A couple of decades ago, an editor at one of my newspapers called and said, “Robert, we need to work on your opening sentences and your opening paragraphs.” I think what he was really wanting to say was, “Robert, we need to work on all of your writing from the opening sentence to the closing paragraph.” But he decided that, since I had never taken a journalism or writing class outside of English Comp my freshman year, he would work with me in stages.
He said, “Never start an opening sentence with the word ‘I.’” Apparently, I was doing a lot of that, and— even today, after 20 years, over 1,000 columns, and over 1,100,000 published words— I still catch myself wanting to open a column with the word, “I.”
Typically, I would start today’s column off with a line such as, “It seemed to be a day like any other day.” But yesterday was not a day like any other day. Yesterday was a day of extremes. It was up and down. It was the opposite of the old English proverb about March. Yesterday came in like a lamb and went out like a lion. The day started with my wife and me having an early morning visit on our front porch. It’s a place where we have spent a lot of time lately, though mostly in the late afternoons.
Yesterday morning, it was just the two of us— she with her coffee, and I with my iced tea. It was a perfect moment. The air was cool, the birds were chirping, and the neighborhood was still. Granted, an hour later, we had a minor blow-up in the kitchen, which was probably 90% my fault. There are brief and occasional flashes around here when one or more members of the family seem to be teetering on some emotional edge-of-the-cliff moment where— one, or all of us— are hanging on by our toenails over the precipice of a raging case of cabin fever. Yesterday morning I might have been hanging on by my pinky toe for a minute there. Luckily those moments are fleeting, and the outbursts are short-lived.
The four of us ate a nice breakfast together as a family, and then spent most of the late morning and afternoon on a movie-watching binge that was three movies deep. It was a nice bit of togetherness in which the only dissent in the ranks was about what the third movie of the day would be. I voted for a Scorsese flick and was readily shot down by the two female members of the family. My son bailed after the second flick, and I lost out.
As the third movie ended, the emergency alerts began ringing on everyone’s phone. There was a tornado on the ground 30 miles away, and it was headed straight for us. We had seen that particular movie play out before, and it’s not pretty. As a matter of fact, just a week earlier the widest tornado in Mississippi history (and the third-largest in American history) left a swath of destruction, two-miles wide, 20 miles north of us. Just a few short years ago, an F-5 tornado blew through town exactly between my house and our restaurants. We weren’t going to take any chances this time.
We were told by the local news that we were in the direct path of the tornado. There was also golf-ball-sized hail to deal with along with flash-flood rains which were accumulating as much as three to four inches in an hour.
Our home has withstood several events such as this, but there are no interior rooms, and I’ve never purchased a storm shelter. The safest place I know of is a mile away at one of our concepts, Ed’s Burger Joint. We grabbed the dog and I instructed everyone to take their own car, feeling that cars would probably have a better shot in an open parking lot instead of under the trees at our house. I closed the door with a slight understanding that there was a slender chance that we might come home to an entirely different place if there was a place at all.
The beauty of Ed’s Burger Joint in such a situation is that it’s a former bank. I cursed that fact during the design-build phase of the project, mainly because there was a large vault in the middle of the floorplan, with 18-inch thick walls that could not be moved. In this moment, I was feeling very grateful for the vault. I could see the rain silhouetted against the lights of the parking lot and it was coming down in horizontal sheets. As I exited my truck, Donut the dog refused to leave her safe and dry seat, so I stood in the rain for a few seconds trying to drag her out of the truck. I finally had to go back into the cab and drag her from her seat. We were both soaked within a matter of seconds.
We figured we were only minutes away from losing power, and I was hoping that the roof could withstand the oncoming hail. Suddenly, I worried that vehicles under trees back home might have actually been a better option as they would serve as an umbrella from the hailstorm.
The city was still. No one was on the roads at 7:25 p.m. Even with the light traffic that the COVID-19 shut-down brings, this was eerily quiet. Once we turned the lights inside of the restaurant, I noticed a gentleman who appeared to be homeless hovered under the deck seeking shelter. I brought him in, my son fixed him a soft drink, and we all sat watched the weather alerts from the local news channel. This was sheltering in place on steroids. We were prepared to hunker down in the bank vault which is now the dry storage and the small restaurant office.
When it looked like the tornado was going to pass south of us we noticed the back hallway in the restaurant was flooding. Water was pouring in. It was probably two-inches deep and getting higher every minute. The water was so high in the parking lot the rain was flowing under the door from the elevated back dock. In a moment of quick thinking and on-the-spot clarity, I made makeshift sandbags using 30-pound bags of sugar wrapped inside of garbage bags, and that did the trick.
We were lucky. Our immediate area was lucky. Some in nearby towns were not so fortunate. Extra Table, a charity I am affiliated with is currently helping feed victims of these recent tornadoes and helping to also feed the relief workers who are helping in this time of crisis. If you’d like to help, go to extratable.org .
Our battle changes daily. But we are doing our best to live in the solution and not to focus on the immediate problems. If we keep the solutions in the front windshield, the problems will shift to the rearview mirror in time. We must endure. We must help our neighbors in need.