Sunday, April 16, 2006

Nature Blows

Thursday night, as I sat in a windowless room in my basement, listening to a tornado roaring toward my house, what was running through my mind?

Fucking Twister.

That’s right, disaster comes knocking on my door, and my potentially last thought is a hack piece of celluloid Weather Channel porn. But as the roaring of came closer, and the house began to shake, and I heard all kinds of crashing and banging, I played the last scene of the movie in my head, where Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt chain themselves to a pole and look into the interior vortex of a tornado. Except that I was holding the knob of an old wooden door, and if my house lifted off the foundations, I was going to go up up and away into the next county, maybe to have one of those awful, humorously grizzly deaths where I get thrown right through the O of a Hooters sign. (Likewise, this is why the slightest bit of air turbulence also makes me immediately think of Alive. Yes, I have movie-death issues.)

While it is unsettling that my brain turned into the TNT channel during the scariest moment of my life, at least I didn’t pull a Hudson from Aliens and bombard my wife with “game over, man” whining. No, we were way too freaked out to say much of anything for the 20-30 seconds that we heard a sample from the smash hit, “All Hell’s Breaking Loose (Fujita Scale Remix).” I hope I never have to hear the whole CD.

In case you missed it, my little corner of the Big 10 got slammed by 5-7 tornadoes the other night, 150mph F2 monsters that flipped over cars, ripped off roofs, and destroyed a church, a sorority house, and an old-school Dairy Queen (you monsters! What did the Dilly Bars ever do to you?). My fears about my house getting ripped off its foundations were slightly displaced. It was the garage that endured my second worst nightmare starring Helen Hunt (the first being a Mad About You marathon):

Our house, it turned out, held its own with Mother Nature. We have some roof damage and some broken windows, but otherwise our abode is no worse for wear. But the rest of our block looked like a disaster area. Our western neighbor’s garage not only followed ours into the alley, their roof decided to come off and land between our two houses. Meanwhile, about a dozen Big Fucking Trees (trunkus fuckus hugeous) had fallen into the street or on houses. Our friend Grendel snapped some pics of our little avenue, including this doozy:

The missus also has a close-up account and some pics of The Twister and the Damage Done.

After the shell shock of the event and some late-night gawking, the cleanup began, as everything does in Iowa, at daybreak. And I learned quite a bit about...

The Hierarchy of Men in Disaster Areas

Here is a quiz: your neighborhood is hit by a tornado. The street is littered with trees, roofs, smashed cars, and other debris. What would come in the handiest in this situation?

a) A really biting sense of humor
b) An encyclopedic knowledge of the films of Bill Paxton
c) An expert command of an XBox controller
d) A lot of power tools and the skills to use them.

The answer is d. Bonus question: which one of these attributes do I not have? I’ll bet you can guess the answer.

I started out by doing the job that requires only prehensile thumbs and/or a trunk: picking shit up. Almost all the windows had been blown in on our porch, so I helped clear a bit of debris so we could get outside easily. I also did the Property Walk-Around, the disaster area equivalent of the Under the Hood Inspection, when you look under the hood of stalled car as if Keeanu Reeves will suddenly download an Advanced Auto Shop course into your cerebrum.

But soon the Chainsaw Symphony began, the multi-tracked layering of machine-powered saws that sounded like Jackyl’s “The Lumberjack” if it had been produced with Phil Spector’s Wall-of-Sound. For the Sawers of Rohan were descending on our avenue, ready to clear the street of the aforementioned Big Fucking Trees. This was where I first encountered the Hierarchy of Men in Disaster Areas:

  • Power Tool Wielders (chainsaws in this case)
  • Hand Tool Brandishers (axes and one “why the fuck do you have a” machete guy)
  • Empty-Handed Laborers (me, and also a number of teenage boys and girls)

The Power Tool Wielders (PTWs) sliced and diced the big parts of the Big Fucking Trees. The Hand Tool Brandishers (HTBs) chopped smaller branches into stackable chunks. The Empty-Handed Laborers (EHLs) picked up the chunks and stacked them. This group included some very helpful teenage girls, who were outside of the hierarchy because they were focused on helping and not how their penises compared to the other men.

As with any caste, there are subcastes, and among the EHLs, we had this grouping:

  • Giant Log Rollers
  • Large Trunk Haulers
  • Medium Branch Handlers
  • Small Twig Pickers

I began as a Medium Branch Handler. The PTWs and HTBs cut up part of a tree that fell between my house and my eastern neighbor’s, and I gathered branches and stacked them by the curb. I felt sort of defeated, as if I should be doing more, but I shut that out of my mind and focused on being the best Medium Branch Handler I could be. Well, my hard work paid off. Soon the PTWs were ready to cut larger parts of the fallen tree, and even the HTBs had to put down the axes/machete and join us EHLs. I seized the opportunity to grab the large trunks and haul them to the curb. I may have permanently destroyed my back, but advancement isn’t free, and I was happy to rise to Large Trunk Handler status.

With my tree done, we turned to the Big Fucking Trees blocking the street. The largest, the Really Big Fucking Tree crushing the station wagon pictured above, thwarted even the standard PTWs. Their chainsaws were not big enough. That prompted one of them to say, “let me get my bigger chainsaw.”

