The Tornado

A typical muggy Michigan summer afternoon found me walking beside my best friend dragging behind us a little red wagon filled with newspapers. A storm was in the making and, we figured, would be on us in an hour, so we’d need to hurry up delivering the papers. We had about a half mile to walk before coming to the apartment complex where my friend’s route was located.

The air must have measured at least 90 percent relative humidity, the sky was overcast and heavy. You could almost see the little droplets of condensation around you, and the whole atmosphere was tense, subdued and quiet. Kim and I were the only ones outside. Everyone else was inside their house and all the birds and insects, even the mosquitoes, so widespread that time of year, were nowhere to be found.

Kim and I did not find much to talk about that day. Once, a silence between us was as unheard of as snow in the summer—it just didn’t exist. But that was in sixth grade, where everyone was still innocent and just wanted to play. Now we were in seventh grade, and that changed things drastically. My girl friends, including Kim, began to notice the cute (and not so cute) guys, began to want to spend time at the mall and buy trendy clothes and get stylish haircuts. And slumber parties and gossiping became more the thing to do. I was a late bloomer and as yet had no interest in those sorts of things.

That year, Kim had begun spending time with Carol, a girl I did not really like, and it had been all I could do to hide from Kim the pain I felt. I was not as important to her as I’d been in the past. I don’t think I had at that time admitted what my heart had been telling me for some time—that this friendship was soon to be a memory. In sixth grade, it had been going strong; now that we were nearing the end of seventh grade, my friendship with Kim was all but gone. Here was a friendship which in the end, really did not amount to much. Friendships in junior high are such capricious creatures. Sometimes they sour for no apparent reason. More often, though, they’re just inconsistent. One day they’re there; the next day they’re gone.

We arrived at the apartment complex and began delivering the papers. We’d each do one building, then we’d move on to the next group. On the way, Kim walked over to a dumpster to throw something away. “Wait ‘til I get back,” she said. I followed her.

“Why do you always want to do everything I do?” Kim asked mildly when she saw me behind her. I didn’t know what to say. I guess I’d just wanted to be with her because she was my friend. I didn’t think she’d see it as me following her. But she had seen it that way, and so I felt embarrassed. In junior high, you just don’t follow friends around. For one, tagging along when you were clearly not wanted was viewed as childish behavior, as if you were the kid sister. Another more profound reason was that “following” was a silent show of your need for your friend’s companionship and affirmation. To admit this need when it was clear that she didn’t want you was to open your heart up only to get hurt, and that would be madness. I turned my face away, counted out m y papers for the next building and kept quiet.

The sky continued to get more overcast, taking on a green hue, and the air got heavier. It still wasn’t raining, and it never would. The sky was holding everything in, just like I was. Suddenly, a black girl riding a bicycle with a banana seat came into view, startling Kim and me. She was the first living soul we’d seen since we’d left the house. “You guys shouldn’t be outside. Can’t you see the tornado cloud up there?” she said pointing to the sky.

Kim and I looked up. Among all the other clouds, yet ominously standing apart, was the tornado cloud. Its near edge was practically on top of us, and so low it seemed you could touch it if you merely stretched out your hand. Towering high above until it got lost in all the other clouds were what appeared to be three layers of turbulent, gray, billowing clouds. I had never seen a tornado cloud before, but I knew what I was looking at. It did not take much imagination to see a funnel dropping out of this cloud and beginning its irregular path of destruction along the ground below. Kim and I looked at each other blankly, then at the stack of papers remaining in our little red wagon. By this time the girl who had warned us was gone.

“Let’s get these papers delivered quickly,” Kim urged, giving the wagon a tug. I followed her, a sense of adventure growing inside me. A few moments later I looked up at the cloud. It had grown; the three layers were farther apart, and its overall shape was altered. I knew that if it decided to strike, Kim and I would be right in its path, yet, this did not frighten me. Not having been exposed to much danger in my young life, the possibility that I could get killed or seriously hurt was not a tangible one. What was more tangible in my mind was the fact that Kim and I had a reason to be outside—we had a job to do. Nothing, not even the worst kind of weather, was going to deter us.

We finished the last few apartments and started for home, glad to be done with our job. The cloud hadn’t changed much in that time, but the air was a lot cooler and didn’t feel quite as muggy. Now we were on the main road, taking turns pulling the little red wagon, which despite the fact that the papers were all gone, felt heavier. It was hard to pull along the gravel and dirt road shoulder. We walked in silence until I looked back.

“Kim, look at the cloud,” I said matter of factly. Kim turned around and her face briefly turned white as she put her hand to her mouth. Just above the trees the cloud had extended itself downward, as if it were a puddle of water running out of an enormous drain. We could see the tip of the funnel and it was moving downward.

We turned around and walked faster. Presently, Kim said: “I’m not worried about it.”

