The eye of the tornado

My wife, 27-year-old daughter and I spent several hours last Saturday holed up in a Denny’s in Cisco, Texas. Outside, cars and pickups bunched together under the awning as hail and rain and tornado-heavy clouds created a strange fellowship among stranded travelers.

We’d just come off Interstate 20, headed from Abilene to Fort Worth. My old Buick looked like someone had worked it over with a hammer — the result of bigger-than-golf-ball hailstones hitting your car as it creeps tentatively along at 50 miles per hour. At least the glass held up. There were several who couldn’t say that, standing on the porch or inside as rain poured into their cars through shattered rear windshields.

A fire department rescue truck sped by, siren blaring. We learned later that a tornado had hit a house south of where we were, killing one person and injuring another.

We shared updates from our phones and watched The Weather Channel, rolling warnings across the big screen mounted high in a corner of the restaurant, a national broadcast originating live from exactly where we were. That’s a little exciting, but not necessarily in a good way.

It made me think of 1979 and Meridian, Mississippi, when my mom and I drove from Texas to Montgomery, Alabama to see her family. I was unemployed and free to make the trip with her. It figured to be good visiting time for a somewhat drifting young man and his mom, who had always had a gift of common sense, a knack for bringing him back to his center.

Hurricane Frederic picked that moment to exit the Gulf of Mexico and drive up the Mississippi-Alabama line, deep into America.

We had stopped at West Monroe, Louisiana to spend the night, and attended church where the preacher’s topic was Jesus’ “Do not worry” talk from Matthew 6.  Highly appropriate, I thought, for my worry-prone mom. We were discussing it the next day as we drove along, and I pointed out that the rain had stopped and things appeared to be calming down. “See there?” I said. “Stop worrying!”

Just then I turned the radio on, just in time to hear Dan Rather’s voice say, “The eye of the hurricane is now at Meridian, Mississippi.” At that moment, as if it were scripted, we looked up to see the highway sign that said, “Meridian, Next 5 Exits.”

We had to laugh, knowing we were in God’s hands. We drove back into rain, but it weakened as we went on. We made our way along the famous civil-rights road from Selma to Montgomery, zig-zagging around downed trees and power lines as crews worked all around us. And we had a good visit. I bought a guitar, saw some cousins, saw my grandmother’s house for the last time. We survived.

Last Saturday, hunkered there with our fellow-travelers, it felt a little like the scene below decks on the Titanic. We were either doomed or not — but we knew we were at the mercy of big, dramatic forces much greater than ourselves.

We drank tea and finally ordered sandwiches to justify squatting so long at a table. My daughter plugged in and got some work done on her laptop. Finally we returned nervously to the road, still storm-hazardous, creeping along under an ominous, beautiful sky — exciting but not necessarily in a good way.

We made it to Fort Worth, ran our errands and got home, escaping again through the eye of the storm, and maybe learning a bit more about worry.

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