Here’s a secret about Oklahoma City that I wonder if the New York Times and other national news outlets could ever pick up on while they cover the horrible aftermath of the May 20 tornado in Moore, Okla.: It’s a big place out there.
Oklahoma City encompasses more than 600 square miles in all, including the little burbs and towns that overlap and intersect with it. There are parts of town and sides of town — and with those descriptions come all the standard American psychic and actual boundaries of sentimentality, loyalty, school districts, train tracks, rivers, interstates, race, class, tax assessments. These distinctions fall completely away in times of need and disaster, especially tornadoes. People care and people help. But those boundaries are patched up and reconstructed when it’s over, like everything else.
I was born and raised on the far northwest side of town — Lake Hefner, Warr Acres, the Village, Nichols Hills, “Fridayland.” There is nothing topographically or meteorologically different from my side of town and the Moore side of town (23 miles apart) except for the inexplicable fortune of near-misses on my side of town. In my childhood of tornado sirens and wild storms, the only loss I ever personally witnessed was part of the back fence, some trees, some windshields. Why must Moore suffer so? It’s the very definition of random misfortune. It’s cruel.
Another secret, more secret than the first, especially on days like today: Tornadoes can be enthralling; right up until the moment they aren’t. Tornado drills in grade school (tucking ourselves into protective little crouches in dark hallways); sirens blaring; standing out on your front lawn watching the air around you turn green as the wall cloud races across your horizon; the urgent drawl of TV weathermen saving everyone’s lives by telling them to get back inside. It’s adrenalin-laced fun and don’t let Jim Cantore and an entire army of self-deputized, storm-chasing cowboys tell you otherwise. (There’s only so much science to admire and pursue; the rest is sport.)
I own five prints of paintings by John Brosio, whose work includes a lot of midwest tornadoes. In some of the paintings, people are either oblivious to them or just carrying on with their lives. What Brosio captures in these works is both terrifying and gorgeous and, to varying degrees, imaginary. It’s a complete disconnect from tragedy and yet it gets at the darkness. (Pictured above: “Scouring” (c) John Brosio. I own a print of this, which hangs in my office. I wish I could afford to buy one of his actual paintings; I think J.J. Abrams bought them all.)
Where I come from, tornadoes are a key part of personal biography and family history. Measuring the relative danger by instinct and nothing else, my mother would invite anyone who wanted to come along to get in our 1977 station wagon and look for the tornado. Going farther back, she remembers getting in her father’s little airplane to fly up to Woodward, the day after the devastating tornado of 1947, to see if her grandma, uncles, aunts and all the cousins were still alive. They flew in circles over the Schneider family wheat farms. They saw one of the Schneider houses, damaged but intact, caddywhompus, twisted off its foundation, Dorothy-style. There was no sign of life. They flew in low. To my grandfather’s utter relief, his siblings and their children came running out of the house, waving to him. Everyone was OK.
I was at a church youth group meeting on a Sunday night in the late spring of 1984 when our side of town went under a tornado watch and then a full-on warning. The lights went out. The sirens went off. We laughed and told jokes but one girl cried so hard she started hyperventilating. Even then it was enthralling, but listening to her sobs, I finally registered my own fear.
It missed us. It skipped and stuttered and hit somebody else’s particular piece of Oklahoma. It always missed us, but no matter what side of town you live on, you live with the idea that the odds are what they are, and you’re no better (or better protected) than anyone else.
(Oklahoman front page via the Newseum’s daily front-pages display.)