Growing up Okie - memories of a resilient life in Tornado Alley

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Jim Stubblefield, of Norman, Okla., raises a tattered flag he found while helping his sister salvage items from her tornado-ravaged home Tuesday in Moore, Okla. | Charlie Riedel~AP

BY THOMAS CONNER

We were shakin' in our beds that night ...
-- The Call, "Oklahoma"

I never made it to my undergrad commencement ceremony -- because I was cowering in a basement.

The sky darkened outside my garage apartment as I ate breakfast on May 8, 1993, in Norman, Okla. When the clouds turned from their familiar deathly grey to that telltale sickly green, I called my folks and told them not to drive down from the city. By the time I hung up the phone, my landlord in the adjoining house was knocking frantically on the door. "You'd better get down here with us," she said. "You're not safe up here."

Born and raised in Oklahoma City, I've spent many an afternoon and evening sheltering like this. I've crouched in bathtubs and basements, huddled in hallways and high schools. I've been bored and terrified, often simultaneously. But I've been blessed -- tornadoes have gotten so close but stayed, thankfully, so far from me and my loved ones.

As a kid, of course, tornadoes can seem wondrous. I remember pressing my face against our front-door glass around age 7, watching a faint funnel dance its way along Grand Boulevard in Oklahoma City, just a few blocks away. The next day, we drove the boulevard and saw the huge old trees uprooted, the park swings knotted, the monkey bars toppled. Around age 12, upon hearing reports of twisters in the area of our home in Edmond, an OKC suburb, my father and I stood in our cul-de-sac, taking advantage of its clear views to scan the horizon for dipping funnels. My mother occasionally stamped onto the front porch to cuss at us and threaten that she wouldn't mourn if both us fools got swept away.

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A tornado passes through Moore, Okla. Monday, May 3, 1999. It carried with it the most severe winds ever recorded at the Earth's surface - about 300 mph. | AP file

On May 3, 1999 -- one of the many times a gargantuan tornado tore a path of death and destruction through Moore, Okla. -- I was living in Tulsa, the end point of that twister's northeast trajectory, and was flattened on the floor under a heavy futon mattress with my partner, one very confused dog and one very angry cat. Across the room in that house near 49th Street we could see the TV news reports, including one network's tower camera that tracked the approaching tornado by noting where the transformer explosions could be seen. A flash around 71st Street. Another one -- that must be 61st. Gulp, now 51st ...

But here's the thing: Once the danger passed, we put the mattress back on the bed and finished dinner. Life, for the fortunate, went on.

Just another hot Oklahoma night.

The NBA's Oklahoma City Thunder isn't just a catchy team name; that mascot is a way of life, a constant companion, friend and foe. Oklahoma is the bright red bullseye at the center of Tornado Alley. Civil service sirens sound frequently around the state from spring through September, and they rarely cry wolf. For every mammoth monster big enough to make news outside the state -- like Sunday's in Shawnee and Monday's in Moore -- there can be dozens of tornadoes a week through the warm months. Big ones, small ones, cute ones, scary ones. Twisters in the pasture, funnels over the mall. Whirls of wind that snatch away your ball cap. Deadly vortexes that forever alter people's lives. Oklahoma is one of the rare places on earth where contemporary cartographers must keep erasers at hand.

But Okies get up, clean up and move on. As has been reported so many times in my lifetime, we Oklahomans are resilient. Amazingly so, apparently. After the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in 1995 in Oklahoma City, I remember being confounded by the national media's seeming fascination with how responsive, assistive and selfless people were immediately and eventually after the tragedy. They made us sound quite unique.

My native ego would like to take this to heart. Clearly, many fellow Okies have. In the last 24 hours, it hasn't been the media labeling Oklahomans resilient, it's been Oklahomans themselves. Gov. Mary Fallin: "We're resilient and strong." The city manager of Moore: "Our citizens are resilient." Moore native and country singer Toby Keith: "We're resilient." The New York Mets' Jeremy Hefner, a longtime resident of Moore: Oklahomans are "resilient and hard-working."

You know better, though. Like my favorite Okie, Woody Guthrie, I believe this spirit at which we marvel in trying times is universally human rather than merely provincial. The people of Newtown, Conn., were selfless and steely in the wake of their school shooting horror. The people of New Orleans were valiant during and after the wind and waves from Hurricane Katrina. The people of New York defined resilience as the dust settled from the 9/11 attacks. If a mass tragedy were visited on Chicago, my fears would be tempered at least somewhat by the fact that, hey, this is Chicago -- one of the few places I've lived with such a potent blend of might and heart.

But, also like Woody, Okies undeniably have gritty resilience deep in our history, in our families, in our bones. The state's first generation persevered and proved that the land -- one of the last patches on the mainland map to be colored in and called American -- could be considerably more than the human dumping ground it originally was assigned to be. Another generation survived the Dust Bowl, facing down black clouds larger and scarier than any tornado, and they emerged to embrace the derogatory nickname Okie as a badge of that very resilience. Git-er-done isn't a punchline in Oklahoma, it's a deeply ingrained work ethic.

You don't have to worry about Oklahoma. But you can sure help. Here's how I'd recommend pitching in from afar:

  • The organization that does most in the aftermath of disasters like this is the American Red Cross. Their shelters, food deliveries, location services -- it's all crucial during these shell-shocked days. Text REDCROSS to 90999 to give $10 to American Red Cross Disaster Relief, donate online or call (800) RED CROSS.
  • DonorsChoose.org has a special online fund to assist the schools in Moore. Proceeds will restock classrooms and help teachers get up and running however they can after the tragedy.

  • One of the niftiest post-disaster programs going is the K-9 Comfort Dogs, a part of the Lutheran Church Charities in northern Illinois. They deploy a bunch of sweet-tempered pups and people to visit shelters, hospitals and other sites in a disaster area where a loving mutt's mute companionship sometimes offers the best medicine and understanding. The dogs are currently on standby and ready to head south as soon as it's safe to travel. Learn more and donate toward their travel costs at lutheranchurchcharities.org.

Every little bit counts and -- to bastardize a word my father loved to use -- I can guaran-damn-tee you any Oklahoman would do the same for you.

2 Comments

Well said, Oklahomans are resilient and we are a proud state. The out pouring of money, necessities, love and just a plain ole helping hand has been something I will never forget. I don't live near the area that was devastated, but it has affected us all that live here and call ourselves an Okie. I think your article was spot on, and I will definitely share it thanks you so much for detailing our pride and honor to live in the GREAT STATE OF OKLAHOMA.

Great piece. Thomas isn't just an excellent music critic but a very sensitive and skilled writer. Just donated to the effort.

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This page contains a single entry by Craig Newman published on May 21, 2013 8:18 PM.

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