Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Texas, tornados, and a lack of furniture

Destruction from Alabama tornado

It’s been less than a week since a string of tornados ripped through Alabama, Tennessee, and Georgia and the death toll is lingering around 250. Reading the stories of the horror inflicted by these tornados forces me to think about my childhood. As a kid growing up on Tornado Alley in central Texas, tornados were just a part of life for me.
If I walk outside and the sky is dark with thick rain clouds and there is a green tint to everything, I know that a tornado is brewing somewhere. I have stood under funnel clouds 3 times during my life. Why? Because I was frozen in fear by the sight of the swirling clouds and I had a strange curiosity to watch the tornado dip down out of the sky and touch the ground.

Tornado Alley

Tornado drills at school were practiced often. My teachers always made sure to note that if you hear the city tornado drill sound, then you should get in your bathtub and cover yourself with a mattress. My stomach tightened at that last bit of information.
I finally got the nerve to raise my hand and ask, “What should you do if you don’t have a mattress?”
The teacher cocked her head back, squinted her eyes at me, and gasped in her thick Texas accent, “What are you talking about? Who in the world doesn’t have a mattress?” She laughed and looked around the classroom waiting for everyone else to giggle and agree.

Alabama tornado 2011

 I could tell you who didn’t own a mattress—my family. And why didn’t we have beds? Because my dad got the bright idea to throw away all of our furniture when I was about 8 years old. Apparently furniture is some sort of chain that attaches you to a pampered population of gluttonous jerks. It weighs you down and we were never more free than the day he put our beds, sofa, tables, and chairs in the Goodwill collection box—of course I’m just paraphrasing one of his many rants.
So what did I sleep on? I slept in my dad’s old Army surplus sleeping bag on a hard wood floor every night. I know this sounds very romantic and sweet but I can assure you that it wasn’t. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been so bad except for the fact that we had an old house. While old houses also sound romantic and cute, I can assure you that they are not. They do not have central heat and air or the ability to keep out rodents and bugs.
I spent many summer nights sweating my ass off in that old green sleeping bag on the floor—ever watchful of crawling bugs and running mice. The winter was a little better because the bugs and rats would go to warmer environments. I remember watching a mouse run out the front door in December and head over to the house across the street. I thought to myself, “I don’t blame you little guy. It’s probably really warm over there. They probably have lots of food to eat, too.”

My childhood home in Dublin, TX

 When I was in third grade, a friend of mine had her house destroyed by a tornado. I remember reading a story in the local newspaper where her family received a bunch of food, clothes, and beds from a community drive. “Too bad our house didn’t get sucked up in that twister,” I thought to myself.  I couldn’t even imagine having all that food in our pantry or having a soft bed to sleep in. Having your house destroyed by a natural disaster seemed like a golden ticket to the good life.

 You have no idea how exhausting it is to not have furniture until you don’t have it. Not having a sofa or chair to sit in and watch TV became routine. The embarrassment of telling your friends that they have to sit on the floor when they come over to visit is something I got used to over the years. Zipping the sleeping bag completely closed over my head to keep the mice away became second nature.  Longing for a better life became a constant theme of my childhood.  I never questioned my situation—it was just another part of our crazy life.
I now sleep in a very soft and clean king bed every night. It was my first purchase with my first paycheck from my first real job after I graduated from college. Owning a bed was a defining moment in my quest to become my own person. The plush feel of a good mattress is something that I never take for granted.
While I cannot sympathize with the victims of the recent tornados enough, I cannot think of tornado safety without thinking about my childhood in Texas. God forbid a tornado should strike my home now. But if it does, I’m totally ready to throw my kids in the bathtub and I have a large selection of mattresses to choose from to put on their tiny heads.

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