May 22, 2013
Does a killer tornado really sound like a freight train?
"I don't remember what it sounded like, honestly. It was like a freight train, but I don't remember much about it," said Rhonda Crosswhite, the Oklahoma grade school teacher who covered students with her body when her town was hit by that deadly twister the other day.
"One of my little boys just kept saying, 'I love you, I love you, please don't die with me,'" she recalled.
Some two dozen — and possibly more — died in Oklahoma. And 33 died when tornadoes hit Oak Lawn on April 21, 1967, when I was a boy.
People who survive a tornado say it sounds like a freight train. But calling it a freight train is just a way to explain the unfathomable power to those who haven't experienced it. It's not a freight train, not really. It's a way of being polite. You just call it that because it's easier than arguing.
If you survive a tornado, it's as if you speak two different languages, a pre-tornado language and the one that comes afterward. And so, the phrase "like a freight train" serves as a point of reference between altered states.
Years ago I heard it, when I was a boy in Oak Lawn.
It was just after 5 p.m. when somebody at the Little Red Schoolhouse nature center in the Cook County forest preserves to the west reported a funnel cloud touching down.
We didn't know about that then. We didn't know it would be measured as a devastating F-4 tornado.
A series of tornadoes would hit the southwest suburbs that day, what meteorologists call a "family," the worst one dropping out of the sky to the west of us in Palos Hills, then rushing through Oak Lawn and Hometown and Evergreen Park, then on through the South Side of Chicago.
Just then, a little after 5, it was still, a weird quiet outside. Then suddenly moms were running out into the tiny front yards, running from one edge of the grass to the other, the wind whipping their dresses as they called their children.
I can't tell you what we kids were doing. Were we at the swing set where philosophy was discussed, talking with other kids about "limbo," the place where the Catholic kids insisted that unbaptized souls go to await eternity?
Or were we playing guns with our best friends, the Knaff boys, chasing and shooting our cap pistols, falling to the ground, compelled by the rules to wait to a count of 25 before we could stand?
I can't tell you. What I can tell you is of the quiet around us, as if there was no oxygen in the air, only a vacuum. The sky was pea green, like split pea soup. Then it was black. Garbage can lids flew past the houses. More mothers ran in the yards, screaming for their kids to get inside.
Our mom had been on the north side of Oak Lawn at our uncle's house, on the side of town that would be devastated in minutes, while our side of town was spared.
She screeched the car up the driveway, hit the brakes, hit the horn and yelled for us to run into the house. Then she crammed a table into a basement closet. We called it the "Scout Closet" because she was a den mother and that's where she kept her Cub Scout supplies.
My younger brothers Peter and Nick huddled with me under that table. We had a radio, an old scratchy transistor, giving storm warnings. The four of us crouched in there, in the closet under the stairs, making signs of the cross in the dark.
What we could hear outside was something like a freight train, yes, but only if it had been a freight train made of demons, legions of them howling, each screaming wordlessly, "I will kill you. I will kill you."
That's what it sounded like to me.
But for those closer to 95th Street, hiding at Oak Lawn High School or the homes to the west, it certainly must have sounded worse. Especially for those trapped in the rush-hour traffic along Southwest Highway, watching other cars being flung into the air like blades of grass from a mower.
Some 16 people were killed in a block or two there, plucked out of traffic, before the killer tornado headed to the east and toward the city.
Perhaps I'm remembering it all wrong now, perhaps it wasn't as loud as I remember, perhaps there were no demons calling. But there was the feeling of nature as evil, nature with a mind, predatory, nature intent on hunting us down.
So each time there is a tornado story in the news, I'm helpless. Pete and Nick are stuck on tornado stories too. I don't even have to ask them. I know. And if you were there on the Southwest Side in 1967, when the sky turned from green to black, then you know too.
The next day it was cold outside. In days to come, we'd ride our bikes over to see homes destroyed, people in the streets, the Illinois National Guard deployed to stop the looters.
And since then, I've learned two things: I can't live in a house without a basement. And tornadoes don't sound like freight trains. We just say they do.
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