by Terry Hargrove
In 1990, I was a language arts teacher at Whitthorne Middle School in Columbia, Tennessee. One fine April morning, I strolled into the office and found our principal heavily engaged with an irate mother. She screamed, she spat, she cursed, she took a swing at both of us before slamming the office door and taking her fury out into the parking lot and beyond.
“What was that all about?” I asked.
“Well,” said the principal, wearily, “She’s still upset about that house that fell on her sister.”
And that remains the greatest insult I have ever heard.
This month has a terrible history in my home state. In what has become a spring ritual we morbidly refer to as “Running with the Funnels,” deadly tornadoes have hit West and Middle Tennessee in the last decade, killing dozens of people and destroying hundreds of homes. The April tornado is like my Aunt Windy, who showed up unexpectedly every 20 years or so, took all our stuff, then disappeared as quickly as she arrived, before I even saw her. We’d wake up in the back yard, and wonder what hit us?
Of course, there’s nothing funny about tornadoes, which is why we laugh about them. What else can you do? My father was 44 in 1974, and had never seen a tornado in his life. But on April 6 of that year, in a meteorological event known as the Super Outbreak, he saw three. He hasn’t seen one since. I was in the Navy in 1974, so I missed the tornadoes and the softball-sized hail that pelted the house. I’m 54 now, and I’ve never seen a tornado. But I’m afraid of them.
Tornadoes are the Kaiser Sose of my life.
But even though I’ve never seen a tornado, that doesn’t mean I don’t have tornado stories. In the spring of 1998, I was working at Columbia Central High School. I taught a senior English class that had an opportunity to attend a job fair in Nashville, so I sent them, but declined an invitation myself. I taught my sophomores that morning, then took half a personal day to take care of some things around the house. That afternoon, as my seniors huddled for safety in the basement of the War Memorial Auditorium, Nashville became the first major city to record a direct hit from a Level 3 tornado. Thankfully, none of my students were hurt, but for the rest of the year, they acted like it all was my fault. The only thing that was upsetting to me was that out of 14 disposable cameras, they couldn’t take one picture of the funnel cloud? Or flying monkeys? Not one?
The strange thing about Tennessee tornadoes is how one will often take the identical track of an earlier twister. The DeGraffenreid tornado of 1847, which destroyed the home of John DeGraffenreid and killed his wife and three daughters, was identical to the path of the 1946 tornado that destroyed Mt. Pleasant and most of Columbia. The track of both tornadoes is one of the most heavily traveled roads in that town today. Using my highly suspicious scientific skills, I have theorized that the roads we travel in Tennessee, just like the roads everywhere, were built over wagon trails, that were built over Indian trails, that were themselves created over wild game trails. Maybe the game trails were there because animals followed old tornado paths. Maybe tornadoes are God’s construction company, like the one working on I-95 only faster, cheaper, and non-union. If the lay of the land plays a part in tornado formation, then the safest place in the spring is far away from any road.
I advanced this theory to my Histories and Comedies of Shakespeare class in 2000. One of my students, Mary Anne Rash, asked me if I thought a person who lived on the road that has twice been struck by deadly tornadoes, should be concerned.
“Well, it’s only a theory,” I said. “But I’m glad I don’t live there.”
“But I do live there,” she said. “And I wish you had never told us about this stupid theory or the Depuffenstuffs or anybody else, because I’m only 16 and I can’t move. I know, because I’ve tried twice and they keep bringing me back. Now, for the next two years, every time I hear thunder, I’m gonna think it’s a tornado.”
I reassured her that, with two tornadoes in 153 years, she was probably safe for the next few decades.
But the very next week, a strong storm churned up from Mississippi. The clouds boiled and rolled, the National Weather Service issued a tornado warning because the super cell was rotating. There was hail and thunder. My phone rang. It was Mary Anne.
“You know, it’s really improper for students to call me at home…” I began. That’s when she started screaming.
“I just saw our garbage can go flying across the back yard! I’m gonna to die in a tornado and it’s your fault, Mr. Hargrove! It’s your fa…” CLICK. Hummmmm
She didn’t die in a tornado. The garbage can did go flying across her back yard, but that only happened because Mary Anne’s boyfriend collided with it when he overshot her driveway in his pick-up truck. That’s what got the phone lines, too.
I’ll call my friends and family in Tennessee a lot this month. They’re all OK, but I can tell by the way they talk that there’s a strange feeling of fear, wrath of God fear, wondering how to get on His good side without having to give up lottery tickets or premium cable channels. They’ve been lucky for no good reason, but others weren’t so lucky, also for no good reason. And so we laugh and joke for their sake, and watch the sky and pray. And when the laughter dies, I ask my cousin to count my sisters for me, just to make sure they’re all still there.