Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

The Finger of God

Melissa Faliveno


You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm. Hebrews 12:18

 

It was a warm night in early June—the Midwestern kind of warm specific to spring, the air so thick it’s hard to breathe, so wet it feels as if you’re swimming—when a tornado struck and destroyed a small town just eight miles west of mine. I was a little over a year old. My mother, who was younger than I am now, came into my bedroom as I slept and looked out the window into the darkness of the west. It was the same window out of which I would look for years to come, whenever the clouds began to build—face and fingers pressed to glass, cranking open the pane to get a better look at the sky. But that night, it was my mother who watched. She looked at the clock and waited. It was just after 11 pm.

Maybe the wind was howling. Maybe there was thunder. Maybe, more likely, there was only silence—that still, strange calm Midwesterners know so well, the kind that precedes the most violent of storms.

And then she saw them: fast, bright sparks of green, a second or two apart, like flash bulbs in the distance against the dark. It would take her a minute to realize what she was seeing: a massive tornado, invisible in the black of night, striking each pole of the power lines that ran along the highway—the road that connected a small doomed town and our own.

Soon she would pick me up, press my small body to her chest, and hurry us down to the room beneath the stairs, a tiny crawlspace where we would huddle together—my father and the cat crammed in with us—and wait out the storm. But for a second or two she stood there in the dark, looking out into the night, as a great, unstoppable force tore through a sleeping town, destroying everything in its path.

It was June 8, 1984. The town was called Barneveld, and the tornado—the largest in Wisconsin history—was an F5. On the Fujita scale, the F5 is the largest, rarest, and most powerful tornado. It carries winds of more than two hundred miles per hour and can stretch up to a mile in width. It has the ability to rip entire houses off their foundations, pluck trees and trucks and livestock from the land and toss them to the sky. The F5 is dangerous, unpredictable, and unforgiving. In the bad nineties action movie Twister, which I watched obsessively as a kid, a group of storm chasers—led by the late Bill Paxton and an unhinged Helen Hunt—pause around a dinner table, on a momentary break from their mission in the Kansas stretch of Tornado Alley, when someone asks what an F5 is like. Commotion at the table ceases; conversation comes to a dramatic halt; forks are placed gravely onto plates. One of the elder chasers on the team, a character nicknamed ‘‘Preacher,’’ stops as he serves up a steak. He takes a breath and says:

It’s the finger of God.

 

I grew up in a small, God-fearing town in southern Wisconsin called Mount Horeb. A blue-collar place dealing in livestock feed and John Deere tractors, with a population back then of just over two thousand, Mount Horeb is perched on a high, sloping hill, surrounded on all sides by long, rolling fields of corn and wheat and soy. Five miles to the west are the Blue Mounds, a state park and tourist attraction that keeps the area on the map: a stretch of low, tree-dotted hills—technically monadnocks, or small mountains, a geological anomaly in that part of the country—with caves beneath them, a line of squat blue peaks that as children we were told protected our little town like a castle’s defensive wall. From storms and monsters, the spirits that dwelt in the caves; from whatever else might come our way.

Mount Horeb takes its name from the Torah—specifically, from the book of Deuteronomy—as the location upon which God relayed to Moses the Ten Commandments. Despite some contention concerning the name (in the Christian version of the New Testament, the mountain in question is called Sinai), the pastor of our small Lutheran church would return to these biblical origins often, reminding us during his sermons that the name of our little town meant ‘‘The Mountain of God.’’

I decided when I was relatively young that I didn’t believe in God. My parents were both raised Catholic—my mother a fourth-generation German-Irish Wisconsinite and my father an Italian from New Jersey—and baptized me as such. Some of my mother’s relatives were Jewish, having most likely immigrated to Wisconsin from either Russia or the Balkans, though no one ever talked about it. (For many years, above my maternal grand parents’ fireplace there hung a portrait of my great-great-aunt, a woman named Ida Feldman; my late grandfather, a GM line worker whose surname was Neuenschwander, famously insisted that our family was neither German nor Jew.) When I was fairly young, my parents grew tired of fire and brimstone and converted to Lutheranism, a process that as far as I could tell involved only a few visits to our living room by an aging pastor and several potlucks involving pickled fish, wherein we were taught a much more lenient understanding of what it meant to be sinners.

