I was raised in Salina, Kansas. I experienced my first F3 tornado when I was still in grade school. In spite of the radio announcer’s instructions to stay home after the storm blew over and not drive around, my father piled us into the family station wagon and we drove around surveying the damage. I think my fascination with tornadoes started then. I have a vivid memory of walking into a house where the roof had been torn off. It was dropped off in a neighbor’s backyard. The wall between the garage and the living room was intact and yet there was a child’s sled deposited on the living room floor. On that wall hung a mirror. Even with no roof and with debris being flung all over, that mirror did not have a smudge, a streak or a scratch on it. I marveled at what I saw. The power and randomness of wind stuck with me.
So it is no wonder that on September 25, 1973, when I walked out of the air-conditioned high school building into a thick wall of hot, humid, still air my first thought was, “perfect tornado weather.” I laughed at myself and dismissed the thought.
A few hours later, I was helping mother set the table for dinner. A thunderstorm had popped up as might be expected with the air so thick with humidity. That thought about tornadoes returned. Mother made her usual comment that when the trees started bending to the ground we’d run to the basement. My brother, sister and I all laughed. It was Mother’s way of trying to keep us calm. Even so, we turned the radio on just in case.
I was carrying silverware to the table when I noticed the rain had picked up to the point you could barely see the street and the trees were whipping around in every direction. Mother noticed too. Just then we saw headlights turn into the driveway. Mom yelled for my brother to open the garage door so Dad would not have to get out of his car to open it. (We did not own remote controls back then.) At the same time the tornado sirens started blaring. The radio announcer was saying to seek shelter. Mom yelled at my sister and I to grab some plates and food and carry them down to the basement. “We’ll have a picnic down there.”
It all happened so fast. Dad drove into the garage and ran inside as the hail started pounding on the roof and pinging off the windows. I took a load of dishes and food downstairs and ran back up for more. We each grabbed something and ran to the basement. Dad shut the door.
As the rest of us were focused on filling our plates for our so-called picnic, Dad kept looking out the basement windows. Suddenly, he said, “The neighbors are outside. I’m going to go look.” I glanced out the window and could see that the rain and wind had stopped. Before I knew it, my brother ran upstairs after my Dad. Not to be outdone by my younger brother, I followed. I could hear my sister screaming in the background. She wanted to follow us, but Mother was not about to let her baby run outside with tornado sirens blaring. My sister is six years younger than me and often got treated as “the baby.”
When I caught up with my Dad and brother, they were staring at something to the south. The air around us was eerily quiet. Not a bird. No more hail. Not a drop of rain when it had been pouring in sheets moments before. I turned south.
What I saw still fascinates me. It was a half mile wide tornado inching its way north and east. It was so wide it looked like it was at the end of our street. Actually, it was at least several miles away. Neighbors, Dad, my brother and I just stood there in awe. In fact, I got goose bumps watching. Granted the air temperature had dropped at least twenty degrees since earlier that afternoon. Swirling dust and debris formed a huge funnel that moved like a snail around the south edge of town. As we watched, it started to move back up into the cloud. You could hear gasps as we all thought the worst of it was over.
Then something strange happened. That half-mile wide tornado transformed. Instead of going into the cloud and disappearing, it came back down. Only this time, it was like a thin finger twisting and spinning as if it were trying to write some sort of message in the dust of the earth. We all stood there in awe as nature literally gave us the finger.
This time, the finger tornado sped along its path toward the northeast. (Honestly, I think scientists call these “rope” tornadoes.) Trees in the neighbors’ back yard almost blocked it from view. But, just as quickly as it had formed, it spun back up into the clouds. While others started to walk away, I waited entranced, almost hoping it would come back to life again. This time, it was done.
A hail stone landed on the driveway inches behind my father. I shouted! My brother saw it too. We all jumped and headed back inside as nature showed her fury again with rain and hail and wind.
I still remember the silence during the tornado as if all earth pays its respects to the wind. And then the storm starting up again.
We learned from the radio reports as we settled back down to our downstairs picnic that the tornado had hit a trailer park on the southeast edge of town called Sundowner East. Firetrucks and a tow truck were headed that way as a pickup truck lay across the door to the storm shelter. There was no word on how many folks might be trapped inside the shelter. Mother said a prayer for the people in the storm shelter. And we enjoyed our meal, chattering excitedly, still filled with adrenaline from what we had just witnessed.
Fast forward about eight years. I worked at this point as a manager for a fast-food restaurant in Topeka, Kansas. On another Friday evening I was preparing to head home after a busy day. I was trusting my employees to handle the dinner rush. The head cashier was excellent at her job. She was friendly and quick, and I knew she could handle it. Until a thunderstorm popped up out of nowhere. One flash of lightning and spectacular crash of thunder and that cashier broke down in tears in front of a crowd of people. She ran to the basement where my office was. Annoyed, I took over as cashier and finished out the dinner rush.
