Although my Ohio-born mother has always hated the hills of Pennsylvania, they prevent many of the severe storms she had grown up with as a child. Lisa and I have spent many hours in the southwest corner of the basement of our grandparents’ house, hoping to avoid a trip to Oz. Usually the tornadoes never touched down or missed us entirely, but once, one managed to hit a part of the Proctor and Gamble plant about a mile down the road. When we emerged from the basement, my sister and I stood at the sliding glass door facing the back of the house and watched the orange and white flames lick the evening sky.
It wasn’t until several years later that I became aware of the telltale signs of tornadoes. We would be out enjoying the sun on a sometimes muggy day when, within about half an hour, the temperature would plummet, and we would start to shake in our swimsuits and shorts, goosebumps crawling up and down our arms. The light would change, going from a buttery yellow to a sickly chartreuse and the sky, which had seemed blue and empty just moments before, would fill with oppressive dark clouds, as if the god of sky insulation had laid down a roll of prickly gray fiberglass over a lower layer of the atmosphere. The winds would begin to rush across the ground, pulling everything in one direction from our hair, to the wheat in the fields, to the branches of the strong oaks and tall pines.
One time, as we were packing the car to go home after a visit to Ohio, the weather took this ominous turn. My dad, who generally dawdled in beginning our long car trips began pushing us out of my grandmother’s house forcefully, and my aunt Cheryl pleaded with us to either get going or stay put.
As we backed out of my grandmother’s driveway, the clear summer sky began to darken. In the time that it took us to drive the mile and a half to the gas station near the entrance of I-75, the cast had gone from gray to green. Peering anxiously through the car windows, we watched Dad’s hair whip back and forth as he pumped super unleaded into our tan minivan’s tank. The power lines above the gas station swayed threateningly, and the large maple on the opposite corner of the intersection looked as if it had been turned inside out, showing the silver underbellies of its leaves as the wind raced through its branches.
Our black poodle whimpered as we hit the road. As we neared Ada, about a half hour away, we could see out the windows on the driver’s side of the van little gray fingers reaching down from the clouds. Dad sped up as the fingers reached lower and lower toward earth. The nice thing about hills, I thought, is that you couldn’t see the trouble coming. We seemed to be staying ahead of the fingers, even though the trees danced along the sides of the roads, until we needed to make a jog that moved with the tornado before continuing southeast once more. For about five minutes, it seemed that the wind was gaining on us. My sister and I turned in our seats and watched a branch on a tree behind us break free of the trunk and fly into the road. We were seconds from being hit by it.
Thankfully, Dad made a turn away from the wind. We were caught for a few minutes in rain so hard that it threatened to break the windows, and our poodle barked wildly as it pounded the roof. Then, almost as quickly as it began, the gray green cast dissipated. As we drove east, the clouds evaporated as the fog disappears after a dream, and the sun shone happily on the dewy wet earth just as the morning beams stream through our windows. We looked back on the experience of the last forty-five minutes as though the whole thing had been a nightmare now safely in the past.
When we called our family later that night to let them know we were home, we could hear audible relief in my aunt’s voice. The silver maple had knocked down the power lines at the intersection where we had been not half an hour after we had passed through, and a tornado had touched down in Ada shortly after we had been there.