Want to know a sound that is truly terrifying? It’s not the sound unto itself that makes it bad, no. I’ve heard the sound probably a thousand times in my life, and it often comes with an experience of dread or irritation depending on the context. But on Saturday, that sound became truly terrifying.
I sit alone at work in a nice little shack in the dead of night. Generally speaking, this is a quiet job, dealing with drivers and the radio and the needs of the Distribution Center from time to time, but essentially, I work alone. I like it for that most days, but it does have a peculiar effect of enhancing the feeling of exposure. If something goes wrong, there you sit, alone with nobody who can reach you in a short period of time, and in a crisis, five to ten minutes is not a short period of time. Even hooked in with radio, text and phone, you are still isolated. You feel fragile at times out there alone in the dark, even though most times that is a blessing allowing me to look inside myself in the quiet periods.
Saturday was hot and humid all day, and thankfully I got to sleep through it, and by the time I got to work, I was happy for air conditioning, and doubly thankful for it working in my shack. I did not have many truckers to deal with so that small blessing added to my stack. I was on alert for the weather. The radar showed storms far to the north, but others were forming small intense pockets.
The night was a dull haze as well. The cooling of the evening was halted at some point by atmospheric forces I could not begin to understand, and instead of obeying the normal expected pattern of the night that cooled it into dew and ground fog, the humidity and temperature began to rise to daytime heat, making for a sweltering and uncomfortable night every time I went out side.
In the distance, I started seeing the yellow cloud to cloud lightning cracking through the thunderhead, turning it into a giant celestial Chinese lantern. I always loved that effect. I did not expect severe weather, but seeing that level of dancing in the clouds was mesmerizing and fun to watch with no one around on this particularly slow evening.
I went back to work as the lightning faded, only to be blasted to attention again by the weather radio screaming. I immediately opened up my web browser and saw the weather alert. Half dollar sized hail and 60mph gusts. Being exposed, my first thought was that my car was going to get wrecked, and all the windows on the little shack, which is almost all glass, would be blown out. Horrible thoughts crossed my mind on how to prevent the destruction.
I prayed of course. It was my only course of action, and God seemed to be listening. The storm which only a little while before that was aimed directly at me veered to the north of the city and pounded the fields and forest up there. I was relieved because this was only a precursor to what looked like a more gentle line of storms coming in maybe an hour after.
The night rolled on, uneventful save for a quick sprinkle of rain from the violent storm that missed us. I went back to work while listening to an audiobook of “Last of the Mohicans”. I’ve learned not to listen to things that could frighten while out there and so exposed. I don’t need to add stress.
Horror came in another way at about 3am.
First my phone started yowling in a weather alert. I was expecting maybe a severe thunderstorm warning.
Not a tornado warning!
Within seconds, and before I could call up the web browser again to see the text of the alert, the weather radio we are required to have went off and it read out loud what I was just discovering. Radar indicated a tornado coming right at me. My blood chilled. It was unclear if the thing had touched ground, but to even see my small subsection of town listed as being under the gun was enough to add a few white hairs.
Then the keening wail of the tornado sirens began to drift to me over the stifling hot night air. It sang its song of warning and impending destruction to me. Not just one siren but a half dozen of them were singing in chorus. Some shrill soloists close by brayed to me while a quartet of them drifted at slightly different pitches far in the background permeating the night air like the humidity. It was a beautiful cacophony that drove home how exposed and fragile I was in my little shack.
Compounding the matters, I had no protective shelter that was within 3 minutes of reaching, so if I looked out the tinted windows and managed to see a funnel cloud coming at me, I was dead meat. There was no way I could make it. Plus, I was surrounded by semi trailers that would instantly become projectiles
I contacted them inside and they said abandon the shack and come in to the shelter. I reminded them I could not because my duties required me to have the gate manned at all times. Shut the gates, we’ll send you help was the response.
The 10 minutes I was out there, while the sirens finally died was unnerving. I had no idea how fast the predicted disaster would take to get here. Five minutes? Fifteen? Not at all? By the time my supervisor drove out to be just as exposed the downpour began. I was constantly looking over my shoulder, dreading the horror of seeing a lightning lit tornado flickering in the night. We fought with the gates and finally got them as shut as we could get them and fled to the tornado shelter.
Thankfully, the tornado never materialized, but gave spectacularly threatening clouds dimly visible from the city lights below as they zipped this way and that. We waited out the event and life went back to normal. It seems very anti-climactic in some regards, but I was thankful for God’s providence and mercy on the city. The disasters did not come about, and everyone was safe.
It was that sound that awoke a primal terror in me that stuck around. The confirmation of my own frailty was. During that interim, when I first heard it echoing and filling the night as we raced to close the gates which argued and protested being shut in a downpour was punctuated by looking over my shoulder for impending doom; that was the refining process making me fully conscious that this could be the day God called me home. I have had a few of those types of incidents in my life, and they are always something you look back on and go say to yourself: “See? This is when you were not sure whether your next breath or next minute would be your last.” It focuses the sensibilities so sharp, you cannot deny how alive you feel afterwards, even if it is buried in the grey weights of exhaustion.
Then just like the clouds, that sensation of terror and relief recedes again beneath the normalcy of life.