How Our Storm House Changed My Life
If you were blessed just to live in the early south, you were trodding on the fringe of Heaven. If that weren't enough goodness for you, I can top that. If a person lived in the early south and had a storm cellar he was most-blessed. I know some about spending time in my family's storm house in 1960 through 1961 in (very) rural northwest Alabama, Hamilton, Ala., the county seat of our county, Marion. This piece is at the same place that I told you about where my family and I lived in a $15-dollar shack. That is the bottom line. No frills. No insulation. Just happy to have (something) for a roof and what would stand up for walls.
I am not, repeat not, showing any self-pity. I have always had problems sharing two emotions trying to occupy my spirit at one time. One emotion I had about (this) "home" was hatred. I hated that my dad was so smart, but so not so bright in sealing a deal with our greedy landlord, Malone Fikes, Hamilton. The second emotion I fought was sentimentalism. After I grew up, then I felt sentimental for enjoying all of those simple times shared by my mom, dad, and sister. To say nothing about my pet dogs, "Frank," "Button," and "Pallox." Talk about good friends.
I do not know who was responsible for building our storm house, yes, we rural southern folks who lived in poverty, referred to the storm cellar as a storm house. The thinking is simple. Most folks who had money, built their home with the storm cellar inside their home where they could walk down a few steps and there you were in the storm cellar. The folks (like my folks and I) could never afford to build a new home much less have an inside storm cellar, so the Good Lord supplied us with one that was built on the outside. Would you, right now, enjoy a very cold truth? The storm house that sat near our shack-of-a-home was in better shape than our house. God is my witness.
People, poor and rich alike, who built storm cellars or in my case, storm house, did not think it weak to have a place of safety. Some of our earlier brothers and sisters in the early south who settled lands in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee, held to their beliefs of if God chooses to chastise His children with a tornado, then just by building a storm house would be considered (by the people) as running from God. You know how God dealt with Jonah in the running from God area of the Bible. But my forefathers were good folks. Wonderful neighbors and hard workers. They just had certain beliefs and no one dared to change them. I understand that now.
And if my dad had not seen a storm house on the rented property, he would roll up his sleeves and somehow get the materials and build one. It was that simple. Our storm cellar was not that fancy or not that flashy like some people in the years to come. Fact: there are people now who feel naked if their huge bank accounts does not include their architect designing a high-tech, comfy basement storm cellar that would survive any nuclear warhead. I know this stuff. I have a very dear friend, Tracy Estes, Winfield, Ala., who is the news editor of the Journal Record, Hamilton, where I put in my 23 years. I have had the pleasure of touring his storm cellar-basement that I would gladly pay Estes rent to stay in just one corner of this awesome sight.
But I have already, and very foolishly, got off track about storm houses. That was my initial thought: storm houses and how my storm house at age six, touched and changed my life in one stormy night. Normally, tornadoes and severe thunderstorms come in early spring throughout the season clear through summer. And you can bet that in this time and date, people like us did not have the luxuries of television, internet, phone, or a weather radio with storm bulletins from The National Weather Service. All we had to be prepared when a monster storm was coming was my dad's wisdom and his tone of voice that when he grew concerned, his voice went to a mellow baritone to a deep bass tone which meant for me to get to our storm house, get underneath one of mama's homemade quilts and be still.
Somehow this advice worked several times in the years of 1958 through 1960. We were so attached to that ratty old storm house that when we were inside this storm house and the storms came, we all just stayed inside this (sometimes obtrusive) structure and slept the night away. Why not? Sleep is sleep. And I tell you, friends, there is something so warm, so peaceful when you are within that knowledge that you are safe not only in God's hands, but in my mama's hands and care that it is impossible to be scared.
Even today I can still remember clearly how mama's pretty homemade quilts smelled--soft, like new rose buds, pulled up close to my chin and knowing that not storm, not beast or those huge brown crickets that loved to live on those huge lumber beams that held up the ceiling of this special place that saved our lives during those severe storms in my childhood. And just maybe in this time and date, the storms were more severe, louder, darker and well, they were not as much storms, but flying monsters licking their mouths at more victims. What? You didn't know that a six-year-old kid's imagination works like this?
