In A Potato Cellar: Beneath the Sign of a Ropey Tornado

Spring may be the season of daffodils and birdsong, but a shift in the jet stream also lifts a curtain on the annual drama of tornadoes.  We once sat enthralled while listening in disbelief to the nonchalance of friends in a Tulsa, OK suburb who described the ravages of a storm that passed within hailing distance of their house.  They took us on a tour of their safe room, an iron keep bolted to the concrete floor of a garage.  The husband was a sometime broker of these grim devices sought by dwellers of the open country.  One might whisper a prayer that prospective occupants had laid in a generous supply of licorice Nibs and strong beverage against whatever calamity awaited.  As we took leave that day, we couldn’t help but note that there was hardly a green tree of any consequence for as far as they eye could see.  All felled no doubt, by passing twisters.   

The humble potato cellar marks many family farms across
the prairie states of North America.  Useful for the storing
of root crops, but also of milk, butter and cream in the days
before refrigeration, the cellar was required for survival in
‘tornado alley’.  Modern times have dubbed such refuges 
as ‘God-forbid-rooms’. photo credit: samandme blogspot

Our first of the season here in North Carolina sent us crouching to the confines of a family basement one evening this week where some claymation laughs, an irregular strawberry and ice cream dessert, together with the family dog kept us distracted until the sirens calmed down and we could emerge from our burrow.

And we heard a story about just such a moment on the open plains of Oklahoma.  The story came first from a gentleman in a YMCA changing room in north Atlanta.  The ambience was banging locker doors and sweaty patrons come from the steam room.  The story placed the man, in his youth, on a family farm in southeast Oklahoma during summer holidays.  One day, the clouds lowered in a swirl of menacing gray, a ropey funnel appeared, dropping to the ground while sirens wailed. 

As laundry snapped in the wind, the grandparents gathered the children directing them to the potato cellar across the farmyard.  As dust and debris overtook the farmhouse, the cellar hatch was pulled shut and candles lit.  Their eyes now adjusting to the dimness, the children could just make out in the shadows a prairie rattler coiled in a corner.  The grandfather reached ever so slowly for a shotgun cradled by the door, dropped a shell into the chamber, then raising the weapon to shoulder sent a volley of fire and smoke across the cellar.  For a moment the spring monster roaring overhead was blotted out by thunder under ground.  When the clamor subsided, they could see the rattler had been dispatched, and the tornado had passed over, drawing away across the adjoining fields.

For a moment, the YMCA locker room fell silent, as the gentleman seemed to be listening for the dying rumble of a long-ago storm.  Then he said, ‘And I know all this was real.  I walked away with a souvenir of that day: my T-shirt was splattered with the remains of that luckless snake.’

The story came to signify for me a retelling of the Greek myth about navigating between Scylla (a many-headed monster) and Charybdis (a ghastly whirlpool), now captured in the idiom, ‘between the devil and the deep blue sea’, or ‘between a rock and a hard place’.  

On the plains of Oklahoma the human dilemma came down to this: a serpent or the storm.   


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