Tornado Warnings. Photo by Dana.

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We Might as Well Eat

It’s become a cliché that there are two kinds of people who live in the state of Alabama: those who listen to Paul Finebaum’s radio show, and those who lie and say they don’t. Depending on the subject, his voice can be troubling, maddening, self-righteous, or even humorous. He mainly talks about SEC football, and now he is simultaneously broadcast throughout the land on the SEC TV network every weekday from 3 to 7 Eastern Time. I listen to him while driving, watch him when I’m home. He isn’t much to look at, but then that’s not what attracts me.

It’s his voice, sharp and resonant, the one I somehow trust even when he disparages Alabama coach Nick Saban, which is, admittedly, rare. For it was his voice, when he still broadcast from Birmingham, that let me know that I wasn’t going to die from the blast of tornados that swept through my hometown in the spring of 2011. I’ll never forget that moment, that sound: “From wherever in the vicinity you can hear me and for whatever comfort or warning this gives you, right now the tornado is passing just north of our downtown studios. I can see outside, and believe me, it’s not something I want to see.”

My hometown is Bessemer, thirteen miles to the southwest of Birmingham, so if Finebaum could now see the tornado, we were safe. At least those of us in my mother’s house and her immediate neighborhood. True, we would have no power for the next four days, but we would be alive when many others weren’t.

Through my relief at hearing Finebaum’s voice, I also realized that we were incredibly lucky.

And incredibly stupid.

On the next day when I learned the exact path the tornado took as it traveled through Tuscaloosa and then just north of downtown Bessemer, I discovered this truth about such massive twisters: They have memories.

On the day before this one hit, one of my childhood friends dropped by to visit my mother and me. I was here only because another old friend was getting remarried and I wanted to witness his joy. So Barry, the friend who dropped by, asked if I wanted to “go for a ride” with him. That was always our euphemism for getting stoned.

It’s funny how fiftyish men still have to hide their dope smoking from their parents.

I had been working on a story about the weekend our Boy Scout troop went camping, back in that six-month period forty years ago when I was a Boy Scout. I could remember everything about that weekend: the barbecued goat we had for supper; the game of Capture the Flag that Barry won for us by cutting our flag in half and hiding the better part; the decision I made to leave with my parents, who had come for the second night jamboree, right after the ceremonies, thus abandoning the rest of the troop and my life as a scout. But in all those memories, I couldn’t remember where on the outskirts of town our campsite was located.

“I can show you exactly where it was,” Barry cried.

As we drove down 15th Street out of Bessemer, past Valley Creek, the Virginia Mines, and toward Concord and the Warrior River, Barry got even more excited.

“Oh yeah! You gotta see this!”

He pulled up at a crossroads, the edge of which began the path of destruction made by a tornado several years earlier. Its swath was almost a football field wide.

“This area still hasn’t recovered,” he said. “I wonder if it ever will.”

I would have been amazed even if I hadn’t been high. I had heard about this storm, but living in South Carolina, things in Alabama seem far removed, swept out of my life. So all I could say was “Shitttt.”

When Barry dropped me back at home, he said, “Be careful tonight. They say we’re liable to get some tornados again.”

“Yeah, I’m gonna stay here with Mom and make sure everything is OK, and then leave the next day.”

“OK,” he said.

We spoke again the next morning after a tornado had passed near his house in South Birmingham.

“A lot of trees are down over here. I heard it coming too. Eerie. But we’re all right. Maybe that’s the worst of it.”

It wasn’t. Now I see—and the fact that I didn’t then still unnerves me—that the worst word you can use when considering impending tornados is “maybe.”

We had lost power even though the tornado passed seven or eight miles to our south. Still, the aboveground power lines are fragile, old, and they’re strung amid towering oaks and pines. That morning, the sun shone brightly through the trees, the humidity broke records, and it felt like we were at the shore at Point Clear.

Which should have told us everything.

My mother and I talked about it, and I decided to stay with her one more day, just to be sure. Every so often, her friend Virginia, who still had power even though she lived just over the hill from us, called her cell phone to give us updates.

