The Daily

First Person

Yellow Sky

January 17, 2013 | by

Black Crow Road

A week before the tornado outbreak in May of 1999, I attended my first Native American sweat with my friend A. J., a security guard and blackjack dealer at a Cheyenne-Arapaho casino located in the town of Concho. I’d known A. J. since eighth grade, when we used to smoke cigarettes and catch crawdads in the creek behind his grandfather’s house. His grandfather sat in a recliner and smoked a pipe and spent whole afternoons staring out the window. He talked to us about luck. Good luck, bad luck. He once told us to pay attention to wind and smoke. If wind drifted the smoke east, that meant good luck. But only east. Crows are good luck, he told us, because they fly high and carry prayers to the spirits, whereas owls are considered bad luck. Rain is good luck, but only when the sun is shining. Strong winds are good luck because they are personified as divine spiritual messengers. Even ridiculously high winds that bring down power lines and trees are still considered good luck, regardless of their destruction: the overall speed of wind is unimportant because many tribes look at the path of winds as the soul of a spirit sweeping across the land. I’ve never been much into superstitions, but listening to A. J.’s grandfather talk about all this when I was a kid made me realize this was some serious shit.

In 1999, A. J. talked me into going with him to a sweat. I was going through a depressed, lonely period in my life, living in a crummy apartment building near downtown Oklahoma City and working the graveyard shift in a juvenile detention center, wanting a better job. “It’ll be good for you,” A. J. promised, about the sweat, but I was skeptical. In Oklahoma, depending on the tribe, nearly every Native American sweat lodge experience is different. Most involve fasting and sweating and prayer. People sitting in a circle around a fire, speaking one at a time. Talking to spirits or to others around them. Chanting, humming, praying aloud. The sweat involves recognition of the spirit world, recognition of courage, meditation, prayer, honesty, and healing. A. J. suggested I think about it as a meditation for relaxation and being content. I worried too much. I was lonely. He assured me there was nothing to be worried about. My idea of a Native American sweat lodge was completely fictionalized in my mind as a psychedelic experience with all sorts of strange hallucinations. “It’s no big deal,” A. J. said. “Maybe it’s weird at first, but you’ll get used to it.” Fine, but I still had some questions: How weird? Will I get dehydrated? Will I smoke from a pipe and talk for long periods of time? Hallucinate? Just how much goddamn peyote are we talking about here?

“Peyote?” A. J. said. “The fuck you talking about, peyote?”

On the day of the sweat, which was a Friday, I slept most of the day, having worked the eleven-to-seven shift the night before. The twelve or so hours before a sweat is supposed to be spent getting your mind and body focused by fasting and prayer, neither of which I did. Spending those twelve hours in silence is useful for keeping one’s mind sharp and alert. The silence and fasting is supposed to help teach self-discipline and sacrifice and concentration rather than focusing on a need for food. I did none of that. By late afternoon I’m pretty sure I pulled up to the drive-thru window at Del Rancho and ordered the steak sandwich supreme and jumbo fries. I’m pretty sure I ate it in the car with the windows down and the music blasting on the drive out to A. J.’s house.

The weather was unusual for a state that prides itself on having unpredictable weather year-round, particularly during tornado season. From what I remember it was a relatively normal spring day. I drove west on I-40 to the town of El Reno, a town that exists in a sort of time warp, with old motels and restaurants from the 1950s and 1960s. I then headed north on Highway 81, toward Concho. Located northwest of Oklahoma City, Concho is home to Lucky Star Casino and the Ranger Motel in El Reno, headquarters for the Cheyenne-Arapaho tribe. Driving north on Highway 81, soon I could see the blinking lights of the casino and the area of trees where A. J. lived and where the sweat would take place.

The drive to Concho had little traffic. I’m certain it was windy—Oklahoma has high winds nearly every day during spring. Tornado season brings damaging winds and dust storms, hailstorms, flooding, and, of course, tornadoes, which in spring can develop at any moment. More than anything else, though, the year 1999 pointed to my own fear of 2000. Everywhere I looked, every cable channel, every newspaper editorial focused on nothing but the anxiety surrounding Y2K and the threat of uncertain change. Everyone wondered what the fuck was going to happen. That year movies emphasized big explosions, the end of the world, or at least it seemed that way to me. I wrestled with my own worries of destruction and death. It was unlikely the world would end, but what I worried more about was the fear everyone expressed over the destruction the numbers would have once 2000 rolled over, and how systems would shut down, etc. I never panicked too much. If I was dying, so was everyone else.

