Tuesday, May 28, 2013

I've seen this movie before

So this is what it looks like inside a tornado.

Yep. This looks right to me.

In 1971, when I was 10½ years old,  Hurricane Edith was headed toward Baton Rouge, so my folks decided to keep me home from school. Now Edith wasn't much of a hurricane, but it seemed as good an excuse as any to not bother schlepping your sorry butt to the bus stop and spending the day at school . . . during a hurricane.

To tell you the truth, what we got out of Edith in Louisiana's capital city was more akin to a tropical storm -- no wild tales to amaze your Yankee friends with. The morning of Sept. 16, 1971 was starting to look like a complete kid hurricane-adventure bust. Hell, my old man was even at work at the Enjay Chemical plant.

For a real storm, they batten down the hatches on those suckers. Now who was going to run the camp stove, huh? In the Gret Stet, a hurricane is no excuse not to cook.

So everything was looking OK, which meant, to a kid, that it wasn't OK at all. Thunderstorms . . . meh. The most exciting thing was the street was flooded, and the water came halfway to the house.

Then something happened.

MY MOM was on the phone with my grandma, I think, when the sky went as black as night. I'd never seen anything like that before.

"Mama! Look at how black the clouds are!" I recall saying, just before all hell broke loose. There was a roar like a crapload of freight trains or jet engines, take your pick. There was a swirling whitish, grayish cloud -- pea soup doing the St. Vitus Dance -- out of which leaves, shingles, pink Fiberglas insulation . . . you name it . . . would emerge, stick to the front jalousie windows for a second or two, then blow away.

I was looking out the windows the whole time, transfixed. My mother was crying hysterically to Jesus. There were no tornado sirens in Baton Rouge, and we had no warning until the tornado announced itself.

Apart from watching the maelstrom, I was trying to calm Mama down. The thought did briefly occur to me that we might die.

Then . . . quiet.

THEN THE RADIO, which was tuned to WLCS, erupted with "(Whoop! Whoop! Whoop!) BULLETIN! BULLETIN! BULLETIN! (Whoop! Whoop! Whoop!) BULLETIN! BULLETIN! BULLETIN! (Whoop! Whoop! Whoop!)" It was a "tornado alert."

Thanks for the heads-up, y'all.

Surveying outside the house, the hanging address placard had blown off its chains and was out in the yard. The façade of the house was tar papered with green leaves, and Fiberglas was all over the place.

The street and the front yard were bone dry. Later, we'd hear that some houses the next street over were missing their roofs. And a shopping center and some apartments less than a mile away were all torn up.

The State-Times that afternoon said a "small tornado or tornadoes skipped across the Sherwood Forest area." The official weather records put it down as an F-3 -- not exactly "small."

To me, the Tornado From Edith was a marker -- a dividing line. You had life before the thing, and then life after it.

In life after Edith, hurricanes weren't "fun" adventures. They were damn serious business, and those of us who'd been on the business end of one -- or the twisters they spawn -- stood ready to deck any idiot who thought they weren't.

I've seen things. Look at the video, and you'll see what I saw that day.

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