“Me neither,” I echoed, wondering why I wasn’t afraid. I had memories of moving to Michigan two years before, learning about tornadoes—the fact that they weren’t these nice weather phenomena that carried people to the land of Oz—and being deathly afraid of them. I would spend many sleepless nights, listening to the weird sounds the wind made as it blew across our house, and being afraid that a tornado was just around the corner.

Since those first few weeks in Michigan, I’d learned more about tornadoes, and the weather patterns that generally precede them. My family and I had also undergone several citywide tornado drills and warnings—meaning we’d rushed to the basement with the radio and stayed there until the storm blew over. Usually, those warnings never amounted to much. Tornadoes are such capricious creatures. Sometimes they strike with a vengeance, destroying trees, houses and people for no apparent reason. More often, though, they only touch down for seconds—one minute they’re there, and the next, they’re gone.

By the time Kim and I saw the funnel cloud, I’d begun to view tornadoes more as a source of adventure and excitement than as something to fear. In a way, being outside and being followed by a funnel cloud was no different than being in the basement, hearing about it on the radio. In both situations, the thrill of adventure drowns out the feelings of fear, so the emotional impact is about the same. Besides, it wasn’t like I was alone; that would be no fun. I was with my best friend. This was a fun adventure; if there was fear, it was part of the fun—much like the frightening drops on a roller coaster are merely part of the thrill of the ride. More than being afraid, I was curious about the tornado and eager to be a part of this dramatic memory in the making.

I looked back, and Kim looked too. By this time the bottom of the funnel was well below the tree line. In fact, the downward extension of the tornado cloud appeared more like a column than a funnel. I’d have thought that there would be sirens at that point. The tornado was clearly within the city limits; in fact it was right in our neighborhood. But I heard nothing. No sirens. Just complete silence. Here was another mystery. Once I’d asked my father what a tornado sounds like. His reply had been “You’ll know it when you hear it. A tornado has a whistling sound and is as loud as one hundred trains.” Well, I did not hear any kind of whistling sound, or one hundred trains. I didn’t even hear one train, not even a very small train. I heard nothing.

“I’m not too concerned about it,” Kim said, beginning to walk faster. “I’m trusting that God is protecting us.”

“I’m not scared either,” I said. Actually, I would have happily abandoned the little red wagon and followed the tornado to get a better look at it, but I knew that would be madness. You just don’t follow tornadoes around. “Hey, let’s get a picture of this when we get home,” I said after a pause. The funnel cloud continued to grow and Kim and I picked up the pace. At her house we could climb on the roof of her garden shed and get a better view of our tornado. We could even get a good picture of it.

Presently we arrived. We quickly put the wagon away and got rid of the trash. Then we ran into the house to look for a camera. Kim’s mother didn’t seem to be too worried that we were outside during a tornado or that we intended to go right back out. She might not even have known.

In less than two minutes we were both on the roof of the garden shed, looking all over for the tornado. “Do you see it anywhere?” Kim asked after a long pause. I peeled my eyes, searching the sky for the funnel cloud, once so unmistakable. Kim had the camera poised.

“No, I don’t see it anywhere,” I said, unwilling to acknowledge what my eyes were telling me. I rubbed my eyes and looked again. The tornado was nowhere to be found. Instead, the sky was filled with ordinary gray clouds, laden with unpoured rain. The tornado had simply vanished without a trace. I held back tears of disappointment. Kim took another look at the sky, somewhat incredulously. Then she jumped off the shed. “Oh well, it’s gone. I’m going in.”

I stayed on the roof of the shed for a long time, just staring at the sky, which rapidly cleared up. It didn’t clear up in the sense that it turned blue; it cleared up in the sense that it became normal Michigan overcast rather than Very overcast. The sun was beginning to set, so some of the clouds began to turn pink. I closed my eyes, wondering about this mysterious tornado that had so quickly and silently slipped out of my view. I was outside for a long time. Would Kim come out and get me? No she didn’t. She too was quickly and silently slipping out of my life.

Nothing more was said about the tornado until the next morning when my mother came to pick me up. By then she had read about it in the paper. What we had seen had not been a real tornado. The funnel cloud we saw was actually a reverse cyclone caused by a rapidly moving cold front intercepting a warm, low pressure weather system that had been hanging over our area for some time. About three of these cold front reverse cyclones had been spotted in the city where we lived around the time Kim and I had been on the paper route. These kinds of funnel clouds almost never cause any kind of damage or touch down.

What we had seen had been a rare weather phenomenon—definitely more unusual than snow in the summer—and I’ll probably never see something like that again. But that didn’t matter to me. All I could think of was, it wasn’t the real thing. What we had seen the day before was not a tornado after all, and by the time it had disappeared, it was as if it had never been there. All it left behind was a memory and a photograph which showed up in Saturday morning’s newspaper. One minute it was there; the next minute it was gone.


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