the air didn’t feel tense. But I remembered how my supper at The Backyard Grill was ruined by my terror at the wall cloud that appeared over Cherry Valley a couple years ago. I took a nap and woke up around 6:30. The tornado warning was sounding and Candice King said there was a sighting in Stillman Valley, a couple towns over. I figured I had time to do chores.
My heart hurt. I ran water into the buckets and looked to a sky that merely looked gray. We didn’t hear thunder. Used to be, you heard thunder banging, but these days the storms seem quiet, the thunder thrown way up high, beyond our hearing. A squirrel ran into the barn while I was stuffing hay bags. I had just finished picking out the mare’s hooves when Bruce appeared at the barn door. “You about done? I think you’d better come in.” Candace King pointed out how the orange part of the storm surrounded green, like a donut. So that’s what rotation looks like on doppler radar.
I wrote a quick status on Facebook saying I thought some nasties were headed our way.
“Look.” Out the front window we saw the tornado. The thing was huge, wide. And just hung there. “You’d better go to the basement.” Bruce never says go to the basement. I put collars with tags on the dogs and grabbed their slip leads. I grabbed Onyx’s carrier, but he ran when he heard it clanging. I followed him upstairs and grabbed my jewelry. There was no Onyx on either bed. How would I find him, get him safe?That tornado looked like it was headed straight towards us, coming northwest. I’d never seen a tornado before, but I’d always wanted to see one. A bucket list thing. Onyx was on the ledge by the stairs. I reached up as though I wanted to pet him and took him into my arms. He was not happy being plunked into the carrier. We went downstairs. Our basement was cold.
My phone was on the last quarter of its juice. I plugged it into an outlet down there and wrote a status saying it was headed our way and to please pray. The storm was headed northeast. Bruce ran upstairs and looked. He walked to the head of the road. I yelled at him to get his ass in the house, but he is cleaner than I am, closer to Christ, unafraid of a storm. I think of those pictures of little girls leading draft horses completely confident they won’t be stepped on. That’s Bruce.
But I also wanted to shout, “Glory” at the clouds over head, the lightning striking, the fear in my teeth. The world seemed like it was rejoicing and this was the God of the pillar of fire by night and cloud by day. “From the throne,” God’s throne, “come flashes of lightning and peals of thunder.” This was the Lord of the dance and my soul lifted up even while I was terrified of being struck by the lightning that arched cloud to cloud. I didn’t think to pray.
Friends on Facebook ticked in comments. They said they’d pray or were thinking of me.. I swear those prayers were like Jesus saying, “Peace be still” to the storm on the sea, when the disciples were terrified, scolding Jesus I’ve begun to notice how often Jesus says “Peace be with you” or “Fear Not.” In the upper room, after the disciples had locked themselves in, Jesus appeared. But he didn’t accuse them of abandoning him. No he said peace. When John was knocked to the ground in his apocalyptic vision of Jesus, his old friend, laid his hand on his shoulder, saying, “Don’t be afraid.” I must not be the only one who wrestles with fear threading through her life since he’s telling us all not to be afraid again and again. Jesus may tell some terrifying stories like the virgins who forget to bring enough oil while waiting for the groom, so they get shut out of the party, or the rich guy who goes to hell because he didn’t tend the homeless man sitting at his gate, but he also says things like “Little children don’t be afraid for the Father wants to give you the kingdom.”
But as the storm approached I was afraid, too afraid to pray. Two good friends were sending instant messages on Facebook. My local friend was watching the storm live on CNN, since there had been enough warning for the storm chasers to get in place. Another friend called to find out if we were okay. The storm seemed to be going around us.
I went upstairs, looked out the window and saw another one to the west that looked like a white rope twirling. And then we looked out the window upstairs and saw a funnel draw down and spin and then wither like a man gone flaccid. At any time a funnel could drop over our house, but it didn’t.
Bruce walked to the head of the road again. I followed but like I said I’m not as pure of heart as he is. Lightning was charging directly over head. The edge of the cloud rolled by our house. Glory. I wanted to shout glory at the ferocity of the air dancing. But already we knew Grubstakers restaurant was flattened. And Fairdale was gone. I didn’t think that Everbold, where I ride Tessie, would be hit. I read on Facebook later, they watched it dance a 100 yards from their door. It blew up their neighbor’s new house, his barn. Four of their horses had been outside, were trembling with shock and terror. I saw a picture of their vet stabilizing them. They said their injuries were minor. Fences had been flattened. Shingles had been scattered on the ground. Some metal roofing blown away, but they had been spared.
And yes it is obscene to talk about glory when two women, the best of friends, lost their lives and a couple towns were flattened, people’s beloved pets were killed and scattered. I might want my clutter cleaned, but I can’t hardly imagine what it would be like to lose your home, your car, your stuff, which you lay into your house as your comfort and joy and memory. (It’s not just things that people lose. Stuff can be sacramental, a physical reminder of a person you loved or a memory. That’s why souvenirs are so powerful. People want something they can hold in their hand to remind them.)
That night a neighbor sent out a call saying they needed animal crates. Bruce and I grabbed our flashlights and pulled my two airline crates and three wire crates out of our shed. We went to the local fire station, put our names on them and dropped them off. Already there were piles of clothes on tables. The room smelled like baked beans and barbecue. Though I was promised the crates would be returned, we would never see one of the airline crates and my good wire crate again.(My heart was warmed by a phone call from someone who said he’d used the airline crate for his border collie, but didn’t need it any longer as they’d found a home in Belvidere. He dropped it by. I thanked him for remembering us. No he thanked us.)
The next day all I could do was watch tornado videos and read Facebook. But watching the videos made me think of a pudgy dancer or whirling dervish dancing across our fields. The National Weather Service posted an aerial view of the tornado’s twenty five mile track. There was one place where it looked like the cloud spun and danced for joy, waltzing in and out of itself in the dirt. You could see the score marks in the farmer’s fields, trees shoved out of the way and how straight this EF 4 tornado danced.
We have all said we are grateful it didn’t hit downtown Rochelle or Rockford or Belvidere but rather danced across plain fields. We were grateful it didn’t smash the natural gas terminal just down the street from the barn it smashed and grateful it didn’t rip out the high tension lines coming from the Byron Nuke plant because the whole region would have been out of power for weeks. We were grateful our home and barns and fields and trees and horses and chickens and dog and cat and ourselves were spared. I swear the prayers of people from Facebook were like pitchforks sticking into the fat dancer driving her around us, blowing her energy out of her twirling, breaking her into smaller funnels and then nothing because the huge, powerful funnel stopped about two miles from us.
The day after that we answered the call from Everbold to clean up their pastures. Leslie Young showed me the horses that had been scraped up. It was reassuring to see them standing on all four legs, reaching their noses towards their owners. I was stunned at how close the tornado had come to their barn and home without destroying it. She said they had no basement to run to. Their neighbor’s home was flattened and scattered.
Bruce and I bent to pick up bits of shingles and boards. Terry Young took the skid loader and loaded big pieces of debris and dumped them into a burn pile. The Red Cross truck brought sandwiches and water. A neighbor talked about her husband’s excavating business. You’d think I’d have more stamina for picking up tiny bits of stuff but I was pretty stiff and sore by the time we finished for the day.