When I was little, our house didn't have a basement, just a rough foundation. For the most part, this was no big deal other than the fact that we didn't always have enough storage space. Besides, all I knew of basements was that they were dark and musty and usually full of foul spiders who would surely attack me if I lingered too long.
The only times I longed desperately for a basement were the nights when we might have a tornado.
I grew up in Northern Pennsylvania. We didn't have tornadoes. They were a wonder mentioned on the world news reports or used as fodder for disaster movies. As far as I was concerned, I never had cause to worry about a tornado. Well, for a while, anyway.
One summer night, we had some strong wind storms come through. Our house shook and rattled, and my siblings and I thought it was great! We turned off the lights and played spooky games with the flashlight. In the midst of our fun, there was a loud roaring noise. Cool! The wind was really adding to the atmosphere of our games!
An hour later, my dad was down at my uncle's house (about 300 yards downhill from our own). One of his trees had been uprooted. This wasn't just any tree, mind you. My uncle had three trees in a row, three giant pine trees. Each was easily forty feet tall. The trunks, at the base, were about six feet in diameter. I used to crawl under the lowest branches and use the trees as tents; I could walk upright under the tree's weighty boughs because there was so much clearance.
The center tree had been completely uprooted. A circle of dirt that was twenty feet across was all that remained once they hauled the tree away. My dad called it a "cyclone" but to my ears that simply meant "tornado."
That summer was very stormy, and a couple weeks later another wicked storm blew through. Through a living room window, I watched the clouds roll across the pasture, and my mom peered over my shoulder.
"Look at how green the sky is," she said. Indeed, it did have a yellowish-green cast to it. "That's a tornado sky. If we ever have a tornado, you have to get your brother and sister and run down to your uncle's basement." She patted me on the shoulder and walked back out to the kitchen to prepare dinner.
My mom didn't know it, but she terrified me that night. I spent the entire evening at that window, watching the clouds and listening for a telling freight train roar.
Ever since then, I've had the occasional nightmare about tornadoes. In my dreams, I can never get everyone down to my uncle's basement in time. And even now, when the summer storms hit, when thunder quakes the house and lightning streaks across the sky, I watch to see if the atmosphere has turned to that ugly, greenish hue.