About a week ago, I sat in my living room on the third story of our apartment building in a quiet suburb of Madison, drinking coffee, watching World Cup highlights and listening to a tornado siren caterwauling. I don’t know whether it was the fact that I’d closed the bar the night before and was still exhausted, that I’d lived in the southeastern United States for most of my life (and am thus, due to frequency, somewhat calloused against the primal fear I’m sure the inventors of the siren intended when they created it), or that the weather looked, from my vantage point, relatively calm save for being exceedingly gray, but I barely registered a reaction. I think, in fact, I turned up the volume on Sports Center.
At least four, possible five tornadoes touched down that day, two of them about 70 miles away in the small town of Platteville, and two more nearly in my backyard. One hopped and skipped between Blanchardville and Verona, a sort of Madison satellite town where my wife was working, and another landed in the Mineral point area, a scant few miles from where I sat, oblivious.
Despite being groggy, I remember the morning pretty well — something about knowing, after the fact, that you’ve dozed through a stretch of time that was fairly traumatic for a lot of other people tends to jolt chunks of lost time back into one’s functional memory — and I still find it difficult trying to reconcile the havoc transpiring, in retrospect, all around me. The news reports broadcast since that day have been dominated by the sort of stories you’d call BS on in every scenario except a tornado: one family’s entire roof was ripped from the top of the house it once sheltered, leaving pretty much the entire rest of the structure undamaged, save water; another woman recounts how, a scant two minutes after herding her family and dogs into the basement, she heard a “loud boom.” Several minutes later, they emerged from their cellar to find their entire garage neatly lifted up and deposited on top of their children’s elementary school across the street. Windows were broken, having been shattered and blasted inward by the sheer force of the wind.
In some cases, the scene amounted to something resembling martial law; minutes before the storms hit in some neighborhoods, police officers, in an act of heroic selflessness that must have seemed exceedingly mundane in its execution, drove through the streets, calmly and evenly telling people — through bullhorns, granted — that they should go inside and get into their basements, stat. After the storms were done having their way with Platteville, a 12-hour curfew was activated from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. Things got so bad that Governor Scott Walker — whose actions are typically motivated by a seemingly unrelenting desire to stick it to any and all blue-collar citizens — declared a state of emergency, and that he would be seeking both state and federal funds in order to cover the costs of home damage not met by owners’ insurance.
It’s still jarring, the calm that pervaded our neighborhood. There was a little breeze, and I think it may have been drizzling; I closed our patio door, not out of fear that a road sign or errant raccoon may come whipping through and plow itself into our “Mystery Science Theater” movie poster shrine, but because the wind was making the blinds rattle too much and I was trying to watch soccer and read “The Stand” at the same time. Our internet service was working fine, as was DISH, which was especially surreal, as everything from a light snow shower to a passing moth tends to make DISH black out for several minutes at a time.
I’ve been, truly, in the middle of storms before. When I lived in Adel some 22 years ago, a slew of storms pushed through the area. Tornadoes were few and far between there, but violent storms were not. I remember remaining, at eight years old, fairly placid in mood as, on the drive home from Wednesday night church, I saw swings on the school playground whipping back and forth; I wondered, more than anything else, not if I was going to die, but if any one of the swings would be flung entirely over the horizontal bar that supported it. I remember, also, catching a glimpse of a funnel cloud in the distance — you can see for miles across the flatter farmland just outside of town there — and then, only then, descending into the gibbering sort of madness exclusively reserved for pre-pubescents in the midst of a tornado, and maybe for the doomed acolytes of Azathoth.
Speaking of the World Cup — yesterday we settled down to watch the USA/Portugal game (as an aside: holy crap, right?), eat chips and have a couple of beers. Before the game, ESPN ran a Jeffrey Wright-narrated video essay about the Amazon River, basically honing in on its expansiveness, tracing the variety of cultures, lifestyles and economic situations one can experience by following the river. At the start of the video, we meet the inhabitants of a small, impoverished river town, located on an island in the middle of the water. Some 50 families live there, a few in huts, a few in houses built on rickety stilts. Men fished, women folded and children fashioned a soccer ball out of twine, burlap and stuffing.
After the package ran, the lead ESPN announcer mentioned, in a very offhand sort of way, that the town had since been flooded by torrential rains, and that its inhabitants had been left with nothing. They would receive no government assistance, and would have to rebuild by themselves. He then cut, I think, to a Pepsi commercial.
In the past week, I’ve seen storms from two different views: from the outside and from the eye. They offer unique perspectives, but one runs the risk of maintaining a purely analytical, sterile point of view from either vantage point. It feeds apathy, rather than empathy, facilitates stagnancy, rather than art and action. I don’t hope for tragedy, but I wonder what, finally, could jar us all loose at once, and leave no room for indecision.