In junior high I made a tornado machine. For the science fair, I was determined to do something showstopping, something smashing. No clay-made volcano of baking soda and vinegar explosions would suffice.
Our summers growing up were often spent driving to and from Minnesota so my mother could help on the farm. I assumed in my child’s mind that they chose that life for us, as it would be best. Put children on the farm. Let them taste good dirt and good hard work and good healthy sunshine and good family time. And so we had that. And at least once each summer we would be called inside when the southern heat met the cold winds of the north and began to spin. We in the drain. We in the wash. We in the vortex, the eye of the storm. I never fully saw a twister – not like in the movie. I am glad to say so. But I remember hard winds, shaking debris, whole trucks that moved into a neighbor’s yard in my sleep. Some trees yanked out of the ground now lay sideways splaying their roots like peacock feathers. And in town the sirens wailed too often as the sky turned green over Walmart so you couldn’t quite see the next town many miles in the distance like usual.
I remember standing with my mother who watched the weather. She’d listen to it like she was waiting for it to tell her its secrets, like a charmer. She’d stand in the prairie wind that blew through tall grass like tiny rippling waves on the sea. She’d stand, wait, and watch, arms folded. When she finally noticed you, she’d invite you in, call you over to show you what the clouds were communicating.
“Do you see them? Those big clouds over there? Thunderheads. The funnels are dipping. Do you see that? It’s going to pass right by us. But it will be okay. See the sunshine over there? It’s just passing, but feel that wind moving fast. It’s going to rain. We’d better run inside.”
And just as we’d hit the porch, large hot drops would tink tink on the thin roof.
I supposed this inclusivity is in the blood, the desire to show all the secret truths you’ve been shown. For all who could not see those skies, I wanted to reenact it for them.
So the night before the science fair, my dad and I built a box. He’s a carpenter, so he made it with a glass window in the front. I did the research and we wanted just the right amount of wind. Well, we ended up making a hurricane of sorts instead. Dad plugged it in, and all were aghast as the funnel spun for all to see. It moved and it shook. In the end, it was more show than science, but I had something to share, and it was like a miracle. Students took turns walking forward to the counter my box sat on to examine it. Then the presentation part began and it happened, I closed my eyes and folded my arms told them what it looks and feels like to be inside the weather. You’re unprotected by trees and forests in the flat lands. Sometimes you’re waiting in the basement for the tornado to pass. I looked out over their heads like looking out the screened-in porch and over the corn fields at the thunderheads rolling in, at the sharp spikes of white lightning hitting the ground. Then you count the seconds until the big drums of thunder pound the sky. My mom says that’s how many miles away the storm clouds are. The class listened in amazement. They wanted to see it spin again. It was my own kneeling circus elephant and I its ringmaster – the showstopper I’d hoped for.
I didn’t win that day at the fair. Some kid who ran taste tests between Coke and Pepsi did. He had a flashy expensive sign and my box wasn’t even painted because dad needed the wood next week for a project. But it worked, and somehow it felt like I had done exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to bring them along, like my mom, and show them how to watch the weather.