The afternoon opens with a birthday party. Your neighborhood friends are ramping BMX bicycles in the driveway. You’re playing jacks with the girl who will take you to Sadie Hawkins when you’re 15. Dad pulls up in his work truck with a birthday card from Grandpa with a $10 bill in it. Life at 10 is all cake. It’s a beautiful day. It goes on for hours.
The towering cloud overhead sends your friends home. The six o’clock sun has that hazy, yellow tint. The thunder and lightning start with a moderate rain and a fair amount of wind. Looking up, you can see lower levels in a cloud base moving counter to the bulk of the larger cloud. The moderate rain intensifies as the storm continues to draw air. You can literally feel it rushing toward the storm. Gusting winds intermingle with sheets of rain. It is a chore to stand in the doorway. Mom and Dad rush through the house, making sure all the windows are closed and that Mikey and Dominik, the German shepherd puppies, are locked in your bedroom.
Ten minutes go by. The sky is much darker now, with just a hint of yellow.
You hear the hailstones before you see them. Suddenly they’re pounding on everything. It’s loud. It lets up almost as quickly as it begins. All the while, sheets of driving rain pound against the windows.
LISTEN: This Land Audio Producers Abby Wendle and Sarah Geis visited Moore shortly after the May 20 tornado hit. They made this portrait of survivors who were in two of the hardest-hit spots: the Plaza Towers Elementary School and the Warren Theater.
The lower, smaller clouds begin a dance of sorts, darting in and out of one another. It only takes them a minute to organize into a funnel. From underneath, you can see the vortex, spinning like a mini hurricane.
The spiraling gets more pronounced. The next minute is harried with last-minute preparations. The pups are in the bathroom now, after running back to the front door for one last peek before taking cover, their wispy tails whipping like ribbons.
The lights in the whole neighborhood go out. No streetlamps, no porch lights. Just a faint glow making its way through the huge, dark clouds. The wind becomes unavoidable. It seems to come from everywhere with such a roaring force that it pops your ears. You take a final look, but you don’t really see it touch the ground. Dad frantically rushes you to the hiding spot. You’re hunched under a full-sized mattress holding a puppy that doesn’t want to be held as the house begins making a strange humming noise, accompanied by the creak of straining lumber. It’s so loud. The roaring wind, the house shaking and shrieking. Then you hear quick snaps as boards are pulled back and released. The snaps turn to a chorus of crushing rumbles.
Crashing glass, loud booms—it seems to go on and on.
The pitch black of your hiding spot is suddenly illuminated by the outside world. You struggle from under the mattress for a peek. The rumble wanes, the snapping becomes more distant, the roar grows faint. You can barely see anything, but the little bit of light seems very bright from under the darkness. The roaring calms and you poke your head out. Everything
is rained on. Large pieces of the roof are missing. The rain pours in. Boards are poking out in every direction.
Stumbling into the kitchen, you have a new view of the backyard. The pear tree is missing. The swing set is knocked over. The chain-link fence has all manner of things stuck in it. The back porch is in the neighbor’s yard. The washer and dryer are missing. It’s the first time you’ve ever seen an overturned car. Pieces of everything are broken and ruined all over. Dad’s truck has been pushed into the front room and is lodged in the wall. That whole part of the house seems to be a few feet shorter.
The entire wall buckled in the middle and wooden two-by-six supports from the roof truss sag through the ceiling. The windows are broken; curtains are missing. All the furniture is moved around. You and Mom go around the side of the house as Dad backs the truck out. There’s a glowing orange in the distance, which you’re too young to recognize as the Atlas Oil Refinery. It’s on fire and burning out of control.
The drive to Grandpa’s takes forever on a flat tire. You didn’t take a change of clothes; you didn’t get a chance to go to your room. You’re not even sure your room survived. Between Mom crying, the puppies squirming, and Dad in emergency mode, you’re not sure if the last 30 minutes were even real.
The spring of ‘78 will be the lump in your throat every time the sirens go off.
Originally published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 15, August 1, 2014.