Monday, March 5, 2012

A Daydream Believer in Tornado Alley

The wind has blown hard here this past week, with gusts of up to 50 miles per hour. We were lucky that the closest of last week's tornadoes touched down about 40 miles southeast of us, but so sad for the people who lost their lives or homes. Living in the Midwest for nearly my entire life, I can tell you a thing or two about wind and tornadoes. I can tell you I'm thankful this area is lush with farmland crops and tall grass for if it were desert, we would be living like prairie dogs and building our homes out of dirt.

As reports continued to come in of areas that were hit by tornadoes across the Midwest and a climbing death toll, the news of 60's TV and music icon Davy Jones, who died of a heart attack at age 66, was added to the growing list of lives taken away too soon.

Davy Jones of the Monkees was the heart throb of every young girl in the mid to late 60's and the Monkees were a hit TV series about four funny guys, trying to make it onto the Rock 'n Roll scene. Even though the TV series only lasted two short seasons, it left many of my generation singing song's like, "Daydream Believer" and "I'm not your Stepping Stone", for years to come. I even had a Monkees record, "The Last Train to Clarksville", that had been cut off of the back of an Alpha-Bit's cereal box. Of course after it had been played redundantly for a week or so, the needle had dug a deep groove into the cardboard and instead of Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork and Michael Nesmith's clear, high pitched back-up vocals singing, "Oh No- No- No...", mine now played a slow and garbled, "Ohhhh... Noooo... Noooo... Noooo...".

Eventually the small cardboard record became useless, was thrown away and forgotten by me until now. Because now, in between the tornado warnings, I  hear remnants of the familiar Monkees tunes being played in tribute. It's strange how some memories can be triggered due to tragedy, and even stranger that memories of a particular time in my life seem to be intertwined with the events going on now.

On June 9th of 1967 the Monkees appeared at the Hollywood Bowl to begin their first tour and on that same day an F2 tornado tore through our town, removing roofs off of houses and uprooting trees everywhere. One person died and many were injured. I can remember almost every detail as if it had happened yesterday.

I was just about to turn nine years old and was hoping to have a birthday wish fulfilled. My dream of having a real pony was the one dream I wished would come true.  As I played in the front yard, pretending to ride my new pony, I heard my grandma calling from her front porch.

"Get in here before the Twister comes and kills us all!", she hollered.

Our little stucco house was just two houses down and across the street from my grandparents home and when ever the weather looked bad, my grandma would pace on her front porch. I don't like to call my grandma a worry-wort, because she had seen a lifetime of tragic events and never hesitated to remind us of each and every one, but it seemed like just another day in the Midwest when the weatherman claimed "conditions favorable for tornadic activity", which was an almost every day occurrence from March to September.

But this particular time my grandma was right and before I knew it my family was being shuffled into my grandparents basement and mama was trying to keep us kids away from the small windows even though she continued to peer out at the rain that was suddenly falling.

Grandma stood at the top of the stairs, hollering and pleading to my grandpa, who was still watching from the front porch, "Stop being an old fool and get in here!" she scowled at him. Soon my grandpa joined us and with-in seconds the scene outside the windows went completely dark, the howling wind became a freight train that shook the house and the basement lights flickered and then went out.

What seemed to last for a long time, actually was over with-in a few short minutes. Grandpa looked out one of the small basement windows before heading back upstairs, much to grandma's disapproval, then I shot past grandma who was now standing guard again at the top of the stairs. I ignored her warning cries for me to come back. My grandpa opened the front door, only to find the tree in front of the porch had been uprooted, mangled and was now laying on the roof. Grandpa pushed back limbs in order to get outside and when I pushed through to join him, we both stood looking out at what had just a few minutes before, been a neighborhood of neatly manicured lawns, quaint and cared for houses; a neighborhood to be proud of.