Several of us stood in awe. That was a man, a guy with a chainsaw for every occasion. A Mega Power Tool Wielder (MPTW). He returned and began slicing up the Really Big Fucking Tree. Again, I leapt at a chance to better myself and joined the Giant Log Rollers, pushing huge pieces of lumber out of the street and onto the curb. I was still an EHL, but I had graduated to the top of my caste, and in only one day.

On Saturday, with the street clear of the Big Fucking Trees, we turned to the alley. My western neighbor’s garage had blown into the alley and was blocking traffic. One MPTW, who was a construction contractor with three saws on him, guided an HTB and myself as we ripped apart the destroyed garage and removed it from the alley. The HTB had a sledgehammer to smash larger bits of the garage, and I, now proud of my EHL status, sang as I removed debris from the alley to piles on the side.

There was still the problem of my garage, though. It had blown onto its side, leaning precariously against my eastern neighbor’s garage. It was too large and heavy for even the MPTW. It required the next level of the Hierarchy: the Construction Equipment Owner (CEOs). In this case, it was a man who informed us he had his own Bobcat, a mini tractor/bulldozer that’s powerful enough to crush a terminator (the Arnold T800 model, not the liquid metal T1000 model, which could slip away). The CEO offered to not only push our garage into a more orderly pile, but to remove, single-handedly, the roof rubble on the side of our house. In about 15 minutes, all rubble had been confined to a pair of hot spots in the back, allowing the rest of the yard to return to its safer (albeit much muddier and torn up) Green Zone status.

By Saturday afternoon, about 40 hours after the lights went out, the Fully Authorized Officials (FAOs) had repaired our power. At this point, I was relieved of my EHL duties, as the remaining work required FAOs and Fully Licensed Contractors (FLCs). The flow of electric current in the house soothed me and helped me return to my natural 21st Century Useless Layabout status. But I learned a lot from the experience of working with the Hierarchy. And God help me, if there is a next time, I’m going to make sure I at least have a motherfucking machete.

Epilogue: On Global Warming

With her tongue very firmly in cheek, our friend SER noted: “I heard today that this was the first tornado ever to hit Iowa City itself. I blame George W. Bush.”

Of course, none of us really do. Tornadoes are a way of life in the Midwest, and I’ve ducked into many a basement in my life as the sirens sounded. This was just the first time that doing so was a necessity and not a precaution.

But here’s the other thing that’s been going through my mind: we are Mother Nature’s bitch. For all our advanced technology and science and Google Bombs and Stealth Bombers, the best solution we have for dealing with a tornado is to run and hide in the lowest hole you can find. And for hurricanes, the solution is to flee somewhere else.

Not to make this too political, but it would seem to me that it’s a good idea to at least be cautious about tweaking Mother Nature in the nose. And to definitely not slap nature in the face with a Spotted Owl that’s impaled on the antenna of a Hummer that’s burning a mixture of coal, asbestos, and old tires for fuel. Lord knows I’m not going to doubt her power ever again.


Anonymous said...

Wow Brando and Mrs. Brando -- I'm really glad you're ok. Craziness! The tornado AND the fact that you were able to graduate to the top of your caste in just one day. Awesome.

Seriously -- glad you're alright. Never been in a tornado, just some bad storms and that was crazy enough.

Anonymous said...

Ditto on what Blue Girl said.

And I think knowing how to play a mean game on XBox can assist in these times. Think about the skills you learn in Frogger. They can prove very handy in moments like these.

Pinko Punko said...

I can't believe the pimp wagon took a direct hit!

I'm glad you guys are intact though.

I cannot live in the Midwest.

Of course once the earthquake hits here I won't ve able to do that either.

Crazy stuff. very surreal.

Brando said...

Thanks for all the good wishes. It was a hell of an experience. I've done the tornado and the earthquake, now I just need a hurricane for the hat trick.

Pete Blackwell said...

I hear ya. Your nightmare is mine 10 hours later (tho Bloomington got little more than hail and high water). Glad you're ok.

PS I don't have a basement....

teh l4m3 said...

That's terrifying. But you're still alive (whew).

Anyway, wouldn't it be awesome if your neighbors replaced their car with yet another station wagon with vintage faux wood paneling?

Anonymous said...

Glad you're alright. FWIW, the hurricanes aren't a lot of fun either.

You should invest in a set of loppers and a bow saw. Neither are power tools, so you don't have to worry about learning how to operate them, and you automatically move up to the next level.

But I am impressed that you had a long post about a tornado and there were no references to the Wizard of Oz, even with teh here!

Grendel said...

If only you could have hooked up the XBox to that Bobcat, you really would have shown 'em! But middleware like that is years away, I imagine.

Brando said...

teh, I think he's going to make new faux wood paneling out of the real wood that feel on his car. Actually, I felt bad for him -- it was a student and his ride was totalled, and not in the good cereal way.

Grendel, I would have been wicked in that bionic exoskeleton crane thing from Aliens. I'd have cleared the whole block before lunch on Friday.

Chuckles said...

I have a class 2 rating on Power Loaders.

That sounds pretty rad, though.

The Uncanny Canadian said...

Glad you're OK. Two of the postdocs in my lab studied at U of I and one of them went back briefly just before the tornadoes hit. The two houses next to where he stayed were completely totalled, and a friend of his had his car end up in a river. Those twisters were off the hook!