Us Ghosts of People

Sky and wind and tornado.

It’s easy to say you understand the forces of wind and storms and how they might come to bear on you and those you love … until a tornado touches down less than a hundred yards from your campsite in the middle of a South Dakota prairie. You watch your tent — the tent you saved over $600 for, the tent that was listed as the toughest portable housing man has ever made — lift from its moorings the same way light sailboats or their dinghies sift upward on mediocre waves, and then swirl into a yellow blur until it becomes something like the sun where the sun isn’t, but should be, with “The North Face” written in large block letters across each side.

Odd, how pissing a steady stream down your pants leg can feel so strangely comforting.

There’s no space for words or even the mental capability for the calibration of sentences or short commands. We did not make eye contact, my uncle and I, with that oh fuck look cursived into the soft flesh of our sunburnt faces, as you so often see in movies.

The sound of a train, and tremendous wind. Blackness, and the deep and sandy loam of the plains still clutching to the earth in clods, holding whole hunks of tall grass, lifting, soaring past us at something close to the cruising speed of fighter jets. As heat finds loft in waves to form mirage, so rose reality, turning heavy on its side in the shape of a black funnel curling down in a massive sweep toward us.

We knew what to do. Before three seconds were up, he and I were running for shelter: the laundry room of the campground, built of tight-stacked cinder blocks, dug deep for days like this.

Imagine running on the moon. Imagine running as those few animals of this earth do, the ones with bodies built for speed and claws made for killing. I’m sure some team of physicists in the Midwest could tell you for certain that the ways the winds touched and brushed against our bodies that afternoon eased our weight, shirked gravity for those few moments alone. I’m sure they could state in mathematical terms just how the adrenaline burning out our veins like the fuel of high performance racing machines made it possible for us to top 40 miles per hour at a dead sprint.

I know by the way my hips seemed dislocated as my legs stretched out impossibly long in a blur before me that no Nike executive could have passed us up for shoe endorsements, and any Olympic track and field coach would have fallen to his knees and wept in seeing us run, and cried out, Where have you been all my life?

Like leopards. Like falcons razoring down on game. Like hares being hunted by dogs. We bolted.

I will not say that we did not breathe hard once inside the laundry room with the other 20 or so temporary inhabitants of the camp ground, all of them smarter than us. They had looked up a little sooner.

I will say that we sat and had our pulses checked by a young doctor on vacation with his wife, and that the look on his face, when he read the blurting beating of my heart with his fore- and ring fingers, was enough to make me worry. Being scared shitless will spark irretrievable blood pressure, will kindle the kind of spontaneous ill health that makes medical professionals grimace and ask you quietly to lay down, to close your eyes, and think of the calm side pools of rivers or other still waters of your childhood.

I waited for the winds to cease, for the sounds of that wide circular girth of air to subside before I tried picturing anything.

When I woke up, someone had just said hospital, and someone else was responding with distances and time limits. My eyes opened on the sunlight through the parted doors of our shelter.

My entire body hurt as though I’d once again fallen out of the back of a pickup truck, as I did on my grandfather’s farm 10 years before. My entire body hurt as my leg hurt the time I fell off my grandfather’s tractor and he mistakenly ran over it with those ridiculously jumbo rear tires and the Bush Hog trailing behind it, which somehow barely missed ripping off my right foot.

Someone had just said hospital. I sat up, playing at healthy. No one was looking my way.

My uncle lay under a blanket in the corner of the room, next to a glass-portholed dryer. He was not moving. Someone said shock. It was the young doctor. He was conferring with the owner of the campsite, trying to tell how far off other doctors and their life-sustaining machinery might be if my uncle got any worse.

My head hurt at each heartbeat. I felt as though my brain were boiling in its own suspension of blood and cushioning liquids. The light through the door only fed that pain — echoed it, seemed alive, all too real and angry for its warmth.

From far southwest, thunder boomed faint and tired. Deep in the territory of someone else’s prairie, rain was falling harmless and heavy enough to feed the children, to save the farm.