The street was covered in tree limbs and a neighbors car was no longer in their driveway but could be seen at the end of the block, on it's side. The yards were littered with broken off trees, pieces of shingles and other debris. Some of the neighbors that had also taken cover, were now coming out to assess the damage. Many were coming together in the middle of the street and some got busy immediately, like my grandpa, removing the limbs and debris from the street and making piles on front lawns. Sirens could be heard in the distance from police and other emergency vehicles. Faces were somber as neighbors discussed the electricity being down and telephone lines as well. Thankfully the tornado had hit during daylight hours and just as quickly as the dark clouds had rolled in, they had now rolled out and the sun was showing itself again.

I discovered a mama bat clinging to a tree branch in Grandpa's front yard. Sadly, the three tiny babies that she must have tried to protect under her small wings, didn't survive. We found something to collect the bat's small, weakened body into and quickly went to look through our primitive form of "Google" known as an encyclopedia, in order to learn how to care for the bat.

I helped grandpa pick up tree limbs, looking for more bats that I could save but before long mama was calling for me to come across the street to our own home. 

Our tall cottonwood trees had lost some limbs and the snapdragons that Kathy had planted along the west side of our little stucco house were completely gone, but as for the roof missing a few shingles, everything else remained Ok.

That night we went to sleep by candle light and sometime the next morning the electricity was restored. In the days to follow, we visited our cousins who lived on the other side of town in a newer housing area. The tornado had lifted the entire roof off of their beautiful new ranch style home and placed it in their backyard as if removing a lid off of a pot. Many of their neighbor's homes were completely devastated and yet there would be a single home in the midst of all the destruction, that was hardly touched. Everyone was sad for the loss of items dear to them but so grateful to be alive.

A few weeks passed by and soon we had decided the small mama bat was strong enough to release back into the world where she belonged. I placed the bat high on the trunk of our largest cottonwood tree, then laid back on the grass at the foot of the tree and watched as the bat slowly climbed the trunk. There was almost no sign of debris left by the tornadoes destructive path. Rebuilding, patching roofs and landscaping was well underway. My ninth birthday had even come and gone and although I had dreamed of a pony, I received a toy Pokey horse minus his pal Gumby. Not the pony I had hoped for but a pony never-the-less. I watched until the bat, now almost too high in the tree to see, flapped her wings and flew away. 

Then the months passed and soon an entire year had gone by. There had been other tornado warnings but none that touched down near our town. The Monkees were now ending their second TV season and I often woke up in the morning hearing my mama belting out the chorus, "Cheer up sleepy Jean, Oh what can it mean to a Daydream Believer..." only she would alter the lyrics by changing Cheer with Wake and use my name instead of Jean. But that wasn't the tune I woke up to on this hot July, Sunday morning.

"Happy Birthday to you, happy birthday to you! Happy birthday..." my mama was singing to me as I rubbed my eyes and tried to see through a mess of auburn hair covering my face. I stretched and yawned then finally pushed the hair aside to see her smile as she said, "Wake up Susie Q, we have things to do, places to go and people to see." She often called me Suzie Q, an endearment that I rejected. I constantly told her that I preferred "George" but then she would remark, "Ok Georgie Girl", determined to remind me of my gender. Us tomboy's had to have a good, guy nickname and since my best friend's nickname was Sam, I was George.

I sat up in bed and watched as my mama disappeared through the door and into the kitchen now humming the tune of "Hey there Georgie Girl". The mint green walls of my small bedroom were glowing due to the sunshine leaking in between the slightly parted curtains that hung on the north window. It would be another hot one today and at this early in the morning I could already feel the sun burning through the window with nary a breeze or breath of any air to be felt.

The only air conditioning in our little stucco house was the old water cooler in the east living room window. To save on the energy bill, we shut it off at dark and waited until we knew we would be spending a great deal of time at home before we turned it back on.

My mama slept in the living room on a sofa and gave us kids the only two bedrooms; she always put our needs first. I didn't realize or understand her selfless sacrifice until many years later, after becoming a mother myself. As a child I guess we just don't consider these things and I was so happy to finally have my own bedroom since I had shared a room with my younger brother and sister as long as I could remember. The small mint green room had been my older sister Kathy's bedroom, but she had moved out when she turned eighteen earlier that year. 

