Tornadoes, cousins and the cats we love.

Recently we migrated from Oklahoma, down through Texas, across Louisiana, and to Demopolis Alabama. The drive from Oklahoma was nice, we love the windshield time every time we drive, and family was waiting in Demopolis. Christina’s Aunt Linda (affectionately pronounced Lind-ee), and her three cousins. We had not seen them for years, and this visit was long overdue. Linda found a boondocking spot for us at polo pony ranch just outside town. We pulled in along the side of the practice field, right along a fence housing a herd of horses in training. The first day or two, I’d ride my bike over and chat it up with the ranch hands. These were the guys who take care of the property, and every morning ran the horses up, down, and around the field. They’d smack balls with mallets, turn in circles, let the dogs bark and work up a regular pony sweat. Athletes in the making.

It was early spring, and heavy weather was moving from the Gulf of Mexico, across Texas, and building in threat the further east it traveled. I asked the ranch hands where they went if there was a tornado. All three chuckled, making note that there were no shelters. The eldest and apparent leader of the crew said in a deep southern drawl, “trust in the Lawwwd”. That’s “Lord” for those of you wondering, but I swear he said Lawwwd. And as luck would have it, within two days of us arriving at the sunny polo pony ranch, so did the heavy weather boiling up from Texas. Christina announced that the Lord had given her a brain, and we would stay in town at her Aunt’s house. I said “good luck, that’s a crawlspace house, with no place to go in a tornado, not for me”. Knowing she’d insist on staying anyway, I suggested I’d drop her off and go back to the polo pony ranch since I wanted the van hitched up for extra weight in the case of high winds. I had a gully picked out to jump in, my full-face mountain bike helmet at the ready, and a cold beer. If a tornado came through I’d be low in the mud, toasting all things wild and natural. Christina is not fond of plans I make risking death, so she called her Aunt who drove out and picked us up. Perfect, if I died in a muddy ditch drinking beer, Christina would be mad anyway. Linda arrived to find the van hitched up, all the patio and outside gear inside the van, and the jalousie windows duct-taped down. We threw our gear in her car and rode into town to Linda’s house, where she dropped us off and went back to work at the local hospital. I wasn’t done planning yet, so I scouted the house and yard and found the back porch steps were cast concrete with an open back. Basically, a small but heavy and strong tornado shelter. I told Christina our plan to go under the stairs in the case of a tornado, and took my post in the front yard, standing in the rain watching the clouds. Christina kept an eye on the local news broadcasting weather maps colored in red, yellow, and green with tornadoes scattered about.

As I stood on the front porch looking west, I observed a big funnel drop out of the clouds and settle along the ground. It was less than a mile away and headed north along the river that was visible from the porch I was standing on. I stuck my head in the door, suggesting Christina put on her coat, the leashes on the dogs and, to get ready to get under the stairs. Whatever look was on my face said it all, she got right on the leashes. That tornado was going to continue north or take a right and plow through town and maybe the house we were in. I don’t know how it is for you the reader, but just typing this has my heart rate up. It was pretty crazy watching a funnel wall a half-mile across, cruise past town, and out of sight into the rain. Once we knew the tornado had passed the town, we settled back down watching the news. Shortly, Linda arrived home, as did Christina’s youngest cousin. We sat and watched the news for a while, and the area was being hammered by the wind, flash floods, and twisters. The whole time we had no idea if Luna and Sunny the van were still in place, or blown away. Suddenly while watching all the damaged roofs, downed power lines, and turned over RVs on TV, Christina’s cousin jumped up and said, “that’s across the street from my house!”, and drove away into the night to check on his house and cats, almost one hour away. He returned in the middle of the night, with one cat, a guitar, and some paperwork, quietly sharing the news, “the house is destroyed”. I’ve heard people say the house is destroyed before. That might mean that a tree fell on the roof, a water pipe leaked or the kids had a party while the parents were out of town, but the destroyed part has always been less than expressed. We drove up to the cousin’s house the next morning, wanting to bring him moral support while he searched for the missing three cats and tidied up a little bit. We’d probably have to climb a ladder and put up some blue tarps, maybe shop vac some water, and likely move some wet stuff.