An hour and several half-physicals later, my uncle and I were finally released by our attending friend. We said nothing as we walked through the deep tears in the earth the tornado had left behind before it finally righted itself, stood rooted for a few moments as some distant eyewitnesses said who had come to check on us all, and then seemed to teeter against its own weightlessness.

One man said he drove over 125 miles per hour in our direction, trying to rescue us before the storm spent itself on the grounds. He held his mouth open when he was silent and breathing between sentences, as though he had run the whole way and was panting and spent from the exertion. He smelled of tobacco and fear sweat.

His wife was no less calm. She was missing one front tooth, which made her smiling eerie, but no less genuine. When she heard our story, she looked at me in wonder, said, “Oh child, glory be,” and held me to herself as though I were somehow her own and had been called back from death, saved for a higher purpose later on.

Glory be, and damn straight. My uncle and I were called back from death — or rather, sped on from it, our legs pounding the rolling soil as though we had turned spirit and could blur at thought across the earth, across the still and formless voids of our lives, to exist here, inhaling deeply, and thankful for it.

We found the tent intact. Acting as a loosed sail or an untethered kite, it had risen in a surreal and terrifying fashion hours before. But to think of how it billowed, hollow with the howling of fierce air pressure, I wondered at the ads I’d read, at the fibers involved in its weaving. I marveled at how it might have borne my uncle and I, clean and easy like some unnatural plane in a twisting jet stream, and floated us off two miles away. I do not like to think of what kind landing we might have endured.

I’ve seen men fall from the emptiness of a blue South Carolina sky, diving toward earth from the door of a twin-engine island hopper. I watched those men for four summers back home. I was in awe of their rigid form, their bodies like black shadows of knives, their sky-diving school jump suits flaring bold and streaming against their bodies.

I’ve stood beneath them on the little-used tarmac of an abandoned five-runway airport, and gazed upward with my teeth clenched, hoping with everyone earthside that their tight-wrapped packs stuffed with silk and string would open fast and full, catching enough of the air to settle them home without sting or hard stepping.

And I’ve seen one man not so lucky, heard the screaming of the dive instructors into their radios trying to coach him calmly against his own howling into the calamity becoming his death. They were unable to hold him steady to the end, when his primary chute failed, and the reserve almost didn’t catch at all.

When they drove him back from the patch of trees he’d landed in, he was finishing crying and was trying to look brave for the rest of us ghosts of people in his presence. We must have appeared ethereal to his eyes that were just half-opened, but still half-closed to the seeing of energy and loss in all its forms.

And once, when I was lucky enough to beg the co-pilot’s chair off the ground coordinator, I too felt the hazy-headed rush of a great fall when the pilot leaned over to me after the jumpers had gone and said something close to, “Watch this, son. See if you can hold your cookies now.”

And his grin was evil. And he had the guts of a madman, I’m sure, in finding some need to test the tensile strength of his craft. I envisioned all those lost angels cast from heaven after their war, trying to sear the wings from their bodies before storming the skies above Earth in one terrible mass of otherworldly rocketry.

He was tempting the general soundness of the machine. He bellied up the plane, and in diving in and back and under, pulled more Gs than any roller coaster or theme park ride designer is allowed by law to dream of.

In those moments looking up at the earth as it fell into us, I thought of NASA and all their boldest golden boys riding the crux of a flaming arc back through our atmosphere, holding the trajectory steady so the cockpit and crew capsule might survive as one plummeting piece of heat closing in on the ocean or a cleared runway like comets in a hard and heavy blur, riding it into the rest of their natural lives.

I thought of men in space suits standing in line at the grocery store, their wives ahead of them holding their babies and credit cards, smiling back. Their wives ask them, space suits still smoking, Darling, do you think the steaks or the chicken tonight?

In two seconds’ time, this image of America’s moonwalkers, her planet orbiters, her anti-gravity faith-takers, rambled clear and sad through my mind. And then there was a panic beeping from some small red strobe-like light above us.

