When I left my apartment that late April evening I had a spring in my step. I’d passed my comps, defended my thesis, and turned in my last term paper. Within a week I’d say good bye to graduate school and Wichita and move on to my next big adventure: a two-year Peace Corps stint in Poland. I had just one last duty: the final for my ESL class, due to begin in a little over ten minutes...
As soon as I crossed 17th St, the southern border of campus, however, the sirens began to peal. I looked up. The sky had turned the unnatural green that often preceded a tornado. No bird song. The birds always know.
I’d heard a storm was coming—forecasters had been talking about activity in Oklahoma all day—but not all storms turn into tornado watches, and not all watches turn into warnings, even in the heart of Tornado Alley. I hoped we’d be lucky this time.
But the sirens only sound when a tornado has been spotted on the ground.
I had ten minutes to exam time, but the room was on the other side of campus. The sirens continued to scream, the green clouds to roil. I turned left, towards the student union. Its basement was the only tornado shelter with restaurants and common areas and such. I’d be able to watch the news down there while I waited out the storm.
Since it was evening during exam week, there weren’t that many people about, but those still on campus were running for shelter. I cradled my book bag into my arms, now streaked with sweat from the gelatinous humidity, and followed ten or twelve others, down into the basement of the union.
I looked around for any of my ESL students. They were a great bunch, dedicated, fearless. Wichita States drew most of its foreign students from Asia and the Middle East. Enrollment had dropped sharply since I began grad school. After Tiananmen Square, most of the Chinese students stopped coming, and the start of the first Gulf War sent many Arab students into cover. The ones left, unlike too many of their American peers, were respectful, and very serious about their studies. All the nineteen students in the class arrived in the United States within the past year; some had just started in January. Soon I’d be in their shoes, a stranger in a strange land, blundering my way through a new country and its culture.
There were only a couple dozen people in the basement. A group of guys in gym clothes dripped with sweat; they’d probably just come from the rec center. Some other kids had books and papers spread across tables. A few people milled about, but most were stationed in front of the televisions hanging from the ceiling.
I didn’t see any of my students. Most of them were usually early. By know they’d be in another basement shelter, no doubt jamming a few more vocabulary words into their brains.
I dropped my bag and pulled out a chair.
“Yikes,” someone said.
On the monitor pulsated a map of Wichita and surrounding areas. A big red pool with skimpy borders of yellow was drifting in from the southwest. The danger zone of the storm looked bigger than the city, and its center was coming right at us.
Anyone still talking stopped and strained to hear the meteorologist. Soon the hair dressers from the saloon dropped their scissors, and the fast food workers left their burgers under the heat lamps, and clerks from the bookstore deserted their registers, all walking glassy eyed towards the televisions to watch the Big One finally hit Wichita.
. . .
It’s the randomness of tornados that’s so frightening.
I’ve only seen one twister in person. I was still in high school at the time and worked at a Long John Silver’s in Overland Park, a suburb of Kansas City. We had no customers, even before the sirens started. The closest thing the restaurant had to a shelter was a walk-in freezer. We weren’t going in there. So my manager rolled a joint and we went outside to have a look-see. Only cop cars patrolled the roads. I heard a low, churning whistle; I thought it was my manager, but his eyes stared up, the unlit joint dangling from his gaping mouth. I followed his gaze and watched as the funnel cloud passed over, its eye spinning slowly like the inside of a cement mixer. It couldn’t have been more than a hundred feet above us. It dropped lower and lower, making its way to the cross section of streets bordering our strip mall, before plunging into the corner of an auto parts store. Shingles sprayed from the roof, but the tornado simply bounced off and shot right back into the sky.
The Long John Silver’s lay in the path of that tornado. Who knows what would have happened had it come down a bit sooner.