One of the things that interested me so much about going to the sweat was that I thought I could write a long story full of footnotes and references to much larger issues, maybe half-fictionalized, half-true, based on the whole experience. I wanted to sit there and be left alone and ogle the event, particularly with a notebook, which A. J. told me to leave in the car. “Writing shit down would be dumb,” he told me. “You think letting them know you’re a writer or whatever won’t draw attention to yourself? You think casually sitting down with a notebook while everyone else sits there won’t make you look suspicious?” The truth is that I was nervous about going. I didn’t know what to expect. Back then, whenever I thought about spirituality, I associated it with all the anxiety over my memories of attending a Pentecostal-Holiness church with my aunt and cousins when I was a kid, and hearing people speak in tongues and dance around, and being a little bit afraid of that. I’d seen documentaries of snake handlers. People falling down in the Spirit. People convulsing on the floor. These memories fueled my anxiety over the unexpected, the uncertain, the unknown. This is precisely what makes bad weather so frightening for me: the idea that tornadoes can form so quickly and roll across the state, destroying lives. The idea that sirens are heard around the city as a warning to take immediate shelter. The idea that the sky turns dark and the wind calms as nature’s silent warning to GET READY.

From A. J.’s house we walked a mile or so to a secluded woodsy area of land a mile or two away from the casino off Highway 81. Down Black Crow Road, which is a dirt road that leads north into the trees, I got the sense that I was heading toward some sort of place of strange enlightenment. It was getting dark outside, but the walk was nice.

 

Black Crow Road, Northbound

In a clearing off Black Crow Road, we saw a stray dog, a small terrier of some sort with no collar. I saw the dog’s swollen belly and noticed she was pregnant. I approached her but she was too skittish and ran into the woods. I told A. J. we should go after her. “She’s a stray,” I said. “Plus she’s pregnant. She’s probably looking for food.” But A. J. wouldn’t go for it. “Take it easy, man. You can’t take her to the sweat. We’ll look on the way back.”

We continued walking and made it to the small bonfire, where people gathered around and talked quietly. I heard the noises of the country at dusk, the locusts in the trees. A. J. introduced me to a slender, soft-spoken woman with long gray hair who seemed genuinely pleased I was there. There were only nine or ten people there. Most of them were older than A. J. and me, in their forties and fifties and sixties. I met a gray-haired man with a large build who served in Vietnam. I told him I needed to find my purpose in life. He chewed on some sort of sugar cane and spoke in a low, serious voice.

“Because you’re a seeker,” he told me. “You like to look for lost things. You like to discover hidden meaning. Go build a boat. Go get a shovel and dig. Explore the wilderness somewhere far away. If you travel you’ll find yourself returning. This is home for you, right? You like secret things. You’ll find purpose. I see a woman with dark hair. I see a pet. You’re looking for good things.”

In a place with so much superstition and spirit talk swirling in the air, I felt strangely apathetic about my own personal betterment. The actual sweat took place in an enclosed canvas with a structure made from tree branches. The rocks used from the bonfire were placed in the middle of the area and sprinkled with water so that they steamed and produced heat. I sat next to A. J. and the Vietnam veteran. A pastor of a Concho church talked about the tribe, prayers for loved ones, keeping thoughts on certain people who were ill or dying. From there what I observed was mostly silence and prayer. Some talked about their own struggles with addiction or anger; others talked about the importance of peace throughout the tribe and for families who were struggling. By the end, the heated stones were hot but it wasn’t nearly as uncomfortable as I’d imagined it would be. I felt good. Walking out, I felt a cool wind on my face, a dark and endless sky above me.

Then we headed back down Black Crow Road in the dark. We looked for the lost dog. I whistled for her the entire walk back, but we never saw her again.

 

The Tornado Dreams

I had dreams about tornadoes. I dreamed of houses collapsing, people searching through rubble for dead bodies. Most of these dreams involved watching a large tornado in a field as it moved directly toward me. Like the scene early in the film The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy looks out the window and sees the tornado approaching, that sense of doom is always present in my dreams. Sometime later, in my twenties, an unkempt man began to appear in these dreams. I’m still unclear of his purpose. He wasn’t anyone I’ve known in my life and he didn’t necessarily resemble anyone. If anything, he seemed to serve as a distraction to keep me from running away. In the dream I could see the tornado over his shoulder in the distance. I found him haunting and surreal. He approached me, dirty and unkempt, heavily bearded, and with his left hand, extended his thumb, forefinger, and pinkie finger, as in the American Sign Language sign for “I love you.” He never said anything, never smiled. Each dream he did the same thing, always making the sign with his hand. In my dream it didn’t relieve my fear of the approaching tornado. He appeared to have a strabismus eye disorder in that his left eye was abnormally larger than his right eye. The tornado over his shoulder approaching, he remained silent, calm. At this point I usually woke before anything happened.

