Sunday, February 23, 2014

“Round and Round She Goes…..”


June 13th, 1986. 4 miles west of Ogallala, Nebraska.

A crappy place to have a rest day.

An average week on the Great Peace March, the rhythm that had been established on the West Coast and would be maintained all the way to Chicago, New York City and then down to Washington, D.C., was for each marcher to walk 4 days, work at their camp job for two, and we all rested for one.

That’s the way it was supposed to happen, at any rate.

What actually happened was that we were delayed almost 3 weeks in Barstow, California, as the original, legal peace march fell apart. This put us considerably behind schedule. Utah helped this situation by unceremoniously busing us across their state and throwing us across their border with Colorado. Fortuitous intolerance. But we were still a week behind schedule and had a big date in Omaha on July 4th. So the schedule was changed and we upped our daily mileage from 18 to anywhere between 20 to 25 miles.

And now we only rested every 10th day. Our last rest day had come in Denver, our reward for making it across the Rockies and the 12,000 foot Continental Divide. But now, 10 days and 214 miles of marching later, we were camped alongside Interstate 80 in the panhandle of Nebraska. Well, the locals called it the panhandle. I, for one, know the shape of the state, and where we were could only be described as the asshole.

Richard and I, Eastern Colorado.
Locals were nowhere to be seen on this date, as we were camped outside of town. Midwest towns seemed to like us that way. But needs were needs and so early in the morning on this rest day, Richard, my tent partner and I had grudgingly hiked the 4 miles into Ogallala with duffle bags of laundry and some quarters. 

And here’s what you need to know about this prairie town of 5,000: At the Laundromat we had to get change for a quarter to use the machines. Wash was 10 cents, driers were a nickel.

While we waited, dressed in our plastic raingear, we read the local newspaper (that we liberated from someone's driveway). Farm news and weather warnings on page 1. Death of Benny Goodman on page 2. Pics of radiation victims from Chernobyl, 7 weeks earlier. The Space Shuttle explosion in January was still being investigated. Buried in the back was the news that the SALT II treaty was finally making progress, thanks to some new guy in the Kremlin with a splotchy forehead.

I remember trying to remember that today was a Friday – for there were no calendars out there on the road, and certainly no workweeks. Everything was either rest day + 2, or rest day – 3. Progress was measured in statelines.

Peace City, outside of Victorville, California.
Back in Peace City we spread the word about the cheap laundry. We could hear the news travel from the gear trucks to the kitchen trailer to the mail bus and all across the 250 brightly colored tents that housed the 500 marchers. We smiled to each other as we laid out on top of our sleeping bags for a well-deserved nap.

And really, there was nothing else to do that day.

The land stretched away from us in all directions. A few buildings of the distant town could be discerned far to the East, and an overpass from the Interstate was visible to the West. Other than that the horizon continued uninterrupted until it curved slightly. It was like being on top of the world - if the world was flat.

Age 20, outside Las Vegas. Remember that this was 1986,
and tube socks and short shorts were all the fashion.
I laid there on my sleeping bag, eyes closed, smelling the clean laundry that was my pillow, and hearing, well, nothing. Not even any insects, which was odd. The afternoon was hot certainly, but tolerable. Clear skies had taken the edge off the humidity, and the air was perfectly still. I slept.

I awoke at twilight to the sound of someone singing. And it was not the melody that woke me, or the words, or even the singer. Indeed, the singer I quickly identified as Biddy, a friend of mine (and soon to be girlfriend). No, what brought me out of sleep was her tone. 

Something deep inside we humans can detect even the slightest trace of panic. And what Biddy was doing was singing very sweetly with the intention of alerting all of us without panicking us, even though she herself was freaked.

Here are the words she was singing as she weaved in and out of the tents:
Across the desert. Photo by Dan Coogan.
         “Don’t know why
         There’s no sun up in the sky
         Tornado warning
         There might be funnels forming
         I hope we all don’t die…..”
        
