A grace, a love that commands even the wind
On May 30, 1879, a tornado unexpectedly touched down in Ottawa County, KS and traveled along the Solomon River, sucking up water, mud, and trees. Then, it careened across farmland, smashing buildings and killing people and livestock.
I imagine Harry Vossman had gone to the field to tend the young corn plants so important for his family’s survival. When he looked up, he saw the twister heading for his home. By the time he got there, his house had been demolished.
He found his wife outside, dead. He found his mother and sister inside, dead, but he couldn’t find his two-year-old son anywhere.
In shock, he wandered out to the field, only to find seven of his horses, dead.
Most people in that time and place relied on divine help, but who knows if he offered a prayer for his only child.
In his grief, he may have thought the cry came from a barn cat, but it didn’t stop, so he searched among the horses until he found his son, stripped of all his clothes, covered with mud from head-to-toe, but unharmed.
When I was sixteen, a twister hit our home just south of the 1879 tornado. That night the wind blew so hard the second floor of our farmhouse shuddered. Even my great-grandparents’ four-poster bed shook. I lay frozen in that bed, feeling our house heave like a boat in a wild ocean.
Mom opened my door and shone a flashlight into the room. “We’ve got to go to the basement, sis,” she said. My little brother peered out from behind her.
Her small ray of light broke through my paralysis, and I followed her down the dark stairs to the cellar where we huddled, praying amidst the spider webs until our house stopped rocking and the roar ceased.
The next morning, my granddad came to assess the damage. He told us four elm trees had fallen on each corner of the house, anchoring it.
“Those trees saved the house from blowing away,” he said as he and my cousin began the laborious process of cutting them up and dropping them off the roof.
Carrying the logs to the woodpile, I recognized the life-saving coincidence, but it wasn’t until years later I realized it hadn’t been a coincidence at all.
In the Midwest, some folks believe tornadoes have an intelligence. Why else would they consistently strike trailer courts and apartment complexes?
When I heard a tornado had struck Emporia where my teenage son was visiting his dad in a trailer court, I called time after time after time, only to get a busy signal.
Years earlier, an F4 tornado had struck that same area, wiping out a mall and killing six people living in nearby apartments and trailers.
Between classes, my anxiety ramped so high that I leaned against the wall for support and prayed. The next time I punched in the number, it went through, and David’s calm voice said, “Mom, I’m fine. The tornado hit across town, north of here.”
My ex-husband, a police lieutenant, spotted it first, called it in, and raced his police car parallel to it. He said it looked like a pencil dropping down from the clouds. That twisting pencil turned out to be as wide as a football field.
When I visited Kansas later that summer, he took us on a tour of the tornado’s path. Although experts say tornadoes don’t bounce, it looked like it had hopped because one house was destroyed, the next one untouched, and so on throughout town.
That small tornado injured 18 people, dismantled homes and businesses, but killed no one.
Many Native Americans also believe the wind is an intelligent force. Medicine man Perry Robinson says, “When the Navajos talk about winds, there are two types.
Niyol is strong, the one felt blowing against one’s face, while níłch’ih is the Holy Wind or spirit guide that gives life to things and helps direct and protect against evil. It whispers, teaches, and brings help to people.
“Niyol is controlled through níłch’ih and its supernatural power.
“For instance, a tornado can be stopped by leaving an offering and saying a prayer. It is through níłch’ih that the destructive force is commanded.” (Traditional Navajo Teachings: A Trilogy, Volume Two: The Natural World by Robert S. McPherson and Perry J. Robinson)
Fortunately, tornadoes are far and few between in San Juan County; however, we do have hefty winds.
Seven years ago, a southern gale ripped the soffits off our balcony and flung them onto the driveway as if it were nothing to tear a house apart.
Last summer, the derecho, a storm which sometimes produces winds up to a 100 miles per hour, raged through our area, slamming baseball-sized hail against our gardens, trees, and houses. The miracle? No one was hurt.
Even though many of us may not know the ceremonial offerings and prayers to control the niyol, certainly we’ve seen miraculous interventions that come from praying.
For years, I’ve thought about the two-year-old who must have been sucked up into the eye of the tornado and set back down. No doubt, even as young as he was, he remembered the experience and the miracle that preserved his life.
Perhaps, all too often I’ve focused on the storm and resultant tragedy and overlooked the miracle, God’s signature, as Gerald Lund puts it, a grace, a love that commands even the wind.