A Tornado Warning Sparks Memories of Israel
Yesterday I was finishing up my Saturday house cleaning when my phone lit up with text messages in all caps. Unbeknownst to me, those gray windless clouds outside were hiding a secret. The secret hovered above, barreling toward us several miles away. My daughter’s family crowded into their first-floor closet and same for my friends. My stepdaughter’s family filed inside my home where we spread out before the basement TV to watch the real time coverage of a bright red screen of tornado clouds spanning our beloved county.
All my life, I’ve experienced occasional brushes with tornados here in South Central Kentucky but never in winter. Never near the Christmas season. Oddly enough, the day was unfolding too much like the worst tornado Kentucky ever encountered exactly two years and one day ago. Even more unusual was the situation for our family. My husband and son-in-law were returning from a hunting trip in Kansas at the exact moments each of these events unfolded.
I watched the sky and the forecast with concern and calmly reassured the children that all was fine. And it was until tornado sirens blared through the pasty air.
That’s when my heart did a flip and I felt like I was right back in Israel, one day after war began only two months ago.
While getting off the tour bus in Jerusalem, a commotion of sound and movement began.
“Go, go, go…” Voices chimed behind me. Energy flooded the street in front of the hotel. A mother grasped her child’s arm, then swept him into her chest in one movement, giant stepping over the curb and through the glass doorway.
I fell into step behind her, off kilter, thanks to the walking stick clacking beneath me with each awkward attempt to keep up with bodies pressing on all sides. The dingy sky and plumes of smoke outside Jerusalem should have been enough to help me recognize the sirens for what they were. Bomb shelter alarms.
It took me a second to translate what sounded like a tornado warning into one more piece of evidence that we were indeed in a country at war, Israel.
At the cusp of the stairwell, sweat seeped through my cotton blouse. How could I maneuver steps in that panic? Of course, my neurological disease had reared its ugly head at a time like this, making stress harder to tolerate with little sensation on my left side.
Hands took hold of my sides and the familiar voice of Terri, my friend, settled my breath. I practically flew down the concrete steps, turning and gliding further and further with the muffled calls of strangers speaking in unfamiliar languages on all sides. Once the recesses of the darkened shelter stretched in front of us, I recognized bewildered faces of every shade. Jews, Christians, and Muslims packed in tight. Cultures, ethnicities and religions of more variety than I’ve likely ever shared such a closed in space with, gathered. An unwritten common denominator held us close like a pack of pencils held taut by a rubber band.
Once the air raid sirens stopped, we drifted back to the cooler air and daylight. The pale faces of hotel staff still catching their breath did little to ease my racing heartbeat. I turned to Terri with a hand on her shoulder. “How did you do that? How’d you lift me like that down all those stairs?”
She paused, saying, “Adrenaline. Pure adrenaline. I don’t know what else it could be.” She swiped a strand of hair away from her face and we shared a look, one that communicated the collective space of all sorts of emotions, most of all, the kind that can’t fit into words.
Despite closed borders and warnings of checkpoints, our American status afforded us an unplanned passage to the land of an ally, Jordan. One that sounded like a distant friend, there when we needed them.
Easing the minds of our family and friends in the states proved difficult. The questions, worries and grim descriptions of news reports piled up as I deflected the hysterical texts from one and messages from people I haven’t seen in years. We were safe. We had a plan to leave the country. I rattled it off as if I believed every word.
Yet when the Muslim call to prayer sounded early in the morning, I stumbled from bed, startled, and shaken. Terri sat up across the room, reminding me it wasn’t another alarm. At least I’d gotten the hang of this war thing.
It was like a dream with suspense of any possibility ahead. We loaded the belly of the bus and sat back in our cushy seats; distractions laid out. Mine was a book, some were plugged into music and cell phones while others stared out the window. The road stretched through mountainous terrain reflecting views of limestone buildings stacked in rows along embankments and storefronts that catered to maternity wear, pharmaceutical products, children’s toys, coffee shops, car repair and a school. A closed school.
Children were at home, however long the war lasted, they locked down in place. Businesses, shops, services, all slowed to a crawl of activity. Policemen and armed military police strode along the sidewalk. I gazed out as the city melted into long sections of desert. Rugged palms, crooked olive trees and banana groves gave way to rocky fields of goats and sheep, an occasional camel or horse waltzed along obscure paths, a human strapped on.
The sky gave up no worries. The bus downshifted into a turn and stopped. Jordan lay beyond a creek sized river that meant no war. No more watching the sky or headlines predicting the next targets. There should be no more signs directing people to bomb shelters or suspicions over thunderous echoes of aircraft.
Not the only group caught up in an instance of lousy timing, we waited through lines of buses. Men and women scrambled through the dusty roadside with roller bags in tow, heading toward the customs and immigration office. Our visit to the border transitioned through a series of steps with hours outside, mostly beneath a metal pavilion before lugging our bags to another bus with a Jordanian guide and bus driver. Those five hours of standing still brought us further than most trips I’ve been on in my lifetime.
We rolled across the bridge that should have called out, “You are safe now.” But with no fanfare, we stored away the memory of entry into a beautiful land that would hopefully remain at peace despite the conflicts arising in neighboring Syria and Lebanon. My only worry was rather selfish. How would we make it back to Kentucky? Our return tickets through Tel A Viv had been canceled for obvious reasons. There I was thinking about getting home to my comfortable existence while residents of Israel were left in turmoil, their way of life threatened along with their existence.
A couple more days of exploring Jordan helped alleviate some of the anxiety building over the unknown. At last, a plan unfolded for our travel home. A two-day journey through Qatar with lay overs and multiple airports ended with our group on U.S. soil. Unpacking the journey and experiences was all too real once my husband extended a bouquet of roses and sunflowers coupled with the tightest embrace in the Nashville airport. The quiet, peaceful rolling hills of Tennessee and Kentucky flashed by from the window of his GMC truck.
Within a couple of hours of walking through my own door, I took my husband’s hand as we paced along a walkway of steppingstones toward a good friend’s wedding. The chilly drizzle of rain was welcome. It somehow set apart the worlds I’d stepped through. Determined to throw myself back into the regular time zone and routine, I lingered within the breezy reception tent as Rachel, the mother of the bride, took the microphone center stage.
A healthy round of support for the newlyweds gripped us with nostalgia.
Then Rachel said, “I know several of you came a long way to celebrate with us, but there’s one person who came further than anyone. Sharon just made it home from Israel.” Rachel turned toward me leading a round of applause. Nearby faces register surprise. Yet as I stood there, still pondering the last few days, I was certain of two things.
I had no regrets. The Holy Land is a dynamic, life-changing experience where my personal faith has been given wings. An outpouring of prayers and support from everyone showed me how many wonderful people cared. When hard times show up, faith and the love of our fellow humans keep us going. While I rested my back against the metal chair among the laughter of wedding guests, I was incredibly thankful for the gift of a new perspective of life in the Middle East while I was right there in Kentucky where I belonged.
Now, over two months outside the experience, I realize how easy it is to remember the startling events. With my family around and the tornado fizzling out, there’s much to be thankful for as our holidays approach. I encourage you to pray for peace and hold your faith close along with your family and friends this season.