Before moving to Georgia in my adolescence, I lived in Stillwater, Oklahoma for the first 12 years of my childhood. It was a wonderful place to grow up as a boy.
There were flat streets for my brother and I to skateboard all around town, lots of arcades for us and our friends to dump quarters into, and fishing at Theta Pond. Oh, and chili cheese dogs on Washington Street.
But there was also a harrowing threat of living in Oklahoma, especially in the summer. That’s because the state is home to more tornadoes than any other place in the world—right smack in the middle of Tornado Alley. And I distinctly remember many close encounters with them, if not once every other summer.
My first memory of a tornado was watching a slow and calming funnel cloud form directly over my house on Admiral Street. It was this giant, swirling, but graceful thing that looked like it could explode into a tornado at any moment. My family and I all watched from the front street. No one said it, but I’m sure all of us we’re thinking: “Please don’t touch down. Please.” We didn’t run because it wasn’t violent looking, and the sirens hadn’t gone off yet. In other words, when you live in Oklahoma, you learn to live with the threat of tornadoes every summer. And you don’t scramble for cover or storm shelters until you can feel, observe, and hear that something violent is about to happen.
My next memory of a tornado happened the next year after moving to a nearby house on Orchard Street. I was playing outdoor basketball at my elementary school. By then all of my friends had left to go home, but I stayed taking shots and dreaming of becoming Michael Jordan. I remember the sunset was abnormally bright orange that evening. Then something strange happened. It was as if God had suddenly hit the mute button on every naturally-occurring sound. No birds chirping. No animals moving. No wind rustling through trees. Just uneasy silence that you only notice when the world completely stops. It was my first time experiencing a literal “calm before the storm.”
The silence didn’t last long.
Just then the high pitch whine of tornado sirens burst into the atmosphere. I knew what to do. My parents taught me: run for cover! Upon hearing the sirens, I immediately started into a full sprint home. Although three blocks away, I can’t imagine it took me longer than a couple of minutes, I ran so fast. When I got home, I remember seeing the rest of my family descending into the underground storm shelter in our garage. We had to move two large and heavy wooden doors to enter the stairwell and small cement room that doubled as our food storage. I imagine my parents were relieved to see me but only remember rushing downstairs and watching my father shut the doors as the sirens continued to scream. Like usual, we didn’t say anything. Everyone was hoping for the same thing: “Please don’t hit our house. Please don’t touchdown. Please stay away.”
After a half an hour of waiting, it didn’t. In fact, I don’t remember hearing violent winds at all that night. But I remember entering that storm shelter/cellar many other times, seemingly more in the evening or at night than during the day. I remember hearing howling winds so bad one night that both the TV and sirens told us to “head for shelter.” It sounded like a twister would hit at any second. Thankfully it never did. I remember another time we went to the shelter, heard horrendous winds, and later emerged with only lots of leaves and a few felled tree limbs.
The other side of town wasn’t so lucky. The next day, I remember driving there with my family to inspect the damage. I saw dozens of homes leveled, many more partially damaged, and personal belongings scattered all around the neighborhood. I remember feeling blessed that the destruction had passed my home but sad that others couldn’t say the same. It was a cruel reminder that life isn’t fair.
Like skydiving, tornadoes are intense and sudden extremes of peace and violence, silence and dissonance, water and fire, order and chaos. Although hurricanes do more damage, they also give up to 24 hours notice before striking. Tornadoes can form and kill in minutes. Their unpredictability and concentrated violence is what makes them so frightening.
I’m in no way an expert on twisters, and there are many people that have survived much scarier or more recent storms than I. But that’s what I remember about surviving tornadoes on a near annual basis on the great plains of Oklahoma.