You're probably wondering, "Hmm. Alley kids. Sounds interesting. It must be about homeless children living in alleys." Okay, so a confession--it's a catchy title, but what I'm actually talking about is Tornado Alley. You know, that region of the U.S. right in the middle, like the yolk in the center of an egg, where tornadoes and thunderstorms whip up the ground and send cars and cows flying? Yep, that's the one!
I grew up in southern Oklahoma, right smack dab in the middle of tornado alley. Tornadoes have been in the news lately because it's spring, and a massive F5 tornado just smashed its way through Moore, Oklahoma. Very sad. Several children died, and people lost their homes and possessions. I was lucky because all of my family and friends were spared.
I know what it's like to go through tornado watches and warnings. We get them every spring and summer. I live in north Texas now, but it gets its fair share of bad weather. A week before the incident in Moore, a different tornado tore up a neighborhood south of us.
Growing up, we routinely cleaned out the closet and huddled under blankets during tornado watches and warnings. It didn't really seem that scary, as I remember. What is far more memorable are the many times we lost electricity and sat around bored because we couldn't watch television. My mother thought these were prime opportunities for family togetherness though. We'd light candles and sit around making up stories. It was a lot of fun, but whenever the lights would come back on, we'd celebrate and it would be back to tv watching!
Oddly enough, I've never experienced a proper tornado even though I've lived all my life in this region. But there was one time when something whipped through our yard that was either a small tornado or the Looney Tunes Tasmanian Devil passing through. My brother, my dad, and I were out in my dad's garage, which is not actually a garage but more like a storehouse for all the "useful" junk my dad has collected over the years. I don't remember what we were doing out there or how old I was. I must have been about 8 or 9. Suddenly, we looked out the door and saw pieces of wood and old ladies on bicycles flying past. I picked up my dog Toto, and my dad grabbed our hands. There was a slight lull in the atmospheric shenanigans, so we took off across the yard. Now, my parents live on five acres of land. Not that we actually had to cross that much territory, but still, it was a bit of a jog. We dodged pieces of wood, tree branches, sheep, and other flying debris, and slammed through the back door of the house. Panting and excited, we ran into the living room and found my mom reading a book. She looked up at us, puzzled as to why we were breathing so hard. Yeah, we just ran through a tornado, Mom. She had no idea! Another example of the power of a good book!
The upshot of the whole thing is that we lost a barn that had been on the property. We didn't have anything of value in the barn, thank goodness. If I remember correctly, there was a family of cats that lived inside, though. I think I saw the mama cat a few weeks later pushing a shopping cart full of aluminum cans down the road.
My parents now have a storm shelter in their front yard. We've all moved out; it's just the two of them still living there. I suppose they figured it'd be more comfortable hunkering underground without us brats around to bug them. My dad stores huge cans of peanut butter in their shelter. He has a year's supply and keeps up with them by writing the purchase date on each one. I'm not kidding. And they're those big honkin' ones like the kind you need if you're opening an army barracks or something. So if a tornado tears through their property or the undead begin to rise, you'll find my mom and dad sitting underground having a fiesta with their cornucopia of peanut butter. They'll get lots of protein and will hardly have to go to the bathroom at all. A double advantage!
Today is James' birthday.
James is my first cousin. His mother and mine are sisters. We grew up together on a hill in Stringtown, Oklahoma where my grandparents lived. My family and I didn't live in Stringtown, but we visited every weekend.
I remember James was always a sweet guy, ready with a laugh. My cousin Rachel and I used to run up to him, wrap our skinny arms around his chest, and scream, "Daddy!" whenever we saw him. That's the kind of guy he was--the kind you'd want to be your dad.
I say "was" because James passed away almost a year ago after a long, arduous fight with cancer. He fought for years, and I honestly thought that he was going to make it. But God had other plans for him.
Today I am remembering James because it is his birthday, but this is not the only day that he crosses my mind.
James was a nice guy, a genuinely nice guy. It seems like everyone has some sort of shortcoming, and some people make you wonder if their friendliness is authentic or if it's coming out of some sort of self interest. But not James. He was just a good guy.
He worked at the Sonic in Atoka, Oklahoma, and whenever I would pass through, I would often stop there just to say "Hi." He would always come out with a big smile lighting his face and give me a hug. "What ya'll up to?" he'd ask. Even though we didn't see each other much as adults, there was never any awkwardness. It was hard to be awkward around a guy who exuded such friendliness.
Sonic has a program to fund teachers' projects through donorschoose.com called Limeades for Learning. When I was working at Ardmore as a librarian, I decided to try to get a project funded, but I needed to collect those stickers they used to put on the cups. The stickers each had a code you could use to vote online for your project. I knew there was no way I'd be able to get that many people to vote for me, and I was wracking my brain trying to figure out how to get my hands on as many stickers as I could when I remembered that James was the assistant manager of Sonic in Atoka. So I called him up and made a bald-faced plea for sticker codes. It didn't matter that it had been months since I'd last spoken to him. "No problem," he said. He was happy to help me out.
Okay, so I'm a cheater (I prefer "go-getter.), but that's not the point here. The point is that James was a great guy, loyal, humble, and gosh-darn sweet. How could you not love a guy like that?
He took care of his family. It seemed like he worked all the time. I know every time I stopped by Sonic he was there. I wondered if he ever took time to sleep. He sure didn't let cancer slow him down.
It makes you wonder why bad things happen to good people. But for me, I am just grateful that I knew such a good guy and that I happened to be related to him.
I suppose he's somewhere else now...a place where there's plenty of beans and tators like we had when we were growing up, a place where Grandma is still baking biscuits and Grandpa is still drinking a mason jar of milk every night for dinner and telling his stories.
We miss you, James.
Word and Book Lover.