And so, like most people in my town, I went to church every Sunday, at a small brick affair on Main Street, its high steeple seeming, particularly when I was very young, to reach higher than the clouds. I sang in the church choir and worked bake sales to raise money for new hymnals. I spent two years in confirmation class—one unit of which required our cluster of thirteen-year-olds, cramped in the musty carpeted basement of the church each Wednesday night, to deconstruct one of the chart-topping pop songs of the year, Joan Osborne’s 1995 hit, ‘‘What If God Was One of Us?’’ For a few years I was in a youth group, which may have actually been a cult, wherein I sang songs about Jesus and the importance of abstinence and went on hiking trips and climbed mountains, from the tops of which I was instructed to throw rocks representing my sins into chasms below, and was once left alone at night in the woods with only my sleeping bag, a flashlight, and the Bible to ponder the awesome power of Jesus’s protection.

Despite (or maybe because of) all this, I never really believed.

What I believed in was the weather. More specifically, I believed in tornadoes. I had never actually seen a tornado—and wouldn’t until many years later, when for a brief and ill-advised time in college I chased storms, and finally watched a funnel drop from the clouds near the Iowa state line—but I revered their power as I was supposed to revere God’s. I could never fully explain what it was about tornadoes that had a hold on me, but I knew that it had something to do with the kind of faith they talked about in Sunday School: an awe-inspired, fear-induced belief in something beyond my capacity to comprehend. I feared tornadoes but exalted their power. I considered almost holy their ability to destroy—and, in some cases, to pardon.

I was eight or nine when my mother bought me my first book about tornadoes. It was a slick, full-color history of destruction—an almost pornographic assortment of photos depicting devastated cities, uprooted trees, tractor-trailers bent in half, entire towns reduced to heaps of mangled wood and metal. Madly, obsessively, I tore through as much literature about tornadoes as I could find. Long before my household had access to the internet, I checked out books from the public library. When I exhausted that collection, I spent my allowance at the one bookstore, located in a mall thirty miles away, where I cajoled my mother into taking me nearly every weekend to see what new tomes I could find. I studied tornadoes, learned how to best prepare; I read about the science and history behind them. I read about meteorology, weather patterns, the clashing of warm front and cold. I read without stopping, under the covers in bed with a flashlight, about the jet stream, low-pressure systems, dew points, and super cells; about cumulonimbus clouds and climate; about rotation, radars, and lead time—the number of minutes, or seconds, between warning and touchdown. I read about the static currents that survivors could feel in their skin; about the yellow-green color of the sky, the electric smell in the air. I read in an attempt to understand something inherently unknowable. I read, in the words of our pastor and youth group leaders, to bear witness—to give myself up to a higher power.

A few years later, when most girls my age were buying Tiger Beat and hanging centerfolds of boy bands on their walls, I developed a crush on the local television meteorologist. His name was David George, and he was an impish, middle-aged man with sad blue eyes, rosy cheeks and gray hair, thin lips and a Texas accent. I watched his forecasts religiously—sometimes, in the spring and early summer, during peak Tornado Season, during all three nightly newscasts at five, six, and ten. I worshipped him as my friends worshipped the New Kids on the Block. The only poster I wanted on my wall was of David. And I got one, eventually, when my father stopped by the television station in the city one night on his way home from work, procured a glossy autographed eight-by-ten of the Chief Meteorologist himself, and gave it to me for Christmas when I was fourteen.

My interest in David George had little to do with romance, at least not in the traditional sense. I realize now, decades later, that my strange infatuation was more about control. By then the fortress of my family—which had seemed impenatrable when I was younger—had begun to prove, as families do, to have weak spots in the walls. I latched on to the weather—in all of its volatile, unpredictable glory—as a strange kind of constant. More than any childhood monster, I was terrified of storms, and David told me, as well as any human could, when they would come. Standing against his green screen, his hands following the path of the jet stream, he told me when the humidity was rising, when the barometer was falling; when the low-pressure systems were careening toward the high. He told me when we were under a watch (when conditions were right) or a warning (when a funnel cloud had been spotted). He told me to get to the basement, or to a windowless interior room. He reminded me to take a flashlight, a radio, to have extra batteries on hand. He stayed up with me on summer nights, when the watches lasted well into the earlymorning hours, on the flickering screen of a twelve-inch TV. He sat with me as long as the power stayed on, and the station stayed on the air—even as the winds rippled the waves, his tie loose and dark circles under his eyes. He kept me updated on each storm cell’s location, which direction it was heading, and what towns were in its path. He told me the speed of straight-line winds, the diameter of hail, whether a funnel had been spotted, and where it might touch down. He charted a path on the Doppler radar, a new technology then, to track the storm’s trajectory. He stayed by my side while my parents slept, themselves convinced the sirens would wake them.

