Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Tornado Season

I grew up in central Arkansas. If there is a heart in the so–called "Tornado Alley" in America, that must be where it is.

They take tornadoes seriously in Arkansas, as they do in neighboring states like Oklahoma, because they have a long history of dealing with them. Tornadoes are the loose cannons of meteorology. They pop up almost without notice and tend to be short–lived, but, oh, are they destructive.

We've needed no reminders of that lately, having just experienced the deadliest day in my lifetime in terms of tornado activity.

I recall a devastating tornado that came through my hometown when I was about 5 years old. My parents had gone out for the evening — probably for dinner and a movie — and they had left my brother and me with a teen–aged girl who lived a couple of miles down the road from us.

This girl had watched us before. We lived in the country, and it was a convenient arrangement. My brother and I liked her — well, I guess I can only speak for myself. My brother was about 2 years old, but he seemed to like her, as I remember. Anyway, her name was Gail.

At some point that evening (probably early, but I don't think I had learned to tell time yet), it turned windy and stormy. I remember listening to the radio with Gail (my parents didn't have a television in those days) and hearing the tornado warnings that were being issued — and wondering why Gail had turned as pale as a sheet. I guess the words in the broadcast were really beyond my years.

Anyway, she called her father and asked him to come pick us up and take us back to their house — because there was a storm cellar there. He was at our house in no time, and the three of us made a mad dash to his pickup truck. We piled in, he turned the ignition, and he drove like a crazy man, trying to outrun the tornado — which was practically on top of us.

If its path had been unobstructed, it might have picked up that truck and tossed it who knows where. I don't know how powerful it was. I don't think the famous Fujita scale was in use at that time, but it must have been pretty strong. The area where we lived was kind of hilly, and the tornado must have bounced off the terrain. I remember looking up through the windshield and seeing the tornado go directly over us.

The noise was deafening. The truck shook some. But nothing worse than that happened to us.

The storm proceeded into town, plowing through a residential section and leveling several homes by the time we arrived at the sitter's house. At that point, the danger had passed us by, I guess, but we still got into the storm shelter, anyway, and stayed there for what seemed like hours. When we emerged, the wind was still blowing — although not as violently as before — and my strongest memory is of my sitter and her siblings catching shreds of paper and announcing the addresses on envelopes and magazine labels.

It was really astonishing how far some of those pieces of paper (presumably) had traveled in a short time. At least, it seems so in hindsight. At that time in my life, I presume, I had no concept of the distance between places.

Anyway, I developed a healthy respect — at an early age — for tornadoes.

My parents must have picked us up at some point that evening. I have no memory of it. It had been kind of a harrowing evening for all of us.

Later, after I had grown up, I lived in Oklahoma for awhile. We had some pretty severe storms during the time I lived there, and we had a few tornado episodes, but nothing devastating hit the area in which I lived in the time I lived there. For that, I was grateful — especially since some particularly nasty storms went through the area a couple of years after I left.

Tornadoes have done considerable damage in Oklahoma since I moved away, and the movie that premiered 15 years ago today — "Twister," which was set in Oklahoma — is the only film I have ever seen that realistically re–created the experience of an encounter with a massive, deadly storm.

I never saw it in the theater, but I suspect it would have been a lot like a movie I saw with my mother — 1974's "Earthquake." The experience was enhanced by an audio system called Sensurround in which low–frequency sounds gave viewers the physical sensation of an earthquake.

I don't think they were still using Sensurround in 1996. Come to think of it, I can't remember the last time a movie was advertised as including Sensurround. If memory serves, it was kind of cumbersome and costly in the mid–1970s, and most theaters decided, in the end, not to invest in the equipment that was necessary.

With few theaters using Sensurround technology, it simply didn't make sense to make films that utilized it.

If Sensurround had still been in use when "Twister" was released, I'm sure it would have made the theatrical experience as terrifying as the real one can be.

I didn't see any flying cows when I was 5 years old. I'm sure that would have been a memorable — not to mention traumatizing — moment for me. I remember having nightmares at about the same time after seeing the winged monkeys in "The Wizard of Oz."

Even without Sensurround, I think the film's main attraction was the special effects — and to experience that as fully as possible, it probably was necessary to see the movie on a big screen. Not matter how large one's TV might be, I always figured the dialogue in "Twister" was realistic. I've never traveled with any "storm chasers" so I can't speak from experience on that one. But the dialogue struck me as authentic — even if some elements of the story were a bit forced.

That isn't meant to take anything away from the cast.

Helen Hunt was as charming as ever — and had better things ahead of her. Two years later, she won an Oscar for her performance in "As Good As It Gets."

Bill Paxton, who played her ex– (and, the story hinted, future) spouse, was something of a hot commodity in Hollywood in those days. A year earlier, for example, he had played one of the astronauts aboard the ill–fated Apollo 13 — one of the top–grossing films of 1995.

A year after "Twister," he played a character who appeared to be loosely based on Dr. Robert Ballard, the man who located the wreckage of the Titanic in James Cameron's blockbuster movie of the same name.

Some of the other cast members were headed for bigger things. Jami Gertz, who played Paxton's girlfriend in "Twister," has enjoyed some success on TV. Philip Seymour Hoffman, who played a fellow storm chaser, has been in several noteworthy films. He also won an Oscar.

But, in 1996, nothing was bigger than their adventures chasing storms in Oklahoma on America's silver screens.