I don't sleep well anymore and wake numerous times during the night. I lie awake and think of a dozen things I need to do come morning. Somewhere around 4 am the rain started. It took my mind off everything else as I listened to it pounding the roof. It was a steady rain...heavy at times...and there were two rolls of thunder before it quieted to a soft, gentle sprinkle around 6 am.
I have always loved the rain almost as much as the wind. It can be such a soothing sound and...like the wind...it is nature's car and house wash. It cleans away the soot and grime and dirt, refreshes the leaves, gives the thirsty roots a good drink. Here in the Heartland of America, the rain can be your friend or it can be your worst enemy. Flooding can be severe and when the tornadoes accompany it, the rain can be deadly. Wall clouds are no joking matter here in Tornado Alley and if you've ever driven through one, you know what white-knuckle driving is all about.
You may or may not know that my Tommy was a retired military weatherman. He was fascinated by all the phenomena that accompanies violent storms...whether rain or snow or wind. So when I would catch him watching the skies closely, I always became antsy. If his eyes held concern, my heart raced. He was always quick to reassure me that it was just a bad storm, nothing to worry about.
On May 3, 1995, he and I were driving down to Texas for a convention he was attending. It was my first time traveling through Oklahoma and we crossed the border right at dusk. For miles, we had been watching a tremendous buildup of cumulonimbus clouds forming south of us. Anvil tops, Tommy called them and when they are white and puffy, they are glorious. These weren't white and puffy. The sky was a dark, gunmetal gray and Tom's eyes began to get 'the look' in them that told me he was a bit concerned about it. By the time it was fully dark, the rain started and you could barely see a foot ahead of you.
I wasn't thinking about Wall clouds at that moment as we traveled down the interstate. Wall clouds never entered my mind. I was worried because I knew Tom...hunched over the wheel, hands fiercely gripping it...couldn't see the road all that well. He didn't dare pull off onto the shoulder he said for fear someone would hit us so he kept going. When we passed several Oklahoma state troopers parked along the shoulder, I could tell Tom was really tense. Silly me, I didn't question why they were there but Tom knew.
"Look for an exit, sweetie," he said calmly, glancing at me. "We need to get off the road."
His voice was calm, steady. I just nodded. My trust in him and his judgement knew no limit.
The Good Lord was with us that night because a mile or so farther, we found an exit and there was a bright glare of lights. We pulled off and took the very last spot under the awning of a convenience store gas island. Just as he turned off the engine, the hail started and it started with a vengeance, pinging off the metal roof and hitting the ground like buckshot.
"Wall cloud," he said softly and reached for my hand. I gripped it so hard he winced.
I don't know how long we sat there until the rain and hail stopped but when we were on the move again, I saw him wipe sweat from his brow and knew the man had been afraid. That was something I had never seen before. It shook me to my core and I realized just how dangerous things had been. I swallowed hard.
But not as hard as when we got back on the interstate.
Lightning was flashing all around us, the wind brutally pushing against the car and I turned to get something out of the backseat just as one brilliant pulse of light lit the sky. My eyes went to the flare and I saw it. My heart ceased to beat. The moisture drained from my mouth. My eyes widened.
It was a dark, ugly wedge moving swiftly across the landscape just off to the east of our car. It took up most of the sky. With every additonal flash of light, I could see the massive size of it, the deadly scope of what I knew was one helluva tornado.
"Tommy!" I remember crying out.
Very calmly he reached for my hand again. His voice was soft, without any touch of fear.
"Yeah, sweetie, I see it. Just turn around and sit down. It's moving away from us." He squeezed my hand. "Everything is gonna be all right."
We were silent all the way to OK City and once in the motel, turned on the TV. There had been a massive tornado...Oklahoma's first F5...the fastest winds ever recorded anywhere on earth, clocked at 318 mph. In it's wake, it left 44 dead, 750 injured, and over 10,000 homes were destroyed. It was a killer storm. (If you'd like to see footage of it, go here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4pbqGsS5iB4&feature=related )
The next morning when we went to breakfast, there was a kiosk of postcards near the front door. Tom plucked one from the rack and handed it to me with a grin. I looked down at the card to see a brilliant stitch of lightning suturing a night sky. It simply said: "Welcome to Oklahoma".
"A souvenir for you, doll," he said, chuckling.
Now, when the sky gets dark and the bad rains start, I remember that evening. It's something you live with here in the Heartland but it can happen anywhere. The tornado season has just started so thank God for the weathermen, the storm spotters and chasers. I wish mine was here to comfort me.