When the rush was over, I went to rescue the young woman from the basement. “Did you have a bad experience in a storm?” I asked. My question had a ring of frustration to it. I was more concerned about having to head home late than I truly was about her tears and shaking.
“Yes,” she replied. “When I was a kid, the trailer park I lived in was demolished by a tornado. We were trapped for an hour in the storm shelter because the tornado dropped a pickup truck on the door to the storm shelter.”
The rest of my crew were caught up in her story. I broke in. “Sundowner East?” I asked.
“Yes! How’d you know?”
“In Salina, Kansas?”
“Yes! How did you know?” she asked again.
“Because I stood in my driveway and watched that tornado.”
She shivered all over again at the thought of being close enough to a tornado to watch it without being in a shelter.
It turns out, not only did they have to wait to be rescued from the storm shelter but, her mother had gone to town to do some shopping earlier in the afternoon. It was hours before she found out that her mother was ok.
This experience has had a profound impact on me. I learned the importance of perspective. For me, tornadoes are still fascinating scientific wonders. In fact, at work, they know that as soon as I know everyone else is safe in interior spaces, I will run outside to check out the sky. “Don’t worry,” I yell over my shoulder. “As long as the birds are singing, we are ok.” I say this because I still remember that eerie silence as the storm moved around the edge of town. This is not to say I do not have a healthy respect for nature. If the trees are bending over, as Mother used to say, or the birds are not singing, I’ll be the first one in the shelter!
On the other hand, the cashier I was trusting to handle the dinner rush was traumatized by the exact same storm. The storm was the same storm no matter where you stood. And yet, where you stood made all the difference in how you experienced it.
I share this experience today as we all experience the chaos of an election year, overshadowed by a pandemic, on top of the bubbling unrest over racial injustice. As we share with our neighbors, family and friends there will be those with different opinions on any number of issues. It is so important to remember right now that our opinions are colored by our perspective. Are you standing in the driveway? Or are you trapped in the storm shelter? Have you considered where your own perspective comes from?
Another example of the kind of storm that has a different kind of impact depending on where you are standing when it passes is an economic downturn. This kind of storm can make for fascinating statistics if we are not personally impacted by the downturn. It is tempting to want to slowly study the numbers before taking action. That is the “driveway position.”
On the other hand, the person that loses their home cares little about numbers and wants action now. This is the “stuck in the storm shelter” position. Action matters to this person. Study can happen later.
I want to stress that there are far more perspectives to any of life’s “storms” than just driveway or storm shelter perspectives. There’s the meteorologist who carries the burden of responsibility for early warning to reduce the numbers of injuries or loss of life. There’s the first responders, reporters and counselors who listen to the eyewitness stories and see the actual destruction who may experience what we call “secondary traumatization.” Even though they do not experience the trauma personally, their minds are impacted by what they see and hear. There are also the distant observers. I’ve never experienced a California wildfire. I only know about them from what I see on TV. Those impacted have my sympathy and prayers. And that’s as close as I get. The more distant we are, the easier it is to express sympathy without having any understanding of what it is like to be in the situation.
Pastor Choongho and Pastor Britton are facilitating classes on “Courageous Conversations,” where we learn how to discuss difficult topics with the aim of understanding each other more fully. May I suggest two things?
Aim first to understand your own perspective. Do you have an emotional response when someone brings up a point of view other than your own? If so, spend some time reflecting on what your perspective is rooted in. How do you put that into words? Could you explain that to someone else? What experiences color your perspective? Are you standing in the driveway or stuck in a storm shelter with a lot of not knowing swirling around? Is there a personal experience that impacts your perspective? Or are you more distant? You are interested but not personally impacted.
Second, remember that others have had experiences of their own and that these experiences impact their perspective. Do your best to have compassion for their perspective. Listen to understand. I confess that in my early twenties I was less than compassionate with the cashier who had survived the Sundowner East tornado. I was annoyed with her response even though I tried to understand her experience. Years later as a counselor, now I can clearly say she was having a trauma response. A natural response to nature’s traumatic storms. Today, wherever she is, I pray she has experienced healing.
That’s my prayer for all of us as we struggle our way through Courageous Conversations. May we experience God’s healing grace in our relationships. May we embrace God’s compassion for ourselves and for others recognizing that we each have our own perspectives and those perspectives grow out of our experiences. Whether we are standing in the driveway or stuck in a storm shelter, monitoring the track of a storm, or waiting in the ER for the injured, may we all know God’s grace.
And God’s Peace,