“They say the next batch of tornados will come through about noon,” was her first report. The predictions kept changing, though: two, four, and then six o’clock that evening became the updated TOA’s. As each deadline passed, it became easier to believe that the predictions were flawed, that the timetable would be extended forever, out into that time when we would all see that truly nothing was going to happen.

So during our waiting, I napped on my mother’s den sofa, and then we made cold roast beef sandwiches for lunch.

“Everything in this refrigerator is gonna spoil,” my mother kept lamenting.

So I drove out to get some ice and a cooler, but still, you have to make choices: milk or orange juice? Cold cuts, butter, or all the semi-frozen meat?

At three o’clock that afternoon, the sun still shone and we sat sweating inside and outside.

“Is this thing even going to happen?” We both asked.

Virginia called again to report that tornados had been spotted in Meridian, Mississippi, just ninety miles from Tuscaloosa, which was just forty-five miles from us.

“They’re coming.”

And what amazes me now, what scares me and shames me and makes me wonder how a grown man like me ever made it driving around the South, teaching college-aged kids, receiving his own Ph.D., and raising two kids of his own, was that at no point during this day did it occur to me that we should get as far away from this house, this town, this state as possible.

But then why should it have when it also didn’t occur to me to drive us over to Virginia’s where at least we’d be cool and comfortable?

Maybe I discounted any such move because my mother kept saying that if anything happened, she wanted to take care of her home, to make sure no one got in and looted it during the storm or after.

“OK, OK,” I said. “I get it.”

So we stayed.

And I hope I can convince you that neither of us is insane or stupid.

I hope I can convince you that on the next day we knew we had been wrong.

For in about the time it takes to fry an egg, what had been a very balmy sunny late April day turned into that moment in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy and Toto sit alone in Dorothy’s bedroom, staring out a window where nothing can be seen but a strange white darkness and swirling wind.


Days after the next wave of tornados hit, I saw videos and still photos. Though we were as near to the deadliest one as I am right now to my nearest Publix supermarket, I didn’t see the actual twister itself. And so disbelief being as powerful a perspective as any other, even today what happened in the moments I’m about to recount seems unlikely. Unreal.

Upon waking that first morning, after the initial wave of tornados, we learn that at precisely 4:23 a.m. our entire neighborhood lost power. And so my first thoughts are of the past. When I was a child, a power loss meant only one thing: no TV. No way to view my beloved Bugs Bunny or even Tom York’s “Dialing for Dollars.” But I’ve changed dramatically over those fifty years: I look past the TV this day and zero in on the electric drip coffee machine sitting on the kitchen counter. And then to the equally useless electric stove.

For if I don’t die in the night and manage to make it through till morning, when I get there, no way will I suffer a caffeine headache.

“Well, they have a Starbucks out at the Target,” my mother says, so off we trudge in my Element, passing downed trees, eluding fallen and very live power lines. Our normal route, which should take maybe five minutes, turns into fifteen. How inconvenient for my head.

More so, because when we reach the shopping plaza, it too is powerless. Target is running solely on auxiliary power, and the Starbucks people look helpless and lost. I am now one of these people.

“There’s always Wal-Mart,” Mom says.

Wal-Mart is across town, and when we arrive, I’ve never been so glad in my life to see that many people crowding the entrance to this store I loathe. Just inside its doors, there is a Subway, and within that Subway is a station brewing Seattle’s Best. We stand in line for another twenty minutes, and when I order, I ask for two extra-large cups for myself, and a small one for my mother who drinks coffee about as often as tornados pass through our town.

Such is my state of mind on this morning that just barely staving off a headache makes me feel like all will be well; that the day is saved.

That nothing’s gonna whip through us now.

I remind myself now of this particular story, of this relatively calm, sunny morning before the second storm, just to confess my coffee obsession. That’s a normal experience for most: morning coffee. And maybe in the face of uncertainty and natural disaster, the best we can do is remain normal. Seek normal.

Normal regulates us, calms us, provides order for us.

I say this all now because I can. Because nothing bad happened to us in the ensuing hours of that second day.

But it could have, and maybe even should have. A fool and his coffee can be so easily parted, but I relate all of this to you so you’ll understand my sense of order; how badly it’s infected me.

