It was in the spring when I was in sixth grade that I developed this weird obsession with tornadoes. Some might call it “morbid”, but I didn’t think about the death and destruction caused by tornadoes, and even though I really wanted to see one I would have preferred that it not cause any damage. Maybe if one could touch down near enough to get us out of math class I’d be okay with that. It was prompted by one of the teachers showing us the same scratchy old film about tornadoes that we’d all been shown since kindergarten because they thought information that was at least a decade old should be reviewed annually, or maybe it was just a chance for the teachers to skip down to the lounge and have a smoke and a drink before math class and films were a good way to keep us occupied which is why I could recite most of The Lorax, but that’s another story. I didn’t think of tornadoes as destructive natural occurrences but rather really, really, really cool natural occurrences. The film we watched made tornadoes seem fascinating, mysterious, and only dangerous in a completely abstract sense, like Donald Sutherland. My Boy Scout handbook also had instructions for dealing with tornadoes if we were out camping that included getting into a low-lying ditch or, if at all possible, moving to the side to get out of the oncoming tornado’s path, and, interestingly, it had the exact same instructions for dealing with Donald Sutherland.
For a while this obsession even had me thinking I might like to be a meteorologist, to study tornadoes to try and figure out what really powered and caused them. All the film really told me was that tornadoes formed when a cold front and a warm front came together, so sometimes I’d stand out on the playground and try to see if I could feel cold air on one side of my body and warm air on the other, the sure sign of a tornado. I was also intrigued by different kinds of tornadoes including water spouts—tornadoes that form over water—and especially dust devils, which are like miniature tornadoes, but not as intense. Dust devils became a spin-off obsession because while I knew it would be dangerous to get close to a bona fide tornado I thought a dust devil would be safer, that I could get up close and personal with it and study it closely.
And one day while I was out walking around in the vacant lots near my house I thought I saw one. It didn’t last long enough for me to get close but I saw a few scattered leaves rise up, move in a circular formation, then drift back to the ground. I was so excited the next day at school I told my friends who mostly didn’t care but quietly feigned interest, probably in the hopes that if they went along with it I’d shut up about tornadoes. They all agreed that, yes, I probably had seen a dust devil, but Matt had to disagree.
Matt and I weren’t friends. We just had a large circle of mutual friends. Somehow we’d made the same friends over the years but he and I didn’t meet until sixth grade and for some reason we just took an instant dislike to each other. I don’t remember our first meeting or anything about why we disliked each other, and with my friends Matt seemed like a decent guy. The fact that my friends were also his friends says something, so maybe it was me that was responsible for this nebulous animosity between us.
Anyway Matt vehemently disagreed that I’d seen a dust devil because it was leaves. He didn’t deny that I’d seen something that sounded a lot like a miniature tornado but a “dust devil” would be mostly dust. And also strictly speaking in the United States they’re primarily found in the southwest, and what I’d seen was so small and so short-lived there’s probably not really a term for it. And yet this somehow spawned an argument with some of our friends leaning on way and some leaning the other but mostly they were divided over who could care less about the whole thing.
Later that same spring I’d see a real tornado, or at least the beginnings of one, during a wave of storms that swept through the area one weekend. There’d been tornado warnings I was in the basement with my parents, prepared to run for the enclosed space at the back, but of course we were staring out the windows. There were brief hard rain showers, then a few minutes of tiny hailstones like pearls, and then everything got very quiet and still. Over the hills in the distance a line of clouds pressed down, its bottom edge so straight it looked like a piece of black paper, and below that the sky was bright whitish green. I saw a line twisting down from the clouds, mostly solid but dissipating at its end, and then, as though it had touched something foul, it drew back. The sky cleared and after that I didn’t have any more interest in tornadoes.