Writing Prompt #6: Natural DisasterI’ve decided to make this into a writing prompt. I haven’t done one in a very long time. I wasn’t as consistent with it as I’d hoped to be.
However, while this might just be another writing prompt to those of you who randomly come along, for me it’s a bit more than that. If you’ve visited my blog in the past or nosed around any, you may have seen my post about May 3rd, 1999. If you haven’t, here’s a brief recap:
On that date, my home and many others in my area were completely destroyed by an F5 tornado. I was left homeless, confused, and angry about everything. I celebrated my 14th birthday away from my immediate family, travelling half way across the state to live with my cousin because the alternative was to live in a high school math room and wake up every morning to go dig through the rubble and debris that had once been my home.
With May 3rd rapidly approaching, I’ve taken the time to write this post in advance, and I shall be publishing it on the 13th Anniversary of what my brothers and I (half) jokingly refer to as “We’re Still Alive Day.” So this is the prompt:
Take a natural disaster that has been in the news (recently or maybe not so recently) and write as though you have been directly affected by this disaster. Try to really bring out the intensity of the situation. Be sure to use all of your senses and immerse yourself in your imagination. Write about what you see and feel (both emotionally and physically), but remember that scent is strongly tied to memory, and taste is tied to scent, and the hip bone is connected to the–oh, right. Ahem.
Clearly, my prompt will be a true story, so I won’t have to reach very far beyond my own memory for these things. Some of you will have to use other experiences and try to find something of a common ground – something that allows you to imagine what it might really be like.
I remember the lights in town had gone out. How odd to see dark neon signs and unlit marquees. The small rural city no longer stood out from the shadowed fields surrounding it. I’d been down this highway countless times. There wasn’t much in the little town back then: a small Wal-Mart–back before everything was super-sized–a burger joint, a pizza place, a small grocery store, a bank or two, and a gas station. If you lived in the area, you knew every nook and cranny of the place. Still, that night it was like seeing it for the first time. As we drove through the flashing traffic lights, it was suddenly transformed into some strange, unfamiliar place.
This is one of the few images that never left me about that day. There are others, of course. The little boy coming down the road covered from head to toe in mud, crying that his mother’s hand had been in his only moments before. The elderly couple who lived up on the corner somewhere, blood trickling from a wound on the old man’s head. Cement foundations stained red by the Oklahoma dirt and stripped bare by the winds, the last remaining proof that a house had once stood there. The muddy banks of the pond across the road, banks that had once been covered in grass and trees.
I remember the darkness from within our little hole as the tornado destroyed the surface above us. Pitch black. The roaring of the winds so loud in my ears that only the vice-like grip of my mother’s hand on mine and the weight of my brother’s body huddled beside me told me they were still there.
And it was all over. Suddenly, it was all in the past: the hail smashing against the van on the drive home from Aikido class while my mom tried not to panic; my dad carefully monitoring Gary England on Channel 9; my older brother’s concerned voice that something didn’t look right outside; and then the shouts, “Get your shoes on and get your asses out of the house!”
Panic can be overwhelming and confusing. Part of your brain is telling you to remain calm and think clearly and you can almost see what you should do. You just don’t do it. A tornado is coming and you know there’s a plan. You’ve been told for years that if it ever came to this, you’d leave the house, cross the road, and crawl into the tin horn – you’d be safe there, beneath the ground.
Panic takes over and you know that plan is still there. But you don’t know how to put it into motion. Your brain works sluggishly. It tells you, “Bad weather? You’ll need a jacket for that.” So you run down the long hallway, to the opposite side of the house from the front door, and grab your coat. Then you calmly put it on and zip it up, while holding a squirming rat-terrier mix in your arms, the dog as panicked as you are.
I don’t remember getting out of the house. Frankly, there are a few dark spots in my memory. I don’t remember going through the door or down the front steps. I remember being at the edge of the yard just about to cross the road when just ahead of me I see my little brother, only ten years old at the time, start heading down the road instead of across it. The wind was so strong that it was blowing him down the road. I remember my older brother grabbing him, pulling him back towards safety.
I don’t remember crawling into the tin horn. I don’t remember which brother was next to me. I remember a moment of awe, realizing that this was what it felt like to face death. “Am I going to die?” Then the darkness. The roar. And then sudden silence. How quickly it was all over.
When we crawled back onto the surface, the place was unrecognizable. The trees were gone and if not ripped completely out of the ground, they were splintered down nearly to the base of their trunks. They stuck out of the ground like pikes on a battlefield. A battlefield – which is exactly how it looked. Grass stripped from the land, trees blown apart, houses completely removed from hills, creeks full of rubble and debris.
While I stared around me and cried, my dad and my older brother, seventeen at the time, launched into action. There might be survivors to find.
We were survivors. I was a survivor. With sudden shock, I realized that it was possible that not everyone had lived through this disaster. There might be people dead or dying buried beneath that rubble. I remember starting to follow my dad and brother so I could help search. And then I froze, staring into the creek at the wreckage that had once been a home. What if I found a dead body? What if that thing sticking out of the mangled beams in the distance was an arm. What if there were body parts…
I was too afraid to look, too afraid of what I might find. I wanted to help search for people, to be useful, but I was terrified. All I could do was cry.
But then came the little boy, probably five or six years old. He said something like, “My mom was sucked out of my hand.”
He complained that his shoulder hurt, so we took a look. I think it was dislocated, I can’t recall fully. I was told to watch him while the adults did other things. By this point, I had stopped crying. I suddenly had an important task. So we tried to get some of the mud off his face. We talked about anything, and I was probably trying to distract myself as much as him.
Eventually, trucks arrived. People from other neighborhoods coming to help. Impromptu search teams went out. My dad and some of the other men found horses and other pets that had to be put down, so they did it with whatever tools they had to stop the animals from suffering any longer. Miraculously, my own horse was uninjured, simply buried in the creek up to her shoulders or so. My dad had to help her dig her way out.
I don’t remember much else. I remember getting in a car, driving to a nearby neighborhood. Power was out everywhere. I stared through the window, shocked by the extent of the damage. It was like a bomb had gone off.
There was a house with a lot of people in it. Candles were lit. A few inches of clean water in a bathtub somewhere for us to try to get some of the mud off. I could still taste dirt in my mouth.
And later in the evening my grandparents picked us up and drove us into the city to stay with them. That’s when we passed our little rural city that sticks in my memory. It has changed so much over the years. It’s grown, expanded, there are a few less fields now, more neon signs. But I still remember sitting on someone’s lap in the car as we passed through the darkened town, seven of us crammed into a standard sedan. I remember the cool glass against my forehead as I leaned against the window, watching everything zip past. It looked like a ghost town to me.
How fitting, I thought.
So, there’s my short prompt written to commemorate the 13th Anniversary of the May 3rd Tornado. It’s not the best bit of writing I’ve ever done but when I think back on that day, my memory skips around a lot.
If you’ve got a prompt you’d like to share, post a comment or share a link to your own blog, and I’ll stop by with a comment!