Wednesday, May 4, 2011
Hell Hath No Beer
April 27 2011
I’m watching the Doppler radar on my laptop on the cluttered kitchen table and it's creeping me out. Over the northwest corner of Georgia, heading in a steady stream towards Tennessee is a marching combat line of red polygons, each of which according to the map legend indicates a tornado. On the east central side of Georgia the skies are clear and a little warm and breezy, but in the lower half of Alabama a scattered pile of purple and red bumps is sprouting like a plague. Each one of the bumps is a super-cell. A super-cell is much worse than a thunderstorm, because super-cells are where the really big tornadoes are brewed. The air pressure increases around a low pressure zone, dropping in like a well. Because the earth spins, the high pressure and low pressure collide and spin like water going down a drain and the spinning makes a vortex. A really, really big vortex.
I’ve always wanted to see a tornado, always wondered what I’d do if I saw one. In my rambling days on the road, I lived briefly in every state in tornado alley and then some. Every state. Never saw a tornado. I can remember pulling into Bogalusa Louisiana five minutes after a twister tore the down town to pieces, never saw it. We had one pass overhead and tear the roof off the apartment building where we lived when I was a kid in Minnesota but I didn’t see that one either because Mom had my brother and I stuffed under the bed.
Augusta is right in the gun sights of the super-cells in lower Alabama. I watch the images on loop as the cells move across the state like watching the imagined diagonal lines of chess pieces on a chess board. Yep. Definitely its going to happen. The angry looking red and purple super-cell blobs will hit my town like The Red Death right about four or five in the morning. Right about the time I’ll be going to work. I move my mouse, click-click and zoom in for details. And there they are, right over the leading edge of the purplish blobs, like a marching column of invading geometry, the weird parallelograms of computerized tornados on the ground. A closer zoom shows purple blobs in the centers, what meteorologists call a “debris echo”. A debris echo is an innocuous techie term for somebody’s whole woebegone life being propelled upwards at high speed into the atmosphere a good 8,000 feet or more. Up northeast of the debris echoes, there will be quiet skies and night air as innocent as mine right now, towns filled with people sitting outside chatting and drinking iced tea, who will suddenly be having shingles, branches, small animals and maybe somebody’s kids raining down from on high like a Biblical plague.
A tornado is a very Buddhist kind of storm. Buddhists emphasize that life is perpetually changing, there is no security or permanent happiness in this world, everything is illusory and transient and it can all change in a moment’s notice. Tornadoes are proof of that. On the TV are clips of bedraggled, grieving people in Mississippi who’ve had their homes and even towns peeled right off the face of the earth in an afternoon. You can wake up on a fine summer morning with life as you’ve always known it, eat your breakfast and read the paper. By lunch time your family is missing and everything you’ve ever owned has vanished. And the sun is back out shining again. Just like that.
I try to think, I haven’t taken this stuff too seriously before. Augusta doesn’t get much weather. A little townhouse like this one can turn into a debris echo pretty damn fast. We could be sleeping and wake up to that legendary sound of a locomotive overhead and find ourselves sailing off into the next county. What is my life worth at this moment? What’s the arithmetic?
This is what family does to you. When a woman marries, she gambles with her happiness. When a man marries, he gives up his liberty and peace of mind. When I was a single man I never cared about money. My eyes were solely on God and the pursuit of God. I had food in my hand, and I forgot to eat, because I was thinking about God. I was tired and I forgot to sleep because I was thinking about God. But when my son was born I suddenly became obsessed about money. I was terrified of not having enough to pay for everything my family needed. I called Dad on the phone and said “Was it like this for you when I was born? Worrying about money all the time?” He said “Yeah! And you know what, little buddy? You’re going to be like this - for the rest of your life.”
If it were me, just by myself, I might make coffee and popcorn and stay up to see how things go, maybe charge up the video camera. Maybe I’ll get to see my first tornado. Maybe it’ll be the last thing I ever see, that’s all right. But I have a wife and kid. They’re the measure of my life. They’re what I’ve got to show. We get mad at each other, take each other for granted, but that’s family, they drive you crazy but you love them. The weeping devastated people on the evening news always have the same message, family is what matters. Family is what you’ve got.
How do I protect them? I think this must be the most ancient question for a man, going back to the dawn of our species. Since Neolithic times, this is always one measure by which males have evaluated themselves and the quality of their being. A man by himself can put up with any hardship. But a man who would throw down his life fearlessly for what he believes is right, will still tremble at the thought of harm coming to his family.
