January 6, 1997

I’m sitting here in the hall with my other best friend.
Boots’ Mama came and took him home as if their wooden house
beside the Kerr-Magee plant on the outskirts of town can protect them from a tornado better than this big brick elementary school and these cold blue concrete blocks pressing into the small of my back.

It’s dark outside, night in the middle of the day.
Black like this hall where we sit waiting.
Black like Mr. Kelly, our 6th grade teacher, in the office with the principal hunched over the Bearcat listening for the next sighting.
Black like Mr. Reese who comes with his autoharp every Wednesday to teach us songs like
“I got a mule and her name is Sal, 15 miles on the Erie Canal. She’s a good ol’ worker and a good ol’ pal, 15 miles on the Erie Canal.”
Somehow, the thought of a big strong mule named Sal is strangely comforting to me as I crouch here, my head shoved between my knees every time the wind roars through the wide-open windows and the blocks behind me shudder with another clap of thunder.

With Mrs.Wilson as a witness, Tommy and I have drawn up Wills on sheets of paper torn from our Spelling notebooks. Each of us has bequeathed to the other all of our earthly possessions. I find myself hoping Tommy doesn’t survive because he has a lot more toys than I do. Then I hear Mama’s voice inside my head scolding me for thinking such a thing and I wind up saying a prayer to God just to let the tornado miss us.

I close my eyes as the cement floor beneath me trembles with the rising roar of a freight train and the slap of shoes pounding down the hallway as Mr. Kelly and the principal run toward us from the office. I duck my head, put my arm around Tommy’s shoulders, and pretend I’m holding a mule named Sal.

The incident described by the poem above happened when I was in elementary school. The tornado jumped the school and smashed a car dealership down the road. No one was hurt but we easily could have been. Growing up in Mississippi, tornado drills were a part of life. When the real thing came we knew what to do. Open the windows. Run to the hall. Put our heads between our knees. Pray.

I survived, but I would face another twister (with a stupid friend) several years later in high school. He insisted we try to outrun it. Terror makes people do dumb things. Often friendship goes along for the ride. Fortunately we survived. Folks in the trailer park on the edge of town did not.


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