And where I get it.

Yes, we must eat and drink to survive. But if we were truly thinking of survival, we would have made other plans.

We would have thought ahead.

I know that Achilles met his fate precisely as he took what he considered the necessary steps to avoid it. So we could have fled any time that day and who knows? We might have veered into the path of something else: another tornado (for they were sighted all across the state that day), or a particularly harried mom in her minivan, or one of those SDI freight trucks with the fish symbol on its side.

Maybe I tell myself these stories for absolution and to avoid questioning my own common sense. And they do help, but just as I begin feeling better, I remember that we never really discussed driving away. Instead, after our coffee, we drove back to our semi-darkened home and talked and read and slept.

I see us now so clearly in the den of my mother’s modified ranch house, she sitting in her recliner, me stretched out on the couch. Trouble-free. Watching and waiting for what might have been our own death


My father died at the end of 2000. His increasing dementia caused him to sleep through most of his very last Iron Bowl, the yearly gridiron battle between Alabama and Auburn. Auburn shut Alabama out that year, so God does show a little mercy on the afflicted. Gone at this time, too, was Dad’s voice: his “Atta boy’s” when the Tide scored, his “What the hell kind of call was that,” when they were stopped. Even when he awakened for the last few minutes of the game, his only sounds were whimpers, mixed in with the plea, “Where’s you mother?” In a voice formerly so rich and sonorous in its Southern-Jewish inflection, I now heard only its neediness, his fear and confusion.

Of course, Dad missed the greater storm of the following September too, and I’m even more thankful for that. But the scene I’m not thankful for is the one on the day after that game, the day my wife, daughters, and I left for home. It was a raw late November Sunday. The wind blew as if it knew what this leaving really meant. My father stood outside at the bottom of the driveway, vaguely aware of the cold though his nose and ears blistered a deep red. Somehow, even through his diminished ability to understand, he began crying.

He understood that we were leaving.

His ability to string words together almost completely gone, the best he could do was lift his arm in some sign or recognition, of farewell, as we drove off. And in those last moments, it seemed to me that his eyes came back into their own. A month later, I returned in time to see him before he died in the nursing home. He was in a coma then; I could have sat by him the night he passed, but I didn’t. I left him to the care of those who weren’t related to him and spent the night on my mother’s couch until the call came at 3:17.

A couple of years after he died, Mom started keeping company with a very good man named John. A Georgia Tech man—Alabama’s hated enemy back in the 50s before Auburn returned to prominence—who starred on that Tech’s 1951 national championship team. He helped see my mom through her recovery from a heart attack. He takes her any place she wants to go, even to Willie Nelson concerts. It never seemed to me that he usurped my father’s place; that he tried to replace my father at all. He’s good company and he lives just up the street.

But on that tornado night, he was a semi-vulnerable, aging man living all alone in the wake of a storm.

And so, as five o’clock approached on that stormy Wednesday, as the skies turned a shade of black darker than the inside of a backyard snake hole, my mother called John to come watch and wait with us.

The added attraction: at exactly 4:57 p.m., the power returned.

“Oh good,” my mother exclaimed. “Now I can make us some supper.”

So she chopped the remaining roast beef, added some new potatoes, and then let them simmer together. She made rich brown gravy using regular wheat flour—which in another few months I would have refused after learning about my gluten intolerance—and voila! A delicious roast beef hash.

John, then a man of eighty-one and still large as befitting an old offensive lineman, knocked at the door, carrying his portable radio. Our cable TV had been zapped, so we had no source of weather information except for Virginia’s quarterly calls.

“Turn this on Bud,” John said. “We better keep up with things.”

I did, and I have no idea why, but I tuned in to WJOX.

The all-sports Jocks FM.

And there was Finebaum.

It was April and no college football to report on, even had the day been fair.

“What’s he sayin’ Bud,” John asked.

“It’s a bad one, still heading our direction.”

“Oh my.”

My thought at that moment was: how were the three of us going to fit in the narrow hallway in the center of my mother’s house—the place most central and farthest away from any window? How were these two people going to get on their knees, and even if they managed to do so, how would I ever get them back up again? My mother was seventy-eight at the time, suffering from arthritis and osteoporosis. John still weighed 280 if he weighed a pound.

