Big Weather: Tornadoes

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, March 1995

Big Weather: Tornadoes

Greenness, hail, air pressure flattening your skull. Hide the children, save the banjo.
By Jane Smiley

By the time I was 25 and living in Iowa City, my fear of tornadoes was a significant fact of my inner life. I had spent my childhood in the heart of tornado country reading every stormy sky for the signs -- greenness, hail, the anvil cloud, the black finger dropping down to make its mark upon the earth. When it came, I knew, it would drive straws into the trunks of trees, carry tractors five or ten miles, twirl us up and spray us out over the landscape, sucking the breath from our bodies and tearing us limb from limb.

We lived on a hill east of Iowa City. A half-mile away, down a long, gentle slope of corn and bean fields, freight trains ran between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids. One of them passed every morning about two o'clock. I was always grateful to hear it, and I always thought of the tornado cutting it in two, how the sound would be a half-mile's warning.

The night the tornado finally came, I was alone, and I knew what I wanted to save. My banjo. My recorders. My typewriter. The Great Dane and the cats. My boyfriend's 12-string Gibson. That was all. No clothes. No dishes. No major appliances. As I ran from my bedroom, the wind howled louder and louder. Air pressure seemed to change inside the house, swelling the walls outward, pressing my skull inward. That was enough evidence for me.

Safe in the basement, I uncased the banjo and played a few songs. It was getting close to two, so I stopped and listened for the train, though all sounds were lost in the sounds of the house rattling and groaning in the wind. I sang louder. When the moment came that the house above me would be ripped from its foundations and smashed into the next township, I'd watch it go with equanimity (at least a little bit). The wind beat against the basement windowpanes.

Outside, my boyfriend pulled up in his old pickup, finished with his night's work tending bar. He's fond of the wind. He sat on the running board of the truck and lit a cigarette. He took a few drags, relaxed, heard the train go by. He glanced at the house and wondered why the basement light was on.

The tornado, of course, never came. It was the conventional wisdom in Iowa City that tornadoes simply never struck there.

Will it ever come? It might. I would save the children and the dogs and the backup disk of whatever novel I am working on. My husband has too many guitars to carry in a single panicked load into the basement. And what if I were at the stable, my husband on the golf course, the 16-year-old at high school, the 12-year-old at grammar school, and the two-year-old at day care? How would I save us all then?

Perhaps because we're all too much to save now, or perhaps simply because of age, I'm no longer convinced that big weather has my name on it. Sometime during my thirties, the dread that governed my youth slipped away, took its place among all the other dreads. My husband's love of wind has reassured me, and I've produced a daughter whose favorite sleeping arrangements include a thunderstorm outside and a fan blowing on her face. And we are always forewarned. We subscribe to the Weather Channel and have three weather radios. But actually I miss the drama.

Jane Smiley won the Pulitzer and a National Book Award for her novel, A Thousand Acres. Her new novel, Moo, will be published next month by Alfred A. Knopf.

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web

Not Now

Open a World of Adventure

Our Dispatch email delivers the stories you can’t afford to miss.

Thank you!