I haven’t had a tornado dream in several years. A friend saw my fear of tornadoes as representative of some much larger issue: Was it really a tornado I was afraid of? Or did this man represent some sort of angelic comforter, Spirit, protector, Christlike figure in my life? Was it my fear of loneliness? My fear of losing someone? My fear of dying? None of which seemed implausible at the time.

 

Yellow Sky

Interesting fact: meteorologists use something called the Fujita Scale to assess the intensity of tornadoes. The Fujita scale is a more modern scale meteorologists started using to indicate specific wind speed and intensity levels. Tornadoes can stay on the ground and strengthen or they can rise back into the air and dissipate completely. A small tornado, generally considered an F0, is the weakest by the Fujita Scale but has wind speeds of up to 70 mph, enough to damage chimneys and break branches off trees. Everyone should take even the weakest tornado seriously. An F1 tornado has winds up to 110 mph, which can overturn a mobile home. The longer they stay on the ground, the more they can intensify. An F3 tornado can overturn trains and uproot trees. Once a tornado reaches the strongest level on the Scale, F5 level, the tornado can lift strong framed houses from their foundations and carry them a distance. In an F5 tornado, wind speeds increase over 250 mph. An F5 tornado demolishes houses and can wipe out entire neighborhoods, leaving piles of rubble everywhere. This is what happened to neighborhoods in Moore, Oklahoma, on May 3, 1999. According to the Daily Oklahoman, the F5 tornado was nearly a half-mile wide.

 

May 3, 1999

The following events took place on May 3, 1999:

In Sapulpa, just west of Tulsa, nearly fifty homes were damaged by a tornado that rolled through the area.

In Stroud, a different tornado ripped the roof off the local hospital and demolished the outlet mall, leaving over three hundred people without jobs the next day.

On the north side of Chickasha, a tornado moved across U.S. Highway 81, ripping apart the roofs of two airport hangars. Planes were found upside down.

In the small town of Dover, a number of homes were destroyed by an F4 tornado. A woman was killed when her home collapsed.

Fifty miles north of Oklahoma City, in Mulhall, a town of only about two hundred, a church was lifted and dropped on the house beside it. Everyone in town felt their walls rumble.

Of those tornadoes, the F5 that rolled through Moore was the worst. That tornado was headed directly for my apartment building.  Outside my door I heard a child crying in the hallway. I heard voices, people going downstairs. The sky was turning a strange shade of yellow. The way a sky turns yellow before a storm gives a sense of doom like no other. When the tornado sirens started I was watching a local meteorologist on TV. Once tornadoes touch ground and start doing serious damage, meteorologists have no problem raising their voices to near panic, which doesn’t make anyone feel any better. They roll up their sleeves, loosen their ties, look directly into the camera and tell viewers to take their immediate tornado precautions.

I was lucky. The tornado turned south first before heading directly east into the small town of Bridge Creek, population 340, where it demolished homes before moving northeast into Moore, wiping out more homes, churches, and schools. It blasted through housing additions. Jim Wustrack took his family into their storm cellar. He told the Daily Oklahoman, “It sounded like we were getting pelted by bullets.”

The tornado was on the ground nearly an hour and a half, moving northeast into Midwest City before finally dissipating. Neighborhoods were left with nothing but rubble. A local fire chief described the demolished neighborhoods as looking the way the Murrah Building looked after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Anna Knerr, a seventy-three-year-old woman who lived in the Midwest City Senior Center, told the Daily Oklahoman, “I’ve been through the war in Germany. I’ve had bombs fall all around me. Now I’ve been in a tornado. It’s a feeling I can’t describe.” The wind blew east—a sign of good luck for some who survived and for those of us who narrowly escaped its path.

Not for Jim Wilkerson, though, whose wife of fifty-one years died when their home collapsed on them while they took shelter. Not for Herschel and Martha Evans, two retired schoolteachers who lost their only son when the tornado shredded his home. And not for all the people in the city who lost their pets. The animal shelter rescued nearly one hundred pets, many of which were injured, like Jasper, a chocolate lab who suffered lacerations in his side from broken glass; and Minnie, a beagle mix whose toenails were ripped off from trying to crawl out of rising water. Frightened dogs and cats fled from destroyed homes. Others were sucked into the high winds and died. Later, I would adopt a dog, a two-year-old, brown-and-white terrier mix from the shelter. The already limited number of volunteers worked extra hours trying to take in all the animals. But even with the good news that many pets from the F5 tornado were rescued, dozens still went missing. Their bodies were never found.

Brandon Hobson's writing has appeared in such places as The Believer, NOON, New York Tyrant, Puerto del Sol, Harper Perennial’s Forty Stories, and elsewhere.

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  1. […] Hobson has a piece on tornadoes in The Paris Review Daily. A week before the tornado outbreak in May of 1999, I attended my first Native American sweat with […]

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