I looked over at Rich and saw nothing but wide eyes and gaping mouth. We scrambled out of our tent and joined hundreds of other marchers who were standing up and looking around. Something else deep inside me told me that I had the time wrong. Not enough time had elapsed for it to be twilight. 

What time it was I can’t say for certain – we lived in a primitive subculture with no calendars except for distance and no time except for the March leaving in the morning and it’s arrival in the evening. But something was wrong. The light had gone flat as if the sun was coming from everywhere and nowhere. My skin was crawling with tingles and my hairs were starting to stand up.

At the 12,000ft. Loveland Pass, Colorado.
The Continental Divide. "Its all downhill from here."
All of us grubby hippies looked at each other, and then at our own arms, and then we all looked to the horizon. Every horizon, in all directions. “Oh my god.” A woman stated, in a voice as dead as the daylight and as flat as the landscape. We all looked at her and then followed her pointing arm due South, towards Kansas, where a cloud was forming. It was a little cloud, dark, and miles away. 

But something was wrong. Every nerve told me so. I tried desperately to remember if any of us Peace Marchers were from this part of the country. But hey, red states and blue states – nobody came to mind. The only person I could think of was my Mother who was born and raised in this very part of this very state. And I remembered every word she said about tornadoes, and none of them were good.

And then the breeze started.  Not a wind, nothing to be too concerned with in its own right, but a steady breeze, that was heading straight towards that rapidly growing black cloud. ("Why is Nebraska so Windy? Because Kansas SUCKS.") 
"Prom Night" Denver, Colorado. Me and Rebecca
Warren. I'm wearing her Cheryl Tiegs tie.

We all shifted our feet, adjusting for this air current. Whilst doing so, we also glanced around at each other. I looked at my fellow Peace Marchers, all those young, sunburned, hairy faces, and I searched their features for a sign: An application, something to do against this foe which had quickly eaten up one-quarter of the sky. What I saw instead was pity, terror, resignation, and love.

Not a word was spoken. Indeed, the only sound I could hear over the freshening breeze was of someone hammering. But really, what was there to say? The facts were right there on that enormous prairie sky: We were miles from the nearest storm cellar, and even if we had one handy, it certainly wouldn’t have been built for 500 people.

We could run, but where? Which direction? Even me, in my profound suburban naiveté knew that tornadoes were notoriously unpredictable. Drive? Well, the few vehicles of the march were designed mostly to haul our tents and trailers. There certainly wasn’t enough room for everyone, and again, where to go?

4 crates, 2 duffels. This was everything Rich and I had for 9 months.
All this information was flashed from face-to-face-to-face in a moment. Consensus was reached: There was nothing we could do. Our gazes swung back to the black, roiling mass which had now devoured 1/3 of the sky. 

The breeze became a wind. A few stray buckets and the rainfly from a tent were fed to the storm. I watched these items skitter across the landscape and I wondered idly about our own meek possessions. 

And then I made the connection with the hammering sound. I sighed and looked behind me at our tent. And sure enough, there came Richard from behind our tent, on his knees, frantically hammering in our tent stakes deeper.

I called his name. He didn’t hear me over the wind. I called again, louder. He glanced up momentarily, and the look on his face was scarier than the thunderhead now pressing down on us. He went back to work with the hammer, and I called his name a third time, softer. I extended my hand. He looked up.

Rich and I repairing the roof of one of the gear trailers. Pennsylvania.
“Rich”, I said, in a steady voice that held no irony. “It’s a tornado. That isn’t going to help.”

He looked down at the hammer, then over to the tent, past me to the storm cloud, and then his gaze reluctantly returned to me. His look was resignation. 

He sighed, walked over to the front of the tent, unzipped the rainfly, carefully placed the hammer inside, and zipped it back up. And I loved him more in that moment than ever before. Rich came over to me and took my hand and together we watched half the sky being eaten away.

