Like any child of the American Midwest growing up on the old Wizard of Oz movie, I had an early concept of twisters and weather. The recent deadly storms in Oklahoma have reminded me I have a phobia — lilapsophobia, aka a tornado phobia.
The roots of my phobia run deep into my early childhood. Growing up in Chicago, Illinois, put me on the end of Tornado Alley. And whether or not we got one was dependent on Lake Michigan. If it added heat to the turbulent atmosphere we could be in trouble. If it added moisture we’d send potential woe to Indiana and Michigan.
They say 90% of US tornadoes occur in Tornado Alley…something to do with cold dry air coming down from Canada to meet the warm moist air from the Gulf of Mexico. This meteorological dance macabre takes place in the wide channel between the Rockies and the Appalachians.
My first encounter with extreme weather came in 1967. I remember it was a warm day in April, my birthday had passed. I was in public school at the time and it was recess. This was back in the old days when hazards weeded out the stupid kids and taught you how to be careful. I remember the monkey bars could really break your neck, or at the least, knock out your teeth. I saw that with my own eyes a few times. Back then most playgrounds were patchy ground and gravel. You just knew if you fell, you were going to be picking that gravel out of your knees.
That day, anyone could see the weather was changing and we were going to have rain shortly, but the teachers felt 30 minutes of being outside was a good idea. Within minutes the sky changed. That was the first time I’d ever seen a green sky. The wind came out of nowhere and the sound of it was terrifying. I was this skinny little girl in a dress and the gravel whipped against me and left me with welts and cuts on my bare legs. The kids rushed to the doors, but this was shortly after the Our Lady of Angles fire when schoolchildren were trapped inside a burning school because the doors opened inward instead of out. Our doors opened out.
The pile of screaming kids jammed against the door preventing the teachers from letting us back in. I remember the principal running from the side of the building. He must have charged out the front door and ran to the back to move us away from the doors so they could be opened and we ran inside. Back in those Cold War days with the threat of Russian bombings, we had drills where we crouched below our desks (like that would make any difference what-so-ever). We crouched now. The storm passed, and later, the sorry basketball hoop at the far end of the gravel playground was bent at an angle and neighbors were out dealing with broken windows and the trees that had fallen.
That summer, my sister and I went by train to California to visit relatives . It was a marvelous train called the California Zephyr. I spent most of the ride in the dome car looking out the massive windows. I loved watching the sunrises, sunsets and mountains, from that car. In the wee hours of the morning, when we were half way through New Mexico, the train slowed. Morning in the dome car revealed the reason. A tornado hit just before dawn and the tracks needed to be cleared. So there I was, in the dome car as usual with lots of time to stare at the sights. And the scene burned into my brain. Especially the cow carcass hanging from the tree and shell-shocked bloody people holding one another.
Storms came and went through my life and some bothered me more than others. Many years went by and I swallowed my anxiety as best I could for my childrens’ sake because parents do their kids a disservice letting them witness anxiety of any magnitude. My husband knew. I wish I could be as fearless as my family but I’m not. The three of them make me crazy that way. I’ll sit out a bad storm in the basement by myself and they’re outside with the sky churning overhead so I can add envisioning the funnel cloud touching down long enough to pluck them off the driveway to the rest of my anxiety!
Anyway…my kids were young teens and we were hired to do a living history portrayal in southern Wisconsin one particularly oppressive July weekend. We put up our camp quickly because it was obviously going to rain, and after decided it was too hot to build a fire for cooking dinner. We ended up driving to a Subway for sandwiches. No sooner did we get our meal when the siren went off. A moment later, a father and daughter come running into the Subway shouting “It’s right there!”. We were sitting ducks.
Everyone ran to the washrooms and hunkered down against the wall of sinks and we covered our children with our bodies as best we could. One woman in there with us started sobbing and babbling, and in all honesty I wanted to clobber her for scaring my kids worse than they already were. As quickly as it came on, the sirens ceased. Fearing the worst for our camp we loaded into the car. The next thing we knew the sirens went off again. At the nearby police station, an officer was waving us in. We ran there and got under the tables. It went on for hours. Literally hours. We were in a historic F-5 tornadic supercell. By the time it ended, our camp was blown to bits and the small group of history presenters had taken cover in a cinder block pool house at the park. The town put us up in a hotel overnight. I was numb.
My next experience happened several years later and was close to home..very close to home. The sky that afternoon ranked as one of the weirdest I’d ever seen in my life. Not greenish but a deep slate gray. I was driving and dropped my husband off to close our gates and went to turn the car around to pick him up. As I turned my eye caught a bizarre sight — a white hourglass against the slate gray. I was dumbfounded. My mind worked it. What was that?? It couldn’t be a tornado, tornadoes are funnels and tubes. Not hourglasses in the sky. Then I saw the debris. Coming to my senses, I remembered I left my husband at the gate and I sped there. I picked him up and headed home. He dropped me off then went to help some people whose car had been blocked on the road by a fallen tree. I ran to the house and nearly got knocked to my knees. Inside, I stuffed my birds into a paper bag and grabbed my house rabbit and put them in the basement. I stayed upstairs for once. In full fret mode, I paced. My kids were out, where were they?? My husband was out there with that misleading hourglass. Was he ok?? A few minutes later he returned with a family of four and two teenage girls crying hysterically. We all went to the basement. Lesson learned: tornadoes come in many shapes.
So yes, I have lilapsophobia. My experiences and anxiety pale by comparison to what those who faced the tragedy in Oklahoma went through and are still going through. My heart goes out to them and wish them all strength and healing.