What I Didn’t Know

Author: Rachel Plassmeyer Bené ’10

Sunday evening, May 22, 2011. Sitting on my parents’ couch, sipping from a water bottle. Thunder rumbles in the distance as the sky darkens and the wind picks up. Another storm is coming in. I look over my shoulder out the window behind me to see the first raindrops fall, but then turn back to the TV. The weather team interrupts my show, butting in with closeups of their serious faces.

Take shelter, they say, and I’m only half-listening — every year around this time, dozens of summer thunderstorms crop up and sweep through. I pull up Facebook on my phone and lay back on the couch. The weatherman says golf ball-sized hail, a wall cloud, possible rotation. Same things he said about the last storm. I keep scrolling, rain now pounding the windows. Lightning flashes, then the sirens start. I look up to see the radar map on the TV screen, reds and yellows barreling across the Midwest region I call home. He says it will pass within the hour. This is a fast one. I look back to my scrolling, never leaving the couch as the sirens wail.

Saturday evening, June 25, 2011. Sitting in the car on a three-hour road trip home. Everyone is quiet, processing everything we had just seen and done. I am tired, sad and scared at the same time, and I can tell the others with me don’t know which feeling to focus on either. That day we were clean-up volunteers.

Five weeks earlier, the costliest tornado in U.S. history touched down in Joplin, Missouri. We had heard a news broadcast asking for continued cleanup help, and because our weekend was free, we signed up. I did not know what we were in for, but I had at least expected there to be a town.

There wasn’t.

I think about how our car ride to southwest Missouri was a typical road trip, playlists and gas station snacks and laughter. I think about how we saw the signs for Joplin and kept saying that everything looked normal, where was the tornado path? How we had turned that corner close to our check-in point and all of a sudden the flattened landscape took my breath away. We had rolled our windows down for a better view only to immediately roll them back up when the smell of decay in the summer sun was too much.

I think about the exhausted faces who greeted us at the church when we arrived. How they had offered hollow smiles and monotone instructions: keep your gloves on, turn in any personal effects you find, don’t step inside any structure still standing. My heartbeat quickens as I think back to that Sunday afternoon in May and how I brushed off the storm and the sirens. How riding out dozens of similar storms during my lifetime has made me blind to their power.

I think over the day and how we worked in a reverent silence, acknowledging without ever saying that we were walking over a mass grave. I close my eyes and picture the old photograph I found and turned in, one corner shredded, young couple seated at a table and smiling. “Ed and Jeanne, 1986” was written in pencil on the back.

I wonder if Ed and Jeanne are now staying in the American Red Cross shelter or with their relatives. Please let them be OK. I open my eyes. I can’t think any more about them, so I open my phone, google “Joplin” and click the first headline. The news story says that first responders rescued 17 people from the rubble the day after the tornado. Seventeen! Positive, uplifting. I read on, but it’s not long until the article takes a turn. Only 134 of the 146 sets of remains pulled from the debris have been identified. I close my phone.

I think about how all of these people — living in Missouri, accustomed to these summer storms, blind to their power — may have done the same thing that I did and stayed on their couches when the weathermen said to take shelter.

Considering this for a moment, I realize how much I did not know before this trip to Joplin.   

I did not know that the sky could fully bring the earth to its knees, churning black in anger, screaming through neighborhoods, shrouded in rain. I had not smelled the musty dry dirt and gasoline cloud that hangs for weeks after it’s over. I did not recognize a tornado’s irreconcilable fickleness, leveling a house to its foundation and then timidly pulling off a few shingles next door.

I never knew a tornado as both vengeful and gentle. It showers down entire dried cornfields and plucks mattresses from bedframes. A tornado wraps pickup trucks around trees and throws smashed buses down ravines. Then, in the same few seconds, it lifts a full chest of drawers — unbroken mirror still attached — and sets it down in the street five blocks over without cracking a splinter of wood. I was unaware that tornados play bar games: fence posts as darts, aimed at the one remaining wall of a high school gymnasium; poker using doors ripped from hinges as cards, neatly stacked on Main Street; craps using propane tanks as dice, dented where they hit against cracked parking lots.

I did not know that tornados blow in through doors and windows, fling mud on the walls, then leave everything else untouched, disappearing like an interrupted thief. I never knew that a tornado will use the same gust to find small and large things to touch, ripping up manhole covers like Frisbees and knocking down all the walls of a Home Depot like dominoes.

I never knew a tornado as nostalgic, preserving family photo albums and high school diplomas half-buried in the red Ozark dirt.

Before Joplin, I thought I did know about these summer storms’ fury. I grew up watching the weather, I’d seen the sky turn green, I’d picked hail up off the ground. Turns out I knew nothing of a tornado’s brutal truth. Before Joplin, I had never heard the freight-train silence of a defeated town, never felt betrayed by the sky, never stood in a subdivision looking straight ahead for miles, unobstructed.

Before Joplin, I never went to the basement during the sirens.

Now, I know better.

Rachel Bené’s essay received an honorable mention in this magazine’s 2019 Young Alumni Essay Contest. She lives in St. Louis and works as an independent grants consultant for local nonprofit organizations.