February bleeds away to a winter-that-wasn’t. Sunny, warm days turn to snow, snow turns to wind, wind turns to driving rain and warmer days grow warmer still. It isn’t that the weather is unpredictable so much as unstable, erratic to the point of fringing on lunacy. More than one friend asked, if this is winter, what will spring be like?
And then comes a rainy day where Lori and I wander through the border regions for a news gig, horizons slowly disappearing until we’re driven inside by a pounding rain, followed by an afternoon/early evening of scarlet amoebic blobs swarming through the pings of doppler radar, and people everywhere on edge. And it’s not even March...
I felt rusty at the inevitable preparations of hastily backing up hard drives, casing camera equipment and mentally rummaging through checklists unused for half a year, even if finely honed from last year’s violence-prone spring. Water-resistant tubs used for snatch-and-grab packing were mostly buried beneath an accretion of laziness and things-to-be-put-away-someday-but-not-now, and now was here and me caught flat-footed, my mind hammering through a dozen reasons why February tornadoes were unlikely or impossible, and radar ruthlessly refuting each one. With a deepening sense of dread I monitored watches and warnings erupting across the state as cells exploded from Oklahoma to Nebraska, their northeasterly trajectories tracked with a remembering eye; the cell passing through Beloit would traverse counties to the west, those blossoming north of Wichita would veer to the east, the one pounding Concordia positive to make a beeline for our backyard.
Nevertheless, I went out to the local chamber of commerce mixer, mostly to show photos for a historical society project but also to get a free beer or three. (The biblical admonition to eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die was never more prescient.) I was surprised to see Jupiter and Venus aligned brightly through a rift in the clouds, while below sheet lightning shimmered the western skies and the faint drumbeat of thunder so deep and subsonic it seemed a figment of my imagination, more felt than heard, rumbled underfoot.
Leaving the house seemed the epitome of folly. There was much to do to prepare for the unthinkable, old habits to reconstruct and revive, plans to be made. But there was something to be said for escapism, for not allowing a few distant flare-ups to interfere with established events. Others would be there enjoying themselves despite the weather; could I do any less?
I could, as a matter of fact, but I went anyway, and while there I asked those who had lived their whole lives in tornado alley how they managed wild nights such as this, if they had designated safety zones and evacuation strategies, how and when they decided to burrow belowground like badgers, whether their level of tension came anywhere near my own. The resulting answers were a mixed bag but tended toward a sort of nonchalant fatalism.
Several, indeed, professed to transform the most dramatic weather into front-row entertainment spectacles replete with lawn chairs and coolers of alcoholic beverages. Others adopted, at least outwardly, a ho-hum attitude that basically relegated tornadic apocalypse to a mythological realm beyond the borders of familiar fields.
I wondered if the sheer randomness of tornadoes might have made them something of a bogeyman, cautionary tales for unruly children or the timid, embellishments more than actualities. I also wondered if people who had experienced tornadoes were less complacent about their destructive and occasionally deadly possibilities than those for whom tornadoes were merely a nighttime news report from the frontlines of elsewhere.
Whatever our various states of mind, we partied while rain lashed the windows and lightning flared, and afterward went our ways. When I got home I stood in the driveway watching clouds scud across the sky and felt the heavy dampness of gulf moisture pressing down like a blanket, the darkness throbbing with sound and motion, trees bending in the wind, leaves skittering down the street, while overhead unseen phalanxes of snow geese bayed and howled. A raccoon loping down the road skidded to a stop with a quizzical look whose meaning could only be fathomed through the most dire prophetic terms. But I didn’t want prophesy or tidings of great import, I wanted only the comfort of four surrounding walls and my wife’s companionship from which I derive so much of my courage.
No sooner had I sat down with a cup of coffee and the laptop than the abstract became reality, and not a little personal: Harveyville, home to an old friend, crushed and broken, and another friend’s performance theater in Branson obliterated. And so goes the Great Plains’ spring mantra: first conjecture, then cataclysm.
There was a time not so very long ago when I envied those who could ignore violent weather, but no more. Awareness, preparation and strategic planning aren’t symptoms of paranoia but rational, reasonable measures that might mean the difference between survival and injury or death. I’m not afraid of dying but I’m not ready to depart this mortal plane, either. Nor am I willing to gamble without a clear understanding of the game being played, one with random draws of the cards, complete uncertainty over your opponent’s next move and the guarantee that for every winner there is a loser.
Tonight Harveyville lost, and Branson, and perhaps others alone in the darkness of a night gone berserk. As far as I can tell, there were no winners.