The Tornado of ’86: On the Making of Men & Memories

The tornado of ’86 sliced through Lynn, Indiana, like a drunken surgeon with a reciprocal saw. Lynn is a small farm town nobody has ever heard of, except for casket manufacturers and the most inquisitive admirers of Jim Jones. My memory of this event, I am told, is misguided, but sometimes there is more truth to be found in a misguided memory of the past than all those photographic surface memories of its lies. Such is the making of many myths, and the memory of the men who wrestled with God is always truer than the world of men who can’t see him for the surface.

I was in our candlelit basement with the women, my sister and mother, while my brother and father were “out there,” where the world had turned a glowing green with ashy edges, as the firmament began tearing in pulses from top to bottom, side to side. How my brother and father fit into that shaking frame was left to my imagination. I was four. 

The images I formed in my mind that day have crystallized in my memory, as real-life memories, solid as my basement’s cinderblock walls. Four year-olds still live seamlessly between the walls that delineate the world “out there” and in the world of the mind that fills in the blanks. I was too young to be afraid of the severity of the moment. Men were still immortal in those days. All I knew is that the world had turned on itself in a cosmic civil war and my father and brother were in the thick of the battle. It’s from that world two images were erected.  

One is of my brother or, more precisely, my “big brother.” Whatever else that had meant hitherto, that day and henceforth it meant he was more like my father than my brother, or at least more like a man in my eyes than the eight year-old boy he was in his father’s eyes. He had bonded himself to manhood the way soldiers bond in battle. I imagined him—I remember him—shoulder to shoulder with my father, facing the wind, as debris and dust pelted their faces and necks, while the flailing arms of the wind tossed around limbs and boats from every direction. (For the record, they did report seeing a boat fly across the sky in at least one direction.) They forged forward, unwavering through the gauntlet of hell, and finally arrived triumphant at home, where men stand guard for the women and children. It was my brother’s great initiation. 

Strangely, however, I also remember an altogether conflicting account, and I think I have always maintained both accounts without conflict, necessary to balance my image of a father. It is of the two of them confronted by the same opposition. I see my father wrapping his firstborn son up in his arms, shielding him in a light blue wind-torn blanket from the misshapen bullets firing from all directions. My father, unflinching, absorbed all that the wind hurled their way. When they arrive at the door, my brother is unchanged, still soft and supple and eight years old, but my father’s body is worn and marked like a leather strop, his face like flint. The world is still at war, but we are all now safe at home. That is the image of my father I choose to remember, the image I need to believe.

Ever since that day, I have longed for the storm to come again, to be initiated—I have longed to go to battle with my father.  

I can tell by the way the trees beat, after
so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes
that a storm is coming,
and I hear the far-off fields say things
I can’t bear without a friend,
I can’t love without a sister.

The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on 
across the woods and across time,
and the world looks as if it had no age:
the landscape, like a line in the psalm book, 
is seriousness and weight and eternity.

What we choose to fight is so tiny! 
What fights with us is so great. 
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm, 
we would become strong too, and not need names.

When we win it’s with small things, 
and the triumph itself makes us small. 
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us. 
I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when the wrestlers’ sinews 
grew long like metal strings, 
he felt them under his fingers 
like chords of deep music.

Whoever was beaten by this Angel 
(who often simply declined the fight) 
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand, 
that kneaded him as if to change his shape. 
Winning does not tempt that man. 
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively, 
by constantly greater beings.

The Man Watching” by Rainer Maria Rilke

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