And here’s the thing about tornadoes. The funnel is only a small part of the show, and a late arrival at that. The main business was this angry dragon of a cloud that had swept North across one hundred miles of farmland in just a couple of minutes. And the cloud was dense, dark and impenetrable. No light made it through the compressed air and water vapor that swirled, and stretched and collided with itself. 
Formation Cloud. Photo by Brian Barnes, stormchase.com

We though, had an afternoon sun in the West and this lit up the underside of the storm cloud perfectly. Periodic lightning flashes within the cloud provided further illumination. I saw black certainly, but also purples, dark reds, and even forest greens within that chaotic mass. It was terrifyingly beautiful.

We watched; as the wind blew our long hair past us, towards the monster.
We waited; to see if this storm would indeed touch down.
We measured; the front of the cloud seemed to have stopped just over our heads, and a swirling rain began to fall.
And we wondered, if we were about to die. 
And me, the kid from the suburban malls thought “Hey, it looks just like that last scene from ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’!”

Still photos never capture the awesomeness of a tornado cloud.
Imagine every part of this moving & changing color. Photo by MobyD.
And then a funnel dropped from the sky and reached for the ground. 500 marchers sighed as one. Then another funnel dropped from another part of the cloud, and this surprised me. My tornado knowledge consisted of my Mom’s grim aftermath tales and the ‘Wizard of Oz’.

I had no idea that multiple tornadoes were possible. But there they were, three, four, half-a-dozen spinning vortices, dancing awkwardly beneath the writhing mass of the mother cloud. Small, compared to the overwhelming size of the cloud, but we knew where the business end of this monster was located. And miles away, when one of the funnels touched the ground in a small, silent explosion of wheat and dirt, we all sighed as one again. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it is now officially a tornado.

We weren't anywhere near this close, but this pic is the closest
approximation of what I saw that day. From strangedangers.com
And I watched the dancing funnels and I thought: “I just turned 21 a week ago. I don’t want to die.” My life flashed before my eyes – yes, that really does happen – and it wasn’t a particularly long or interesting show. I had always been a passive kid, a benign adolescent, a go-with-the-flow kinda guy. A middling student, a ‘safe’ boyfriend, a fullback on the soccer team – always the background.

Even this wild and crazy cross-country Peace March: I had only been informed about it because my friends had come to me with the news, knowing that as the sensible, rational member I would talk them out of going on it. Instead here we were, halfway across, and things were not going well at all.

Miles away the funnels danced. Some were pulled back into the cloud, others dropped down. Now and then one would touch the Earth and send up a small, silent, debris cloud of death and destruction. And it was plain that the funnels were getting bigger. Which meant, closer.

Cedar City, Utah. I am playing "Wipeout" on a
long line of Marcher camping gear.
I thought back to my Mom’s tales of sleepless nights spent watching the cellar doors rattle overhead, listening to the tornadoes sweep back and forth. One year their neighbor’s house had been blown to smithereens. She recalled with child-like wonder seeing stalks of wheat sticking out from telephone poles, impaled there by unbelievable wind forces. And she vividly remembered an unlucky cow that she passed on her way to school that had been eviscerated over the course of 1/10th of a mile.

And yet the house next door, the adjoining field, and the other cows were perfectly fine. Such is the capricious nature of the tornado, which has indiscriminately killed more than 5,000 people - the population of Ogallala -  in the last half century alone.

The only sound was the steady wind. Electricity was in the very air around us. The day darkened steadily but the light was still as flat as the prairie. There was no conversation, no singing, no last-minute speeches. Some of us held hands, as Richard and I were, but for the most part all of us just stood and stared at the approaching cloud as it finally passed over us and devoured the very day.

And a strange wave of calm washed over us as well. A ripple of resignation resonated throughout the throng. A collective shrug. And I thought “Ah, THIS is what they mean by Fatalism”. Fatalism is a synonym for relaxation. And Death is placid.

