If there’s an upside to natural disasters it’s that they give people something to talk about. Actually a bigger upside is that they often bring out the best in people. Earlier this week tornadoes hit Tennessee, including parts of Nashville, and within hours volunteer efforts and offers of assistance started coming in. So did calls and posts on social media. I should know—I got more than a few myself, and thank you to those who sent messages, or even if you just thought about it. When I went to work the morning after the tornadoes hit, while in many places recovery efforts were still underway, the night’s tragedies provided a chance for me to bond, however briefly, with strangers who work in my building. Some of them were people I’ve seen coming and going, others were, well, complete strangers, but it gave us something to talk about. The weather is usually the most mundane topic imaginable, a safe space. People who have no patience for small talk will stew in uncomfortable silence rather than bear the greater discomfort of chatting about the weather, while those who are uncomfortable with silence but don’t know what to say have a seasonally rotating topic that’s as insubstantial as the clouds. This morning, though, talking about the weather was a heavy subject. And once we got past the weather, once we got past the alarms that sounded in the middle of the night or how, for some of us, they hadn’t gone off, we asked each other, “Are you all right?” We asked each other who had friends and family in the area, whether they’d checked in. For once having to wait for the elevator wasn’t an annoyance; it was an opportunity. We were so busy talking that it was a couple of minutes before anyone realized no one had pushed the elevator button.
I’m not trying to downplay the damage or the loss of life, but there was something good about the way people connected the morning after the tornadoes. I suppose it’s a fundamental human need that comes out even more strongly in the face of destructive events. It’s an aspect of us that I hope never changes, not even if everything else does. I imagine some future post-apocalyptic wasteland where a few surviving humans struggle to survive, where a hardscrabble existence is the norm, but where strangers are still brought together by cataclysmic events.
“Hey, are you okay? Those meteor storms really did a lot of damage.”
“Yeah, thanks, I’m good, how are you? Do you have a family? How are they?”
“Good, good, thanks. So…do you think the Seattle Mariners have a chance this year?”
But that’s another story.
This also reminded me and a lot of others of the 1998 tornadoes that hit parts of Nashville. Unlike the more recent tornadoes that descended in darkness the earlier tornadoes came in the afternoon. I remember being at work and, with several coworkers, standing at the window, seeing clouds swirl and boil. As the clouds started to rotate and form a funnel I said, quietly, “I think we’d better get out of here.” And we all went to the basement. For once we didn’t wait for the elevator—we took the stairs.
I was asked about those tornadoes several times at a friend’s wedding party. It was more than a month later but people still asked me, “Are you okay? Is everyone you know okay?” And I laughed and said, “Well, my coworkers and I were standing at the window…”
Another thing I remember from that day in 1998 is that my wife and I drove home together. Well, she drove and I rode, and we listened to the radio, going from station to station for news of what had happened, and, for some reason, we stopped and listened to a local DJ talking to a man who’d seen a tornado go through his backyard. At first I thought it was a joke, some kind of bizarre parody of events that had just happened. The guy kept talking about a trampoline in his backyard that was the only thing the tornado destroyed. The DJ asked, “How big was it?” and the guy said, “Eight feet by four feet. My daughter loved to go out and jump on it.”
The DJ didn’t laugh but just went on. He said, “Well, at least you’re all right and your family is fine.” The guy said, “Yeah, I just hate havin’ to tell my daughter what happened to her trampoline.”
This sounds like a joke but it’s not. I found it oddly funny at the time but, thinking about it now, I don’t think there’s anything funny about it at all. It’s stayed with me, I think, because I think that guy was in shock. He’d just had a near miss. I don’t know exactly how close the tornado came to his home, or whether it did any damage to his home, but I can understand he’d just been through something terrible. He needed to talk to someone about it, and he needed to talk about anything but the weather.
The illustration is from a 1903 edition of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Act III, sc.1