Kathy had started working as a projectionist at the local movie theater and her boss allowed her to rent a small apartment in back. Sam and I loved to visit Kathy and since Sam was the theater owner's daughter, we spent a lot of time climbing the cat walks behind the stage and watching matinees from the third story balcony that was closed off from the public.

Sam had been my best friend for almost a year and we were inseparable. We both played guitar and harmonized, singing the song Kumbaya once for our grade school's PTA meeting. We played on the same girls softball team that summer, the Boyd Oilers, started dressing alike, and even had the same short, boy-cut, hair. My mama wasn't any to happy about Sam's dad cutting my hair that spring, not because he almost clipped my ear off in the process, but because she had worked hard to keep my long locks to help give me some aspect of femininity that I sorely lacked.

We spent countless hours together pretending to be cowboys and dressing the part with our blue jean cut-off shorts, bright red bandanna's and cowboy hats. We would fold up blankets to make saddles and drape them over the railing of Sam's front porch then tie a belt in the front for the reins. Together we would ride our "porch rail ponies" across a make believe prairie.

I was hoping that we could take Sam with us to Leonard's farm, but it was Sunday and we were leaving right after church. Leonard was a wonderful man who had been dating my mama for almost two years. I had introduced him to my mama at my school carnival after she had told me she would only remarry if she met a "tall, dark and handsome" man. When I saw Leonard at the ticket booth, I thought he fit her description perfectly. He was tall compared to my mama who only stood about 5 foot and his skin was very dark due to his farmers tan and as for handsome, I thought he was handsome so after he answered no to my query as to whether he was married, I grabbed his hand and quickly led him to my very embarrassed mama, telling her, "Mama, I found you a man that's tall, dark and handsome!". The rest was history.

Leonard owned a farm near a tiny town about a half hour south of ours. He had cows and sheep and rabbits. He was part of the reason I dreamed of having a pony someday. I loved to visit the farm and couldn't wait to see Leonard either.

The inside of Betsy Lou 2, our two-tone aqua and white '58 Chevy Delray, was really hot and the bottoms of my legs were blistering as I tried to slide quickly across the vinyl seat to the opposite side. My little brother and sister climbed in after me and mama tried to place a small blanket underneath as they bounced around like Mexican jumping beans.

We stopped at the theater to pick up Kathy who always sat in the co-pilot's seat and mama, of course, was the pilot. I often pretended we were actually in an airplane and on our way to some magical land, places I had only heard about in books or movies. I loved to look out of the Chevy's big back window, bending my head as far back as it could go until I see nothing but the sky. "I'll be travelling up there with you someday, I just know it!", I told a group of puffy clouds that passed by. I dreamed of flying to Holland and picking tulips for my grandma. I dreamed of windmills and wooden shoes and visiting Sweden too, that's where my grandma's parents had come from. I hoped to fly all over the world someday. I also dreamed of going to Disneyland and seeing all the wonders I had only seen through my View-Master and Disney photo reels- a Christmas present from my cousin who lived in California. Dreams of so many places to see by a small town girl who just turned ten.

As we drove into the dusty dirt driveway and rounded the side of Leonard's old farm house, I noticed an unfamiliar pick-up truck with a small horse trailer in tow. I knew it wasn't Leonard's, so I surmised that Leonard had a visitor. The Chevy stopped and almost before the brake was locked, my little brother Danny had flown open the back door and was already running circles in the dirt. My little sister Jill was right behind him and I quickly slipped out of the hot seat too, thankful for the shade of the trees and a very slight country breeze.

Leonard was talking to a scruffy-looking old man who walked to the back of the trailer, opened the door and led out the most beautiful pony I had ever seen. She was the color of ginger root and covered all over in tiny silver specks. In the sunlight, her coat was very slick and shiny, her mane and tail a lovely flowing silvery flax. I watched eagerly hoping what I had no right to hope for. "Is she mine?" I thought, but feeling the unlikeliness of the situation and remembering last years gift of a toy Pokey horse, "No, I'm sure there's another reason." I decided to myself.

