KDBarnI used to dream of tornadoes.

For obvious reasons, I’ve been reminded of that over the past few days. From my earliest memories as a child, I had nightmares where I scrambled for cover as a twister bore down on me, or my family, or my animals, or all of the above. This might be understandable if I’d grown up in the Midwest, but here on the Rocky Mountain slopes tornadoes are extremely rare, and until I was in high school there had never been one within hundreds of miles of me. I had never even seen the Wizard of Oz. I have no idea where in my warped little psyche this particular phobia originated, but it persisted into adulthood.

Then I moved to the Dallas/Fort Worth metraplex. The thunderstorms were apocalyptic, packing rain and lightning unlike anything this northerner had ever witnessed, and my paranoia suddenly became an uncomfortable reality. No worries, my co-workers assured me. There are too many hills around the metraplex for tornadoes to form. I breathed a sigh of relief and went happily about my business until baseball season, when I commented on the pristine bleachers and concessions area.

“Brand new,” one of the coaches declared. “Had to replace the whole works after that tornado wiped ’em out a couple years back.”

So much for sleeping. Especially given that my apartment was on the top floor, east corner of the complex, the last place you’d want to be if a twister hit. I recall one endless night, cowering against the inside wall of my living room, listening to the thunder boom so loud it rattled knick-knacks off my mantle and vowing my next house would have, at the very least, a crawl space.

Then I moved to South Dakota, where I was at least on the outer margin of Tornado Alley instead of dead center, but I still couldn’t rest easy. I especially hated the storms that hit during the night, so I couldn’t see what was coming. I’d be up at two a.m., ears tuned for the sound of locomotive winds, pacing from window to window straining for glimpses of the clouds in the flashes of lightning. Eight years of this, and nary a twister to be seen, but my phobia still raged, and even in the winter the nightmare storms still stalked me.

In 1997, we made the decision to move to eastern Oregon. I finished out the school year as athletic trainer at Aberdeen Central High School and handed in my resignation in May, ready to move back to the west where the wind blew in straight lines. And of course, that’s when it happened. One turbulent afternoon, the last week on the job, a boiling wall of black clouds rolled in, wicked little fingers flickering from its base.

Lucky for me, the building where our rehab department was located was a tornado shelter. While we stood on the front steps mesmerized by nature’s display of power and deafened by screaming sirens, the massive cloud contracted and rotated into one huge funnel and took aim at the south side of the city. Vehicles came screeching into the lot, residents of a nearby mobile home park racing for safety. I ran inside to call my husband, afraid he might be out working on the tractor and completely unaware of what was coming, in which case calling our land line was fruitless but I didn’t know what else to do since we had no cell phones back then.

Much to my relief, on the fourth try he answered the phone. “There’s a tornado headed right for you!” I shouted. “You should be in the basement.”

“I was,” he said. “But the phone wouldn’t stop ringing.”

The tornado was a hundred feet wide when it passed over Aberdeen, but happily for our community it was also a hundred feet in the air. Trees, shingles and cars were damaged, and farther east it bounced off the ground here and there, taking out a few outbuildings and two homes, but no lives were lost. It remains, however, one of the most frightening and awe-inspiring events I’ve witnessed in my lifetime.

Funny thing, though. I haven’t dreamed of tornadoes since.


Kari Lynn Dell – Montana for Real