And so I kept watch over them, sitting beneath the glow of the TV, listening to the wind wail outside and refusing to sleep until the threat had expired, while David kept watch over me. I trusted in him. I believed in his word. I had faith in his ability to save me.

 

Mount Horeb has a thing for mythology. A mostly Norwegian settlement established in 1861, the town is known (on the Velkommen sign as one enters town, on the Chamber of Commerce building, on T-shirts and coffee mugs and restaurant menus) as the ‘‘Troll Capitol of the World.’’ If you were to drive along Main Street, a mile-long stretch of quaint shops and antique stores, you would behold something of a marvel: more than a dozen statues of trolls, each about four feet in height, carved into tree stumps on almost every block. One, outside the telephone company, plays an accordion; another is a gardener. There’s a tooth fairy troll, a carp fisher troll, a troll with a chicken on its head. There’s a peddler troll, a tourist troll, a troll on a tricycle. They’re ugly things, with large proboscislike noses, long straggly hair, and mischievous grins, carved for the past few decades out of old maples and oaks by the town’s resident woodworker. The origin of the trolls and their relevance to Mount Horeb is the topic of much, often heated, debate, but the most common theory maintains that the Norwegian immigrants who settled the town believed that the creatures—who according to Scandinavian folklore are said to have magical, prophetic powers and dwell in the mountains—had come down from the Blue Mounds and lived in the town, and guarded its new inhabitants from evil. What’s certain is that in the seventies, the owner of a Scandinavian gift shop on Main Street started placing troll statues imported from Norway in the front yard of the store, to bring, she said, both tourism and good luck. There they stood, and there they still stand, serving as sentries to the town.

My family had its own share of myths. Growing up, my mother told me stories about the spirits that lived in her childhood home, about UFOs in the night sky above the family farm, about the ghost train that haunted the abandoned tracks in the north woods. But mostly, my mother told me stories about tornadoes. She told them so often that I felt as if I had been there too: in the rolling fields of her youth, in the farmlands of southern Wisconsin, watching twisters move swiftly across the horizon, running for stone cellars, hacking at latches, and hauling open heavy wooden doors, she and her seven brothers and sisters running down muddy stairs and hiding in those dark, subterranean confines until the storms had passed. She told me decades-old myths, that her mother and grandmother had told before her—of cars and semis and cows being hurtled into the sky, of certain towns and trees and trailer parks demolished and others left untouched. She told me of the F2 in Evansville, the F3 in Monroe, the skies turning green as the storms approached, the long wail of sirens following a tornado’s path as it crossed two then three then five county lines.

And she told me of the sound—like a train, she said, its low groan in the distance, growing louder and higher to a tea-kettle whistle. She told me of sitting on the porch at her grandmother’s farm one afternoon in April as the winds began to shift. Just a girl then, she sat rocking on an old wooden bench as a storm moved in, her legs dangling, and watched a funnel cloud form and drop to the ground, bending and twisting and then dancing across the cornfield. The thing about cornfields, she said, was that something could have been six or sixty miles away; you just could never tell. And so she watched it get closer, until the trunks of trees began to groan beneath the weight of the wind, and her mother hurried out to the porch to sweep her inside and then underground. She told me of the cellar door buckling against its hinges, and the howl of the wind sounding almost human.

She told me of picking through the wreckage afterward: finding a potted plant that had been lifted from the porch, carried a few hundred feet in the air, and then set back down in a nearby field: upright, undamaged, the soil and leaves intact. She told me the story that would go down in family lore for generations, the story I would repeat to my friends on stormy summer nights: about a single straw of hay that had been lifted and tossed from the barn, and had somehow, impossibly, impaled the sliding glass door of the house. It had pierced the glass completely, she said, one end inside the house and the other sticking out—a tiny, weightless thing that had been pitched at such a speed it had penetrated glass.

Years later, I would wonder about this story—about the physics of it, if such a thing was even possible. I would wonder if the story had been misremembered, or maybe even made up entirely; if it had begun as a story to tell the children around a campfire in the summer, and eventually, somewhere along the line of memory and time, had become the truth. I could have researched it, but I never did. Instead I chose to let the story live on, as my mother and grandmother remembered it, as my family knew it. I chose to believe it.