"Hey Suzie Q, come see what you think of this here horse!", Leonard motioned me to join him and my sister Kathy, who was now holding the pony's reins. The old man was getting into his truck and starting it up. "Think this one will do?" Leonard asked with a big grin. I had learned to love that grin these past two years and had hoped it would be added permanently to my daily routine someday soon, just like my mama's morning wake-up songs. I didn't even mind, for some reason, when he called me Suzie Q.

"Th-th- th- ho-hor-rse!" I stuttered. "Is she ma-mine?" I stammered.

"Happy birthday, Suzy Q!" Leonard proclaimed, still grinning from ear to ear. "Of course if you don't like her...", I didn't give him another second to finish before squealing like a stuck pig and running to hug the neck of the pony, the beautiful pony I had been dreaming of for years.

On my last birthday, the first one since my mama and Leonard had started dating, besides the toy Pokey horse, I had also received a guitar. Leonard had gone shopping in the big city with my mama and helped share the cost, but the pony was all from him. I wanted so badly to hug his neck tight and tell him how much I loved him and I wanted the word Daddy to be a part of that, but something inside of me held back. Instead I shot him a more than grateful look and asked if I could ride her.

"What are you gonna name her?" Kathy asked.

"I don't know, maybe Queenie like mama's old pony!" I said excitedly as I patted the pony's neck in sheer disbelief, thinking this was just a dream and I would wake up any second.

I studied Kathy's face as she pondered the name Queenie. Her eyes traveled to the back of the pony where I was struggling to climb on. "No, this pony needs her own name. We need to give it more thought." she said as she helped me onto the pony's back.

At first I just rode as Kathy led her around the farm yard a while and finally I was able to take the reins myself and gently steer her up and down the drive. By the end of the afternoon I was riding like a pro and when mama came out to call me in for supper, I said, "Look mama, I'm Patsy Montana!", and then I started singing while pretending to strum an invisible guitar, "I Want to be a Cowboy's Sweetheart...".

Mama laughed and then agreed that I was definitely Patsy Montana before telling me again to park the pony and come in to eat. My mama had played the part of Patsy Montana in a remake of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show when she was just a young girl about my age. She could yodel and play the guitar while singing and we loved listening to her. I tried to yodel like her but never could get it right.

Supper was fine and I was anxious to taste the delicious birthday cake but first Kathy surprised me with one more wonderful present, a very small and very beautifully wrapped box.

"I hope you are mature enough to understand the value in this gift." she warned as I began to slowly pull off the bow and unwrap the beautiful paper. I opened the small box and there inside was a ring. It was gold and had a small red stone in the center. It was beautiful as it sparkled in the light. As I slipped it on my finger she continued to tell me about the importance of the gem. "It's your birthstone, ruby, for the month of July. I know it's a little big but that's so you'll grow into it.".

It was pretty loose on my biggest middle finger but I loved it and felt like I must have done something really good to deserve such a wonderful birthday. First the pony of my dreams and now a real ring! The only ring I had ever had til now, had come from a penny gum machine.

We headed back into town right after supper; mama didn't want to drive after dark. I had said goodbye to my pony and wondered what I would name her. I couldn't wait til the next weekend when we could come back. I stared at the ruby ring on my finger and thought about my dreams that were coming true. I barely heard the conversation between my mama and sister in the front seat and hardly noticed the fight that was ensuing on the seat beside me between my little brother and sister over a pillow. Again my eyes were turning towards the skies where a thick cloud was creeping near. I wondered if on my next birthday more dreams would come true, if Leonard would be my tall, dark and handsome daddy, if I would be flying to the land of windmills and wooden shoes, but just as I began listening to my sister singing, "I'm a Believer", along with the car radio, an announcer interrupts with a warning that conditions are favorable for a tornado and mama says, "Here we go again!".

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