When I was living in the Caribbean, I noticed that men there defined themselves differently from the way I grew up. I always saw men hang around with each other, but rarely with women. They often spent money on adornment, the right clothes, the right jewelry, or a nice car, even when they were poor to keep up appearances to other men. I think this is because ideal maleness, macho, was defined for them by other men. In my generation, the American men of the fifties and sixties, to some extent even today, measured themselves against the images of their fathers who had worked the factories and gone to war. American women defined ideal maleness to American men. American women had a lot to say about what a good and desirable man should be. A good man worked his job, stoically pulled his weight. Dressed for labor or for an office and when he came home his paycheck belonged to his family first. He might have a beer with the boys, but he came home. A man who didn’t provide and protect for his family, was not quite a real man. These are good men as defined by women of that generation, like my mom. I still define myself in that way. My wife prefers it that way too. When the matchmaker put us together and she spoke to me for the first time, her first words to me in my life were “Hables espanol?” I shook my head sheepishly, sure I’d blown it. “Naw, ma’am. I’m sorry. I don’t understand.” She smiled. Later she told me she was sold on me from that moment. She’d heard my name and thought “Mierda, a Spanish guy.” She was very fed up with her experiences with Latino men. When she found out I was a gringo from Minnesota, about as Latino as Taco Bell, she was very pleased.
The van, I think. If I hear the locomotive coming after us, if it’s not too late, run upstairs and get my kid. Get my wife, stick them in the van in the little garage and have them buckle in. The van can provide a steel bubble in case the wind blows the house away. The seat belts will hold you down until it stops wherever it stops. Either that or a bathtub. Too bad we don’t have a basement. I should go to bed, I should sleep, but then what?
At four in the morning I’m awoken by thunder. Right on time. Outside the bedroom window the sky is turning apocalyptic.
I pull my jeans on, and go to the kitchen and check the radar from NOAA which I left up on my laptop. The storm front is here but much diminished. An iron bar of radar red is passing overhead. Our house on most NOAA radars is right under the superimposed word “Augusta”, right where the G always is. The storm front that killed 200 people and counting is right overhead, but no murderous parallelograms are heading towards us.
I turn on the TV to get the local news. The whole house is up now, as jumpy as me as the thunder rumbles in the near-distance and lightning fires off in the dark clouds like a machine gun battle. The TV says they’re recording around 300 lightning discharges a minute, one of the most violent lightning storms ever. On the radar a thunderhead right about over my neighborhood has rotating winds but no tornado. M & M sized hail clatters off the little tin roof in the tool shed out back for a moment and stops.
As the hail patters to a stop, I think about my kid. In this moment I don’t feel like I’ve been a very good father. Not a bad one, no, but not an outstanding one. He could have done better than me. My wife, she could have done better than me too. How well have I served these people? You wish you could do a lot of things over. But you can’t, the mistakes would just be made differently. I feel sorry for everybody. In the end you just have to love what there is to love before it’s all gone
The whole show moves on. No heroics necessary.
I make the coffee and sit in front of the TV where the weatherman is talking over the radar screen showing the Red Death moving off over the Savannah River into South Carolina into Everett County where it starts to kick ass and the little red tornado boxes appear. Everett County always gets beat up bad in these things. I don’t know how that works.
As I sip my coffee, I look at my hands, look at the lines of my palm, my fingerprints, and I keep wondering – could I be dead? Like right now? And I don’t know it yet? Because if I were lying inert under a pile of rain soaked lumber and shingles, how would I even know? What if I got everybody into the van like a brave old school American manly man, but didn’t make it in time myself? How would I even know? Because that really happens; I heard on the news a fireman in Alabama threw his body over his little girl just as the locomotive roar surrounded his house and killed him. But his girl was all right. That was a really good, samurai death. I’m worth a respectable amount of money dead if the insurance doesn’t screw us over.
When my dad’s leukemia came back the second time and he went septic, they rushed him to emergency and he dropped into a coma for two days. Later, visiting him in his hospital room and being who we are, him and me, I asked him, what did you see in your coma? What’s it like to be in a coma? Was there a tunnel of light? Did you leave your body? Did you see Elvis or John Lennon?
In fact, he said, he had spent the last couple of days as a healthy young man swimming in the pacific and having a nice party on an island similar to the Naval Station at Guam where he spent part of the Korean War. We were all there. I was there too. It was great. The food was great. The beer was especially good. Imagine what a bring down it was to wake up in the intensive care wing in terrible pain and all those tubes plugged into him. Like The Divine Comedy in reverse, dropping from paradise into Hell. And no pizza or beer. These days I like to imagine he’s back on his island with the sable island girls in grass skirts like seductive tropical houris, and maybe the rest of us swimming in the ocean all together again.
I sip my coffee listening to the heavy rain outside and wait for signs of hideous pain. Maybe a nail in some parallel universe sticking in my nuts. The fading sound of my heart. The cries of the living. Far away sirens. But the news goes on. And the coffee’s fine. But I keep thinking, what if it’s happened and I don’t know?
I’m looking at the back door and thinking, should I stand outside, and lift my arms into the wind, the way I do in a lucid dream, and see if the wind picks me up? See if I can fly? Open the door and see if maybe Dad is standing there in swimming trunks and beach sandals, holding out a cold beer for me? What would I say?
The fact is, I’m scared to find out. So I go brush my teeth instead. If it happens it happens.