 

In the house where I grew up, a 1960s split-level ranch like those that populated our entire neighborhood, we didn’t have a cellar. No small stone fortress buried beneath the back yard, like my mother had in the farmhouse where she grew up, nor a fortified concrete cavern below the house. We had only a partial basement, which was only halfway underground. It had a dozen windows, all at ground level, which hardly made for a safe haven in a storm. In the center of that half-basement was a room beneath the stairs: a small, damp, windowless passage packed with dusty old luggage, tangled Christmas lights, piles of Sears shirt boxes, a curtain of musty coats sagging on a rod, and a single light bulb hanging from a chain.

This is where we went when the sirens went off. This is where I would insist we clamber, our heads ducked low to avoid the steep slant of the stairs, backs bent at odd angles against grimy, cobwebbed walls. This is where I kept emergency supplies—a flashlight, a battery-powered radio, extra AAs, a jug of water—a stash I double-checked each time a storm watch went into effect. This is where we went, in the dim glow of the flashlight, when the watches turned to warnings.

And this, back in 1984—long before my obsession with the weather began—is where my mother would take me, after plucking me from my crib, and tuck me in with our little family, when those flashes of green in the darkness got closer, when the wind began to send branches flying against the windows. This is where we waited.

 

Barneveld was not actually a town. In 1984, with a population of only 584, it was technically a village. A speck, a spark, an almost indiscernible flash tucked away in the long, low valleys of southwestern Wisconsin. It was home to farmers, factory workers, waitresses and bartenders, hairdressers, mechanics, roofers and plumbers. Most of its families had lived there, often in the same old farmhouses, for generations.

On the evening of June 7, the people of Barneveld may have walked back to their farmhouses from a day in the fields, or gotten into their pickup trucks after work, the clouds on the western horizon beginning to build. They may have turned the radio dial to get a better signal as they drove toward home. They may have flipped on the TV when they got there, to catch the forecast before dinner. But in 1984, there was no David George, no Doppler radar. There was an old weatherman on Channel 15 named Elmer, who wore cheap suits and patterned ties and talked about impending rain, and how it might affect the crops. You might hear some thunder tonight, he’d say with a wink, so batten down those hatches. But it’ll mean good news for the corn! After the ten o’clock newscast, there was no one at the station with his eyes toward the sky. And when the airwaves went dark, there was only silence, but for the black crackling fuzz of a deadened television screen.

It was a Thursday. Earlier that day, the clouds had begun to build. By mid-afternoon, severe storms had developed across Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, and Minnesota—part of a system that would go on to produce an outbreak of forty-six confirmed tornadoes in less than a day, including three F3s and one F4 that traveled more than a hundred miles from northern Missouri into Iowa, killing three people. After dark, the storm had shifted toward Wisconsin—and at around 11 pm, the National Weather Service issued a tornado watch for the area. This took the form of a few long, loud tones on the radio, and a small cartoonish outline of a tornado at the bottom right-hand corner of every television screen that was turned on. But most people had turned off their TVs by then, while Johnny Carson was still mid-monologue, and had gone to bed, the static electricity still humming on their screens as the lights in the houses went out.

The sirens never sounded.

Just minutes before the tornado touched down, a bolt of lightning cut power to the town. A low rumble of thunder woke a few people, but most remained in their beds. And in those early morning hours, sometime just after midnight, an entire town was destroyed.

At its peak, the tornado was a quarter-mile wide. Semi-trucks were hurled from the highway; trees were uprooted and thrown through windows; people and animals were pinned beneath the boards and the drywall that once were their homes. Most of the town’s houses, hundreds of them, were completely destroyed, and hundreds more were damaged, along with dozens of barns, sheds, and silos. The town’s three churches, seventeen of its eighteen businesses, the municipal building, grocery store, library, fire station, bank, and post office were leveled. Only the water tower remained standing. In the end, the Barneveld Tornado, as it came to be known, was responsible for nine deaths, more than two hundred serious injuries, and 25 million dollars in damage.

And as quickly as it came, it went. It tore east toward Mount Horeb for a few more miles, then lifted back up into the clouds, skipping over our town entirely—because it was on a hill, people would say, because the Blue Mounds kept us safe—and touched down again the next town over, tearing through cornfields and damaging a few houses and barns. It traveled for thirty-six miles in total, aerial photographs showing an almost perfectly straight line of destruction from west to east, except for those few miles in between, where Mount Horeb remained untouched. Where my parents and I, huddled beneath the stairs, were spared. A town just a few miles to the west was in ruin, but we on the Mountain of God—as our pastor would later say, the congregation nodding along to his words as if they were true, cementing the story into the mythology of the town, the everlasting glory of the town, the amen, hallelujah, praise God of the town—were saved.

