In Northeastern Oklahoma, as we like to say: “It’s been a week.”
The tornado in Peggs last Monday night was nothing compared to the legendary disaster in 1920 because there was no loss of life. There was certainly loss of property, but the good-hearted folks of Cherokee County are already reaching out to help the victims. As for the long-ago Peggs tornado, I’ve seen pictures, and I’ve read harrowing tales from our predecessor newspapers. I can imagine what it must have been like. My husband and I drove through Moore on our way to pick up our son in Norman, days after a twister ripped a path through there in 2013. The reality was far worse than the images on television.
Last week’s floods have been keeping Okies glued to the screen, mouths agape. Most of us alive today have seen nothing like this, not even in 1986. No one (at this writing, on Friday) knows what the release of water from Keystone will do to everyone downstream. My friends in Tulsa are worried about The Gathering Place. My husband works at Osage Casino Tulsa, and they’re preparing for an influx of customers from the River Spirit Casino.
When it comes to tornados, one thing can be said for Okies: Most of us aren’t surprised by the sight of one bearing down upon us, though we are usually prudent enough to get out of its way. Some daredevil, adrenaline-addicted folks will chase after them and hoot and holler as they film a havoc-wreaking funnel. And we now have our share of intellectually stunted yoyos who will pose in front of an approaching twister to take selfies they hope will go viral.
A few years ago, I got a call from an agitated fellow who hollered: “There’s a tarnader a-comin’! Why ain’t you posted it on Facebook?” In this case, the city had been testing its sirens earlier this week, and my phone rang about 10 seconds after the whooping commenced. It occurred to me to ask why the guy was on Facebook and ringing up the newspaper office rather than seeking shelter. I couldn’t tell whether he was frightened by the prospect of a rotating cloud of wind or upset that we weren’t quick enough to post it on social media to suit his tastes. It was a sign of the times.
I’ve lived in Oklahoma my entire 59 years on the planet, and I’ve never seen a tornado on the ground. Nor do I want to. I’m not interested in taking photos, or watching debris fly through the air in hopes of spying a semi or a Holstein cow swirling above. I’ve seen people point skyward and identify what they claim to be a “tarnader aloft,” but I’m not sure what that means, either. I’ve seen my share of floods, though – three 100-year ones within the past decade along the Illinois River. For various periods each time, Highway 10 was closed and we had to wait to get home. Floods cause me more apprehension than tornados, although our house is on a hill, and if the river flooded enough to get even halfway up our driveway, the entire town of Tahlequah would be submerged.
From age 6-1/2 to 17, I lived in a two-story farmhouse in the Arkansas River bottom just outside of Fort Gibson – an area that, as I type, is closed due to this week’s floods. The old house was a haven for cockroaches and mice, had no air conditioning and no carpet, although it did have a charming hardwood floor that would be in vogue today. We were renters, and the owner of the house told us an eerie story about the house in its younger days.
During the Depression, the house had been expanded from its original state. The owner said that many decades ago, the river bottom flooded, and the water was so high it reached the second story. The house was at least a mile from the river, so the idea of an expanse of water vast and deep – churning ominously with trees, covered wagons, draft horses, and maybe people dressed in bonnets and overalls – creeped me out. The owner added this was in the heyday of “Hyde Park,” an amusement park near the Three Forks area that featured a wooden roller coaster. The evidence of the flood remained in the farmhouse, like battlefield scars on an old warrior. On muggy days, you could smell the mud that had gotten between the walls. The thought of what ancient and decaying things might remain within was shiver-inducing.
The farmhouse had a cellar, into which my family would retreat every time that buzzing sound and robotic voice from the National Weather Service would come over the television (if we had one at the time) or the radio (if we didn’t). The door to the cellar was accessed on the floor of the screen-enclosed back porch. The door had to be latched to the wall to allow us to descend the concrete stairs into the cold, musty-smelling interior. The illumination came from two incandescent bulbs, but since the electricity went out during storms, we had to huddle in the pitch-black, waiting for the tornado to rumble through and take with it all our toys, canopy bed, school clothes, bicycles, farm animals – and the house itself, it goes without saying. The scuttling of mice – or something worse – competed with the roar from the storms outside.
When the warnings came, my dad would order everyone to the cellar, but we weren’t going into the bowels of the house without our pets. It was easy enough to get the German shepherd to go down the steps, but the cats were another matter; by this time, they were usually holed up in the barn, and we would run out there, crying and screaming, “Kitty! Kitty! Kitty!” Sometimes we couldn’t find the barn cat of the moment, so we reluctantly went into the cellar, sniffling and crying. Once, something my dad described as a “small tornado” took off the metal door on the huge, hazy old barn, where dust motes danced among the shadows of abandoned farm implements and bales of hay. But other than that, the best we could brag about was the ubiquitious “tornado aloft,” which to me has always sounded like somebody’s idea of wishful thinking.
This week, there have been tornados, and outside of Cherokee County, terrible flooding. It’s my hope that Okies will turn away from the rancid Beltway politics long enough to care for one another.