But no tarp was needed, the house was destroyed. 5 full-size trees had been blown down on the house. It was a long mobile home, and every tree on the south side of the house was blown over, leaving 6′ tall root balls in mid-air. The trees were big, 24-36″ across the trunk, two of them fell so hard and so heavy they crushed the house to the floor, knocking the whole thing 4″ off its footings. There were electric company workers in the road, and all kinds of people at the storage lot next door checking on their RVs, many of which were torn up. There was sheet metal roofing all over the place from a barn several hundred yards away. It was shocking. It wasn’t even our house and we were stunned. Christina’s cousin Michael was amazing. Not even did he keep his head on straight, he had a plan. He set out food and water for the two out of three cats not yet seen (one was sitting on the porch when we arrived) and walked straight through downed limbs, sheet metal scraps, a power line, blown down pole barns, and past huge holes created under the root balls to his now open-air music room. And from a wrecked floor on a 15-degree slope, with rubble everywhere, began to gather the next most important things in his life after the cats. Music gear. Drums, guitars, sheet music, amps, speakers, stands, more guitars, and all the decorations, memorabilia, and personal belongings from what had been his favorite room in the house. We filled his pick-up bed and our van with music stuff. It was amazing how dry everything was. Either the roof blew off after the rain, or there wasn’t any rain, because most of his music stuff was barely damp. The process was quiet, respectful, and acknowledgment that this man who had suffered the loss of his father just years before, was now living in loss once again, and plucking photos, and memories of his dad from the wreckage of his home. Christina and I were speechless. A second and third cat was found, so spirits were a little elevated, but after a long day of loading the trucks, and soaking in the whole thing, we drove quietly home, had a big supper, and wished cousin Michael sweet dreams. I returned to the wrecked house the next day with Michael. I used a chain saw to cut a path along one side of the house, while he crawled through two openings in walls to get to his bedroom stuff. We held our breath the whole time, since we could hear the house pop and groan, and on occasion settle a little more under the weight of the trees. Again, and quite amazingly he recovered a lot of personal belongings. Picture this, you’re walking through a house, normal, filled with furniture and a TV, but with limbs in the living room and kitchen, poking through the roof and floor, and down a hall, and through a bedroom door. Opening the bedroom door, you see blue sky and a forked tree laying across a roof, and ceiling, crushing a dresser, bed, nightstands, bathtub, and walls. And all your most personal things are in here. This was our day, one trip after another, clothes, pictures, horticulture gear and books, and all the things you leave in your room on your way out the door to mom’s house. And thus the week continued, Michael, salvaging his stuff, attending classes, and coming back to his mom’s house for dinner with the rest of us. In the meantime, we had gone back to the polo pony ranch to find Luna unscathed. There was no indication any storm had been near the place. We untaped the windows, unhitched, and settled back into our daytime chores, returning to Linda’s house to spend a couple more nights, eating dinner with the family, and staying up late talking and giving Michael all the support we could.

It was the kind of family reunion you would never imagine and never forget. Our stay was nice. All of us were glad to get caught up and see each other. And despite the utter destruction of a family member’s home, the time together was fun. After about a week we packed up our little Luna, hitched her tight, and hit the road. We were supposed to go south to Gulf Shores, but after checking the weather report and the storms it promised, we bid farewell to Alabama and headed north. We drove in heavy, windy, rainy weather for two days, leaving behind us, many more tornadoes and several deaths due to the storms. Times like this remind us, we are but feathers in the wind. Vulnerable to the slightest of weather, naked to the forces of tornadoes, and blind to chance. Those of us who make it long in life are lucky. Lucky to make our best choices when weather threatens, lucky to find all three cats alive in a destroyed house, and lucky to trust the Lord, driving headlong into foul weather ahead, with the devil himself twisting up fencelines, mobile homes, barns, and human lives in the rearview mirror.

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