Gotta jump to take a dump in a Gump. Photo by Dan Coogan.
But, I had an errand to do before I went. If I was going to go, as we all eventually will, sooner or later, it would be prudent to go with a clear conscience, no loose ends, and with a sense of accomplishment. This is what they mean by “making peace with your maker”. 

And I found that I was not at peace. I felt that I had not lived, and not just because of my tender age. I was ashamed that I had not taken more initiative, more chances, rebelled more, worked more, played more, loved more. The world only advances when we color outside the lines, and I hadn’t even opened my coloring book yet.

I was wasting my time, which is shameful, because nobody can tell any of us how much time we have left. And that realization was all that I needed. It wasn’t a promise as much as it was a wake-up call.

Sound asleep in a city park, somewhere in Nebraska.
And I felt more than sensed that all of the hands dropped. Because for all the protection and comfort of the Tribe, of the collective, of the tradition, of the family, the Sisters of Fate do NOT play chords on that ghastly loom, but only single notes. Death is a lone wolf in a top hat, and it will come for each of us, alone. I stood my ground, waiting patiently, wanting to finally live - and yet ready to die.

The angry, roiling cloud overwhelmed us, turning all the colors of a roller derby bruise and imploding here and there with internal lightning strikes. Below, the funnels and tornadoes seemed almost delicate as they bobbed and weaved and now and then, killed. The day grew suddenly darker as the sun was eclipsed, the wind began to howl, and the rain washed over us.


Rich, Lisa and me. February, 1986. Cucamonga, Ca.
And the path of the tornadoes came STRAIGHT AT US......

......and then turned West and passed us by. 

We watched the funnels dance away, over by the Interstate overpass. We watched the cloud lessen, and lighten. The rain stopped, the wind died steadily and we all breathed again. We saw the flat light of the Furies turn into a beautiful summer sunset on the golden prairie.

The night was achingly clear, and a kajillion stars joined one hell of a party on the Great Peace March. And the next day we packed up and walked 21 miles down the road to Paxton. In this way we slowly realized that the asshole part of Nebraska starts at the Western border and ends at Omaha.

A week after the twister, on the Summer Solstice, my friends and I were lying around under a truck, having an endless round of “I don’t know – wadda you wanna do?” type conversations. And I suddenly had had Enough. I stood up, adjusted my fanny pack, and announced to my surprised friends: “Well I am off to find something to DO. Who is with me?” And I marched off - made Biddy my girlfriend that night - and I have never looked back.

Rich, Me and Lisa, October, 1986. Battery Park, NYC.
9 months older and a whole lot wiser.
Because time is continuously accelerating but life is short and making peace with your maker is not a surrender. It is a challenge. And it’s not about living each day like it’s going to be your last. That mindset is just an excuse for mindless excess and selfishness. The better term is live your life like you're going to die – because you ARE - and the only question is: What are you gonna DO about it?

Me, I’ve done plenty since that endless day in the butt crack of Nebraska. And I am not done. Not by a long shot. In fact, I never will be. But I know that when my note is struck and I beam away to give my report to the 3 Sisters in the Gypsy Wagon, I will do so with a smile on my lips, a song in my heart, and a jaunty tilt of my top hat.

Biddy and me in Disneyland, 1987.
And that, boys and girls, is the very best time I almost died. (so far!) And it is the story of the best Friday the 13th I ever had.

Angus McMahan
angusmcmahan @gmail.com
@AngusMcMahan

(Cloud photos individually attributed. All other photos from Authors Collection, except the good ones of the Great Peace March - those are from Dan Coogan.)

P.S. For the super-condensed version of this lengthy tale, check out a spot I did for Mutual of Omaha. I blathered on for 10 minutes about the tornado, and they skillfully cut me down to 90 seconds and almost made it make sense. HERE 'TIS.

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