But I shouldn’t have worried, for my mother had other thoughts.

“Come on you two! Supper’s ready, and we might as well eat.”

John took his place at the table next to my mother and began heaping the hash onto his plate. I, however, remained stuck to Finebaum’s voice.

“Come on now Buddy, while it’s hot,” my mother called again.

It felt for a second like I was seven years old, being asked to leave the TV or my army men and come to a meal I really didn’t want.


“You can’t believe the pictures we’re seeing of Tuscaloosa,” I heard Finebaum saying. “It barely missed Bryant-Denny Stadium, but 14th Street looks like a war zone. And it’s still heading right for us.”

I decided not to relay this information. John was helping himself to more hash, and my mother was enjoying the timing of her own creation. I sat with them for a moment and took a bite. We could see each other so clearly with the glare of the kitchen light. But outside, nothing was visible, as if nothing was there at all.

It was 5:45.

Finebaum was reporting now that the National Weather Service said this massive tornado would pass through and exit Bessemer by 6:00.

And so we sat there at my mother’s table, doing what we do. Perhaps what all good Southern families do. Maybe we should have said the blessing before we ate, but that’s not something my family ever did. To start now would be to tempt a fate of another kind.


They say that when a tornado is passing, at first there’s a stillness, a silence before the howls. And so in the stillness and silence of the minutes between 5:45 and 6:00, I heard this:

“John, do you want some more hash?”

“No Josie Ann, but I will have another piece of that bread so I can sop up this gravy.”

I remember this scene now as funny, absurd. But in the moment, strangely, it gave me peace. I thought, “Well, if we’re going, at least at the end we’ll be doing what we loved: eating, or at least stirring our plates.

The rain pounded the windows; the wind cried something other than Mary.

From second to second I thought about how we’d go, or stay.

And then.

“We can see the storm outside to our north. It’s passing through downtown Birmingham now, and we’re getting reports of the destruction in Hueytown and Brighton.”

But not in Bessemer, or at least our part of my hometown.

Finebaum was coming in loud and clear, and I walked back into the kitchen to tell my mother and John.

“I think we’re safe.”

And just after we finished washing the dishes and getting John back in his car, the power, knowing just what it had given and accomplished, went out again.

Our cell phones, however, still had some juice, and so we called relieved neighbors and my wife and daughters back in South Carolina.

“I didn’t realize how much danger y’all were in,” my daughter Pari said.

“Yeah, it was scary,” I admitted. “But you know your grandmother . . . in the midst of it all, she had to serve supper, 5:30 sharp, just as she did for all those years when I was a kid.”

“Well, Granma is a bit OCD.”

“Yeah. She is.”

And maybe OCD is what’s needed during a natural disaster. My mother put out candles, kept flashlights handy, and fed the three of us while so many others languished or were caught unprepared. Or died.

On the next morning, I decided to head back to my home. My mom would be without power for another four days as clean-up procedures methodically put themselves in motion. She didn’t want to leave even then, and maybe I should have stayed with her in this aftermath. I guess it’s all okay now, though at the time, I felt again my own shortcomings. My own selfishness. My refusal to stay until the end.

But before I left, we drove to the nearby Cracker Barrel for breakfast. Was that a funny thing to do? We weren’t alone, of course. It seemed that much of Bessemer joined us there, recounting the storm, the feelings of confusion and helplessness.

We also saw what the storm had done to other parts of town. But what I didn’t know then, and only found out when my friend Barry called me the next day, was that the tornado, with the history of its brethren at its back, found its way down the same path the previous one had taken all those years before. The people in north Hueytown, out toward the Virginia Mines, Concord, and the Warrior River had never really rebuilt their lives. Now, those of them left would have to start all over again. Restoring order to the ordered chaos.

The national news would show the pictures, would tell the world the story.

But what they’d leave out was Paul Finebaum’s voice, my mother’s hash, how I came and went amid the history of all those sights and sounds of what we tried so helplessly to understand. And control.