I spent about four straight days watching The Weather Channel when Hurricane Harvey hit, and now, with Irma slowly making its way toward Florida (it’s just reaching Puerto Rico as I write this first paragraph), I fully plan on doing the same thing this weekend. If you’re kicking off this Saturday morning with your Frosted Mini-Wheats, your coffee, and this column, chances are I’m somewhere in Mattoon at this very moment on my couch, bleary-eyed and staring at some Weather Channel science nerd in a blue windbreaker screaming into a squall.
And if by chance you’re like me and you consider storms of any kind fun to watch on T.V., then you’ll no doubt remember this, from the March 31, 1998, Journal Gazette, front page coverage of the legendary tornado strike of 1998, an event that I totally slept through. Ironic since I spent pretty much my entire childhood being deathly afraid of three things: the opening theme to "The Six Million Dollar Man," the creepy King Kong poster on the closet door at the top of my aunt Bea’s stairs, and of tornadoes. It wasn’t just the tornadoes though. Sure the idea that there are funnels of wind that can just descend from the sky is scary, but being the kid that I was, I interpreted the danger of tornadoes through the television.
Living out in the middle of nowhere with an antenna TV, those six channels were your connection to the “outside” world of Central Illinois extending to Champaign, Decatur, Springfield and Effingham (and maybe Peoria if I could drag in WYZZ on a clear night). And if there was ever a time when those lifelines interrupted regular programming with a screechy tone and a weatherman (or woman) standing in front of a Chroma-Key map of Illinois telling people to “take cover in interior rooms,” well, that’s the kind of living nightmare that the scariest horror movie on late-night television just couldn’t beat.
Storms in “town”, and by “town” I’m referring to Mattoon, Charleston, Oakland, Arcola, and heck even Windsor or Gays…any place deemed worthy of a Casey’s General Store…when you get a bad storm you get some rain, some wind, some hail, all the usuals, and sometimes it can get pretty gnarly. Yeah, you might also get that one flash of lightening that knocks your Medicacom out, and for those fine folks reading this west of the railroad tracks on the west side of Mattoon you know that if that goes out for a second and it’s past 6 p.m., you’re going to be staring at a blank screen for quite a while until you decide to fish the Parcheesi board out of the closet. And sometimes if there might even be a wind gust that takes out that Bradford Pear in your front yard you never quite learned to love until it was too late.
But out of town you don’t have the windbreaks of your neighbors’ homes and the surrounding trees to provide an, admittedly slight, buffer against such things. The light, or relative lack of it when comparing the two areas, also plays into the difference. I live in a well-lit area at night, and there’s something kind of calming about watching black sheets of rain cascade their way in parabolic arcs through a relatively busy intersection, light reflecting off the wet pavement below. But out in Cooks Mills, outside our front yard was one lone ancient streetlight mounted atop a weathered pole near the ditch. Oh wait…there was the giant overhead light atop the Morton Shed where my dad parked his Kenworth, but still…the only thing truly visible out the living room front window was a road, a fenced-in pasture, and then lots and lots of nothing. And at night, storm clouds coming in, WCIS weatherman freaking out, and me freaking out to match him, that empty space beyond that window somehow seemed even more dangerous. You couldn’t see it…but the storm was out there…roaring…waiting to just suck you up into the arms of that ancient creepy poison oak-covered tree in the ditch just like that kid in “Poltergeist.”
My only mental refuge in all this was the fact that we had a basement; and what I learned from TV was in case of a tornado, the basement would protect you from everything. Looking back I was probably overestimating the protective rating of our unfinished basement, but still, it was nice to know I had somewhere to run if the tornadoes came calling or if the ending of “Invaders from Mars” ever came true (my fourth biggest fear).
The house we lived in here in town didn’t have a basement, thus robbing me of some mental solace; our only place to hide from a storm was a little interior hallway between our kitchen and the utility room. The one time things got rough enough outside to use it I was the only one at home so there I was, me with our family pug Pugsly (or Augie…I can’t remember which one) snorting away confusedly while I contented myself that at least the pantry was within reach. There’s nothing like waiting out a storm by helping yourself to some peanut butter and to my dad’s stash of Zingers.
These days I’m what they call in the business a “grown man”, and as such you put some old fears behind you. Now when there’s a storm, especially one that involves the possibility of tornadoes, I tend to be more chill. These things are all about odds, and the way I look at it we’ve already had our one tornado for the century. In the meantime, even though I technically live in a less storm-safe place, I’m perfectly content to turn on that local storm coverage (WAND’s Laine Sylvester…wherever you are, you are remembered), and only occasionally cast a slightly suspicious glance at my framed “Invaders From Mars” poster on the wall, wondering if I should be watching the skies for glowing lights descending.