It was while I was inside one of these monster's bellies that I learned what imagination meant. Truth be known, I first learned what fear was and what fear felt like. Not fun. No, sir. I would do as my dad said, get underneath one of mama's quilts and be still, but as I lay there watching the various strange and evil shadows cast on our storm house walls by our only kerosene lamp and those huge brown crickets, I would imagine that these shadows were not mad at me, but my good friends who were watching out for me. I am sorry, God, for being so selfish at this time. (I had to say that). I was a lot scared and selfish combined. I would give my "Shadow Friends" names which made me feel more at peace when I would hear the thunder as loud as any dynamite exploding--that I thought that God was angry at me for something wrong that I had done. But my "Shadow Friends," would stop dancing on the walls, point at me, and whisper, "Shhhhhh, you are not in trouble. Go to sleep." And I would. It was neat for a six-year-old rural kid in "Poverty Central," northwest Alabama, and have friends who are shadows who can really talk to a scared kid.
No one during one of our robust tornadoes or thunderstorms were ever left out of the safe confines in our storm house. Even my dogs, "Frank," and "Button" were allowed to lay in the wooden floor and ride out the storm just as long as they didn't act up. They were fine dogs. None of them ever acted up in any storm. But I cannot tell you that my dad was like that. He did act up when the very sounds of an oncoming storm was coming he would slam shut the door of our storm house while he lay perfectly still. My mama would be quiet, but praying her heart out inside. That was one of the reasons why God always told His cyclones to just get gone, this mama cares a lot about that scared little boy shaking with fear underneath one of her pretty quilts.
If you have never, even in the times that I lived, had the experience of spending time in a real storm house, my friend, you have missed a real treat. I wouldn't steer you wrong. When a series of thunderstorms are traveling over the country, you might hear (and see) one with its lightning, thunder and strong winds . . .and then you will feel a silence that is so scary you thought that time had ended. As I have told you, I was only six, and I would lay here--sometimes in the wee hours of the morning and wait for another storm to hit, but in the waiting, I heard the lumber and tin roof of the storm house play its own brand of music, maybe an unearthly signal that told the forces of Mother Nature that things would be okay. And the storm house along with the untold amount of black crickets in the woods near our shack and what foxes and even a wildcat or two would join in such a peaceful melody that at my 63 years sounds better than any music played by any orchestra.
I would be at a deep fault if I did not tell you about the smell that was in our storm house. Don't be too anxious.We couldn't afford store-bought air freshener, but that was okay. Our storm house was perfectly in good shape by way of smell when the weather was sunny, but when the spring and summer thunderstorms and tornadoes would start up, I could detect the slightest aroma of the dampness in the concrete blocks and dirt walls. I wasn't afraid of this smell. And now I can thank God that I wasn't claustrophobia or when you are six and living in conditions that we lived in, you do not get acquainted with such words as the claustrophobia that might have caused me to have panic attacks which did not exist in 1958 through 1961. Funny how good a person really has it when they are a safe state of ignorance. I never even thought about (this) idea until right now.
Now to tell you in closing about when those spring and summer storms were going over, my dad would sneak a peek each time thunder rolled and then a sharp flash of lightning would pop. He didn't miss a beat. Mama, also who didn't miss a beat, would advise him, "Austin, you looking out that door is not going to help us in here," and somehow he believed her. He believed my sister and myself. By way of explanation, my dad was not a stupid man. In fact he was probably the most complex human being that I ever had the pleasure of knowing. I know that dad is looking at my keyboard typing these words about him and I honestly think that he, mama, and my sister are all smiling about those dreadful, poverty-laden years of having to get inside our storm house to be safe from storms.
And if I were to tell the truth, God is also smiling.
But I still miss my "Shadow Friends."
© 2017 Kenneth Avery