In March of 1990 a tornado blasted a path through the small town of Hesston north of Wichita. On the Fujita scale, it measured an F5, the strongest tornado, one with wind speeds exceeding two hundred miles an hour. A few weeks after that “tornado outbreak” my friend Mark and I decided to have dinner at a Swedish restaurant in Lindsborg. We stopped in Hesston on the way. Clean-up was slow. We turned into a cul-de-sac surrounded by new, middle-class houses. One of the houses was simply gone, in its place a basement filled with broken walls and windows. Behind the empty lot lay another basement, and then another, and so on, far into the distance. The houses on either side of the basement directly in front of us looked completely untouched, not even one boarded up window. It looked as if a madman had gone joyriding on a giant bulldozer.
All extreme weather is unpredictable, of course, but it’s relative. I grew up near Buffalo, land of blizzards and lake effect snow. When things start to get bad you close the roads, simple as that. Later, I lived in Louisiana and waited out numerous hurricanes. To a certain extent you can track hurricanes, and even though no one can predict exactly where the eye will hit landfall, the storms are slow moving. If steering in your direction you can always evacuate.
Tornados? Midwesterners might joke about the dangers of living in trailer parks, or fall back on old folk tales, like the notion that a tornado will never cross where two rivers meet.
There’s not much you can do to protect yourself. If you’re driving you can stop, jump out, and just hope there’s ditch on the side of the road. One not under a power line. If you’re indoors when the sirens start? Head for the basement. If no basement, a bath tub (or walk-in freezer), and pray a direct hit doesn’t bring the whole building down on top of you. Every spring in Kansas is like the London Blitz.
It’s no wonder Tornado Alley braces itself inside the Bible Belt.
. . .
We sat and watched the television for more than an hour. Eventually the red pool moved off and the sirens stopped. People started talking again and packed up. I heaved a sigh and wondered what I’d do about the exam.
. . .
What I didn’t yet know: An F5 tornado had touched down on the outskirts of Wichita. It remained on the ground for over an hour, for nearly seventy miles. At its widest it reached five hundred yards across.
McConnell Air Force base lay in its path. The base is part of the early warning protection system of the United States. Bombers, armed with nuclear warheads, line the runways. Right before the tornado hit the first runway, for no discernable reason, other than tornados do such things, it popped back into the sky. It sailed over the planes before plummeting again, obliterating over a hundred housing units and nine other buildings, including a pre-school and the base hospital.
For the next day, at that very hospital, I had a scheduled appointment for my Peace Corps physical.
When the tornado reached Andover, a suburb of Wichita, it was heading towards the least populated part of town. But then, again, for reasons no one can discern, other than tornados do such things, it turned on a dime, back north, where it rampaged through a residential area.
During that tornado event of April 26, 55 tornados touched down between Texas and Minnesota. Of the 21 people killed, 17 lived in Andover.
. . .
But as far as I was concerned, life had returned to normal. Outside the union, birds sang again, and bits of blue shoved their way between white and grey clouds. I wanted to linger outside. Wichita State’s campus has one of the largest collections of outdoor sculpture in the country. I had the sudden desire to check out some of the statues, or even sit on a bench near some spring flowers and watch the world go by.
But no, I was supposed to start my exam over an hour earlier. I’d have to collect my students somehow. As far as I knew they were scattered all over the place.
In my building the halls were empty. That wasn’t unusual. There weren’t that many night classes. When I entered my classroom I was met with the expectant faces of my students. All nineteen of them.
“I can’t believe you all beat me here!” I said.
“Mr. Professor,” Ahmad said. He was the oldest student in class, sat front row center, and was always the most talkative.
“Mr. Professor,” he repeated, tapping his watch.
And then it dawned on me.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “You’ve been here the whole time? Since six?”
At least half the class chorused “Yes.”
“All of you?”
“Of course,” Ahmad said. “Very important, this exam. You don’t come, so we wait.”
“Didn’t you hear the sirens?”
“Yes, yes, very loud. Like Kuwait, maybe. What are they for, these sirens?”
Mark Lewandowski’s essays and stories appear in many journals, and have been listed as “Notable” in The Best American Nonrequired Writing, The Best American Travel Writing, and twice in The Best American Essays. Halibut Rodeo, a story collection, was published in 2010. Currently, he is a professor of English at Indiana State University.