Tuesday, April 04, 2006

The Sound of Sirens

In the 60's Simon and Garfunkel had a song called "The Sound of Silence". This is not about silence!

When you are four, loud noises scare you. Even though you’ve learned to be loud yourself by that time, large booms, bangs and the occasional peel of lightning and thunder scares you. You may not be terrified to the point of being afraid to look out from under the covers - but it’s scary - real scary. So finding yourself awakened in the middle of the night by the sound of the big siren on top of the elementary school became the most dreaded sound of all. It was a large rotating horn that when it was pointing in your direction was incredibly loud.

I grew up in Kansas. The first time I heard the sirens was long before I ever saw “The Wizard of Oz”. I didn’t know you could be caught up in a tornado and live to see funny little people and colorful characters who could talk. No, all I knew was there was a really big swirling cloud that was coming our way and it was going to kill us if it got us. Did I say the tornado sirens on top of the elementary school were loud - really loud? The school was three city blocks away from our house and I can’t imagine how loud they must have been for the people who lived next door. All I know is it sounded like they were blasting right in your ear and as loud as you could stand. Nothing at all like the wimpy little sirens we now have here in Georgia.

The first night I heard the sirens, the sound came around midnight. We were all in bed asleep and that sound woke us all up. My mom and dad were home - and that helped - but the fear of the unknown which included the not knowing when the tornado was going to strike, had all of us kids terrified. We lived in a house with no basement and nowhere to go for safety - although we were sure we would be sucked out of any basement anyway if it hit us even if we had one. My folks called the neighbors across the street to see if we could go over there. They were nice and had kids about our age so they understood and welcomed us with open arms. So packing up a little bedding and blankets we all ran across to their house.

Their basement wasn’t inside their house though. Again, we had to go outside their back door and go around to the corner of the house where two big double doors covered the access. When we got to the doors, Mr. Everett realized he had forgotten the key to the padlock and had to run back inside to find it while all of the rest of us had to stand outside, where the tornado could get us, and all the time getting drenched with the rain and hail.

Finally he came back with the key and the doors were opened and we all went down into the basement. The kids were all told to get against the wall and they covered us with a mattress - then we waited… and waited… and waited… it seemed like for an eternity. This gave my older sisters plenty of time to tell us stories about tornados and scare us younger kids to death. They talked about another neighbor who had been caught up in a twister and left hanging in a tree - alive - but messed up. At one point my dad and Mr. Everett went outside to look around. But being dark and in the middle of the night - they couldn’t see anything. This was long before weather radios existed.

I had no idea what a tornado could do. I’d never seen one or saw news reports of the damage. I was four - and I wouldn’t have understood it even if I had seen it. All I knew was that they would chew you up and spit you out in pieces. There were no fire breathing dragons in my childhood - only tornados and those awful sirens.

I am told that when I was two or three - just a year or so before this particular night - I had a real experience with that power that caused such unrelenting fear. My dad worked for MoPac railroad and was gone a lot during the week and since we moved around a lot to keep up with his job, we lived in a trailer. A trailer - in Kansas! One night, when my mom was pregnant with my little sister, I was put into the closet with my two older sisters while my mom stood in the hallway and wedged herself in such a way as to keep the door closed and us “safely” inside. We rode out a tornado that night while it shook the trailer with a vengeance. I don’t remember that night - I was too young - but it certainly was playing a part in my psyche that first night of the siren.

As the years went by, we grew accustomed to the sound of the tornado sirens - even to the point of amusement. We would hear the sirens go off and then go outside to see who could spot one in the distance. In fact everybody in our neighborhood seemed to do the same thing. You would see people all up and down the block sitting on the porch and watching the night’s entertainment.

In those days KFDI radio sent their reporters out to cover the storm and drive into wherever they were spotted. It was as interesting as a baseball game and a lot more fun whenever they would get caught in high winds or hail. You could hear the terror in their voice in the live reports as the hail and wind bounced them around. There is no radio coverage like that here in Georgia. Shoot - we just got sirens about five years ago. Of course in Kansas, it is open enough to see them coming. Here in Georgia you can't see past the trees and hills. Tornados here can sneak up on you!

When the movie “Twister” came out - we took my mom to see it. It was about a tornado chase team in Oklahoma. My mom was from Oklahoma and we thought she would be interested. She watched as the movie started - how the family ran to the storm cellar and how the dad tried to hold the doors closed. Mom nudged me and whispered - “papa used to do that”. Just then the dad in the movie got sucked out and killed. The movie went on to show the damage of a tornado that devastated a little town in Oklahoma. After it was over, mom said “that was nothing - you shoulda seen the one that hit Woodward back in ’47!”

She had grown up in Moreland about 10 miles from Woodward and had gone over with her family to help the victims. She spoke of widespread destruction, headless bodies impaled on trees that had no branches and weeping and crying at every turn. The Woodward tornado is rated the #6 worst storm of all time with 107 deaths and reports of either multiple tornados or one large funnel over 2 miles wide.

In all the years of tornado sirens and radio reports in Kansas - I never actually saw one. Not once. All the times we were terrified as kids, all the times I walked around outside looking for them - not once did I ever see one. Of course I’d seen the tornado on the Wizard of Oz - but that doesn’t count.

Before Georgia got sirens, we were working one night when the radio weather guy said there was a tornado on the ground not far from us. I thought he meant 10 miles away. It actually was across the street! It had dropped out of the clouds five or so miles south of us and continued to dance its way north until it hit our building with a direct hit. It continued past us a little - skipping and sputtering - but the real damage stopped at our building. My wife Deb and I were inside at the time and the noise sounded much more like someone throwing potatoes into a garbage disposal than the sound of a train. South of us and across the street, the whole top floor of the apartment where an employee used to live was torn off and thrown into the front of our building. When it hit, we could feel tiny little shards of stuff falling in on us and the air pressure changes. After the noise stopped, I stuck my head out the door and looked to the front of the building - only to see all the stuff blown down and blocking the doorway to the outside.

Funny thing about it though - I was disappointed I didn’t get to go outside and watch as it went by. That night was April 8th, 1998.

Interesting how our fears turn into curiosity over time. Must have been the lack of those sirens in the night.

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