Monday, May 07, 2007

Too Close to the Tornado

podcast / mp3 file:

The Medic was not there, although I could feel his presence in my bones, which heated and seemed to boil, even though the early afternoon had suddenly taken on a brisk, chill edge. Wind scoured my face with Panhandle grit. An eerie mustard glow came from underneath the clouds that plowed across the sky from the west.

The parking lot was filled with pickup trucks driven primarily by oil field workers and employees of the nation's second largest slaughterhouse and packing plant. A woman smoking cigarettes with a pink band explained how the company avoided waste. Every last scrap of meat, muscle, hide, bone, and gristle was used -- everything except the tail, she explained.

I felt my stomach heave uncomfortably. Nausea surged anew as I recalled that I was just now recovering from two beastly days of food poisoning. I never quite determined what it was that made me ill, but I suspected it was the fish chimichanga from the Sirloin Stockade buffet where I ate a late lunch at around 4 pm. By that time, the fish chimichanga had been under heat lamps for at least 6 hours.

The packing plant was ten miles away. If you parked near the parking lot, there were no smells. When the wind wafted down from the north, it was enough to make your eyes water.

The feedlot was pungent with an unidentifiable something -- fear and death - at least that is what I viscerally registered, even though it was tempting to say the thought was all too cliché.


Most nights were clear, warm and oddly silent. The short-grass prairie stretched out like dark dreams, inverted. The sound of soft breeze through grass, chirping birds, and coyotes triggered intrusive thoughts.

In the afternoons, scissortail flycatchers perched on telephone lines, eating twice their weight in destructive insects.

For the last three years, I had shadowed the flycatchers. I had perched myself on a line, engaged in a solitary frenzy of work and cross-continent migrations. Not a single animal behaviorist could possibly rationalize my actions, except to say that the quiet rhythms of work were strangely soothing to me. Before my "scissortail years," I was, at least on some level, deeply traumatized by pain, fear, and loss. My response was to fight fear with fear. I masked the fear, even as others saw me as fearless.

I was anything but fearless.

I felt the presence of the Medic in the cold chill. He was the semi-fictional persona I had constructed from a chance encounter. Now, he was a presence that animated my waking dreams and the dark, dreamless hours spent in a room where, when I looked in a mirror, I was unrecognizable to myself.

The Medic floated in on the curl of smoke from the slaughterhouse employees' cigarettes.

From the mustard sky, a wall cloud dropped down. Cloud-shreds tangled themselves in nearby power lines. In the distance, I saw the wall cloud rotate and take on conical dimensions. Before its geometry registered in the limbic system of my brain, before I could have a fight or flight reaction, I watched three funnels form. The middle one achieved a tight, thick tubular shape, and a dark, oval-shaped debris cloud flew up at the base.

The tornado had formed. The F-1 or F-2 twister was not moving toward us, but north, directly on track for the slaughterhouse, toward the grain elevators, and toward the flat, short-grass prairie and the state highways now choked with men in pickups trying to get home, trying to call home although cell circuits were busy and we were on the brink of losing electricity for the remainder of the night and a stretch of early morning.

I felt the Medic leave me and his presence race north toward the slaughterhouse, where his trembling hands would busy themselves trying to revive his gravely injured friends.

I looked down at my own hands, which had begun to tremble in sympathy. I heard the roar of the storm. I longed for the Medic's heat in my bones. The tornado had changed direction and was headed our way.

A lone scissortail still sat on a telephone wire, as though calculating the impact of the storm on one's way of life -- in the flycatcher's case, on the insect population.

Before the tornado hit, its center did not hold, and the twister unraveled like thread, or a fanciful destructive thought, slouching toward the slaughterhouse.