 

In the days and weeks and months to come—as June turned to July and summer pressed on, when the threat of more storms was at its height—the town of Barneveld slowly began to rebuild. Residents and volunteers picked through debris, which was found as far as 130 miles away. Standing amid the rubble, people would say things like They’re doing a hell of a job on the houses, or Sutter’s farm will be up and running again soon. They would say You just never know and God’s will, I suppose. For a time, people whose cars were wrapped around phone poles or tossed into cornfields were shipped by school bus into Mount Horeb so they could buy groceries, do their laundry, go to church. Those whose houses were destroyed stayed with family, or in shelters in nearby towns, cobbled together in gymnasiums, community centers, and church basements. But the fields of Barneveld’s farmland were retilled, and the crops were replanted. Houses, barns, businesses, and bars were rebuilt. The steeples of churches were resurrected. And over the course of ten years, the town was reborn. Everything that had once stood and had then been turned to dust eventually rose again.

 

When I left the Midwest and moved to New York, there was a thunderstorm in the spring. I called my landlord in a panic and asked if we could have access to the basement in case of tornadoes.

Honey, he said, in a thick Irish accent, we don’t get tornadoes here. (In cruelest irony, a tornado struck Queens the following summer.)

When I first heard the Friday-night siren in Brooklyn signaling the start of Shabbat, I literally ducked for cover. Once, while walking back from a park as the sky turned dark, and the wind began to whip in such a way that the leaves were blown from their branches and spun, mid-air, in small cyclones, none of my friends listened when I said we should run.

It turns out that those who haven’t grown up calling March through September Tornado Season don’t share the same fear that haunts me each spring. With coastal climates of course come hurricanes, but also an advanced warning system—with days or even weeks to prepare. The average warning time for tornadoes, by comparison, is thirteen minutes. I’ve lived through two hurricanes during my time in New York—Irene in 2011 and the more devastating Sandy in 2012—and in both cases I watched New Yorkers scramble in the days leading up to the storm, pillaging grocery store shelves of every last loaf of bread, taping apartment windows, packing cars and hurrying out of town. Amid the chaos, and despite living in a mandatory evacuation zone, I chose rather stubbornly to stay put. During those storms, homes were destroyed and people died. Power was lost for months. A homeless man drowned in my office building, just off New York harbor. My decision to stay wasn’t wise, but in both cases, I never really felt afraid.

Fear, for me, is an unstable force—an unpredictable, unknowable, and erratic thing that still, despite considerable improvements in technology, is almost impossible to predict. Fear is living in the annual path of destruction, along which tree trunks are permanently twisted and silos wear cracks like reminders; where shallow ditches along empty country roads and vast open prairies are the only place to hide if you get caught out in a storm. Fear is watching the sky turn gray, then black, then green. It’s in the clouds as they billow and hum. It’s in the ghostly quiet that heralds sudden devastation. It’s in the stillness. It’s in waiting for the wail of sirens, or worse—the knowledge that they might never go off.

 

Every year in mid-March, as winter turns to spring, the sirens in every Wisconsin town are tested for the first time of the year. Their wail starts out low and then grows louder, each massive, oscillating horn creating a cyclical fade and then roar, fade and then roar, so loud at each peak that it echoes across counties. And they are tested this way every Wednesday at noon for the rest of the summer. But on that first day, when the season’s first siren sounds, this is when people remember. They remember the moments after the storm, pushing open storm doors and climbing out onto old stone steps to survey the damage. They recall stepping gently among the ruins, pulling up boards and unearthing belongings that once composed a house, touching the twisted branches of fallen trees, crouching to scratch crying cats. They talk about the Johnsons, or the Hunters, or the Andersons, who lost their house, or their farm, or their dog, whose mother died as a staircase collapsed around her. Those who don’t say much might sit quietly on new porches, on the stools of rebuilt bars, or in the pews of new churches and remember.

And they will remember every time a low growl of thunder rolls across the sky, when the local meteorologist interrupts the regularly scheduled programming to break in with news of a watch or a warning. They will remember when the temperature falls, when the clouds hang low and still in the sky; when the leaves of maples begin to whip, and the branches of birches bend in the wind. They will remember when the air becomes so electric they can feel it in their teeth; when the sky, which has become impossibly quiet, turns from gray to black to green.

They don’t test sirens where I live now, a thousand miles away, but sometimes, in early June, when the wind kicks up from the west, I think I can still hear them.