The pilot was shouting my name. His left arm extended toward me, his fingers first poking at my stomach, then striking the center of my chest in firm blows meant to rile back the heart so you might walk off from such a hard dive and say, Well, goddamn, I never came so close to not coming back.

I was drooling, or had vomited — one of those.

“What’s that noise?” I asked.

“Crash warning,” he said, staring me in the face, no smirking hinted at in his looks.

He was landing. We were coasting in, flat and sure and level, letting down again to the sun-smoldered runway like two sons of bitches who’d gotten away with something grand and dangerous enough to use up a lifetime of balls-to-the-wall luck in one stroke.

“Thought you’d had a heart attack,” he said, “or died from embolism. Shit, I’ll say it. Had me scared.”

He was laughing then at me, or my shirt, or my intrinsic weakness at never having naturally pulled three Gs before then. “Should have warned you, I guess,” he said.

We were slowing down, the wheels ceasing their spinning, the engine dying down to a steady, heaving chortle for the short taxi back to the take-off point.

Then we were fully stopped. The doors gushed open, and the rush of hot air made me shiver and almost sick a second time.

The ground coordinator was standing in the light of the open door, chuckling. His wife was clapping, her too-tight clothing sticking and showing off the body she’d never lost and wasn’t planning to still. Behind them, men and women in jumpsuits were tilting back long cans with unreadable labels. The aluminum cylinders in their hands gleamed in the heavy slanting light of the sunset.

Men and women were packing up their stands and equipment and rolling out barbecues. Their children dragged bags of meat and buns and condiments from the slid-open side panels of mini-vans and the ruptured beds of half-broken pickups.

The coordinator and his wife looked at me, were still speaking to the pilot, saying how they’d never seen a plane so light do such a technical move, and asking questions with their looks, looking worried, watching me outside of their grinning.

“He okay?” she asked.

“Yeah,” the pilot said, “spilled his drink when we flipped. I’ll grab the can later.”

I rose and walked wobbily for a few minutes. Someone handed me a beer, was too drunk to care that I was 15 and looked it. Someone was saying something about my having balls the size of grapefruit for asking the pilot to do such a move.

Men much bigger and muscular than myself were shaking their heads my direction, lifting their beers my way, saying, What a show, what a move, have to get you in a pack and out in the sky sometime soon, over and over until it was time to go home and sleep off the fright, to find a way to talk them out of their offer for free sky-diving lessons.

My uncle and I lifted the tent and looked her over. Both of us had just settled back from the trembling, and still were not speaking to one another. Both of us were mutually afraid in some way of any unnecessary movement or exertion.

We carried our shelter back to the campsite, walking slowly, almost stumbling in places where the tall grass clotted together too thickly. My pants leg had dried while I slept, and thankfully left no stain whatsoever.

When we set the tent back inside the bounds of the camp, my lower lip began to tremble in something close to the onset of long crying or the after-shock of still-subsiding panic. I would not look my uncle in the face.

I began walking in a widening circle, looking close to the ground for whatever tent stakes I had a chance of finding. I was spiraling out slowly from my father’s brother and our dome-shaped, noon-sun shaded tent.

Only when I was out of earshot did I realize he had been calling my name over and over, as though I had been swept up in the chute of black wind that had so recently passed so close by, as though I had been entirely removed from South Dakota, lifted and laid down somewhere against another state’s sky, lit across its clouds in a tight-angled dive, the gurgle of my own yelling able to be heard only seconds after its ceasing.

I did not stop circling out.

I waded into the edge of the campground. The high grasses brushed against my thighs, making the noise water would, were it a dry substance like the first parched gusts of storm wind, folding in and across itself, aching in the bulge before the breaking loose.

And as though tethered to the sound of my own name, I tracked back against the grain of the same uneven loops I had paced out. I was watching the ground, my feet, focused on the simple steps it took to move forward with such certainty, as not to miss anything.

Article © 2002 by Jonathan Rice