Last night, shortly after Michael had put me to bed, the tornado sirens went off. I had started drifting off on the couch during SNL. Michael took my hand and said "let's go." I didn't argue. I rarely make it through SNL. I had just drifted back into that place between awake and deep sleep when I heard the wind change and sirens begin to wail. I got up and put on a robe and went to find Michael standing on the front porch. He told me not to worry, we were fine and he'd let me know if we needed to go downstairs. I toddled back to bed and listened to the wind and rain. I wondered if the chickens were OK. The sirens eventually went off and all that was left was the sound of the rain hitting the window.
I realized that it had been years since I'd heard tornado sirens sounding for reasons other than a weekly test. It left me disoriented. Confused. Misplaced. That sound was always a such a constant part of life when I lived in Oklahoma. Heard so often to become complacent to the sound. In those days though, we'd have a closet cleaned out well before the sirens would sound. The sirens just meant it was time to think about getting into that closet. We never lived in a house that had any kind of a tornado safe room. They tell you to go into an interior bathroom or closet. We never had an interior bathroom and the one interior closet was small, barely enough space for Chris, Hooper and I. We used to laugh about it, Chris and I. It was a joke. Really there was nothing else to do about the situation but laugh. By the time I'd pull all of the clothes out of the closet and lay them on the bed in our tiny bedroom, the room would look like a tornado had already hit. There would always be a picture of me and Hooper crouched in the closet, me wearing a helmet.
Even then, we didn't trust the sirens. Chris would stand outside with a cup of coffee, watching the skies. I'd have Hooper on his leash at the ready. If Chris came inside, we knew to make a mad dash to the closet. Luckily we always managed to be on the side of the street that had just narrowly avoided destruction. The tornado sirens went off here the first Spring after our move. I was at work. My desk provided me with a perfect view of sky. I sat there eating my lunch while my colleagues sat in the stairwells. Chris went down to the basement with Hooper, but didn't stay long. The sirens rang for almost two hours. We never saw a tornado and later Chris and I would laugh about the tornado paranoia in this city. Here the sirens mean there's a tornado somewhere in this big city. There the sirens mean the tornado is in your neighborhood, probably knocking on your back door.
Technically I still live in Tornado Alley, though it's been since that first Spring since I've heard the warning sirens. I had forgotten the sound. It's odd to go from hearing that sound all the time to nothing. Tornados and surviving them are sort of sealed into the skins of Oklahomans. It's what makes us sturdy and resilient. Living without that threat has made me a little soft. Last night's alarm set my heart racing and my last conscious thought was if we had time to gather the chickens up and get them in the basement along with Josephine. The panic didn't last long, but it was there. It was enough to pull up past memories like that time Mom, Dad, Janell and I stood inside the camper wondering where our little dog, Bitsy, was seconds after a tornado passed by us. She'd hidden in the bathroom. I remember all those times Chris and Jen would borrow my car to go chase storms. I remember driving through south OKC to check on Chris's parents after the May 3rd tornado and realizing that if they'd lived just two or three blocks east, their home would have been nothing but rubble. I remember all those moments of sitting in the closet with Hooper.
I remember that there's still some of that red dirt in my bloodstream.