In my Amish community and family, Independence Day was thought of as a modern holiday. Given the Amish don’t consider themselves patriotic, it is not a big holiday. Even still, there is one Fourth of July that will remain in my memory forever.
The weather was particularly hot and sultry for several days before the fourth. Then on this particular hot July fourth afternoon when I was about twelve years old, the smell in the sticky air was a mixture of rain, and a sharp odor that stung my nostrils. The yellow air was so thick, I felt as though I could stir it with our long-handled wooden spoon. Thick, black, low clouds were rolling in from the northwest. We were sitting outside the house, snapping string beans to can. My dress was sticking to me with my clammy sweat.
When we heard the first thunder in the distance, we moved all the pots of beans in their various stages, into the basement. Before we got everything moved, the wind was swaying the high branches of the big oak and beech trees right outside our house. Then, as the wind became more violent, it seemed to be coming from all directions at once. My brother came home from work and said there were tornado warnings on the radio.
Each summer we moved the oilstove, our table and chairs, and dishes to the basement as a summer kitchen. We all gathered there as lightening cracked at the same time the thunder boomed. The rain came down in sheets. My mouth tasted dry, as though I had just eaten a stale cracker. I heard the wind, thunder, and rain all around us, and saw the bright flashes of lightening, and I felt as though I couldn’t breathe, having to share the stale air with my whole family.
People often say a tornado sounds like trains going by. I didn’t think it sounded like that at all. It sounded more like a thunderstorm gone mad, with the wind, thunder, and lightening coming from all directions at once. I hoped none of the big oak trees would fall on the house.
I was sitting on an old rickety chair with my head resting on my left hand. My shtruvela (stray hair) stuck to the side of my face.
I said out loud, “I am so thirsty.”
An especially loud roll of thunder drowned me out, followed by a flash of lightening and a loud crack and boom. Dad, who had been staring out the window, jumped back and yelled, “I just saw it hit that tree!” as he pointed to somewhere behind the woodshed and outhouse.
The storm lasted at least an hour, and then slowly subsided and the winds died. When we finally came out of the basement we found our house was intact, but several trees had twisted and slivered, and branches the size of young trees lay in the puddles in the yard.
That same night, long after we had gone to bed, Mem came upstairs and woke us up and said we had to go to the basement, this tornado was worse than the one in the afternoon. In my groggy sleep, I heard the storm, but I didn’t want to face it. I refused to go to the basement, and willed myself back to sleep when the others had all gone downstairs. Mem came back upstairs and urged me to do downstairs, but like an ostrich hiding its head in the sand in the face of danger, I hid mine under my pillow. I just couldn’t bear the thought of being in the muggy basement with the whole family in the middle of the night.
Later we found out several of our neighbors had lost many trees. There were strips twenty feet wide or more where the funnel had taken everything in its path. I remember seeing the bare strips in a neighbor’s woods, where the mighty trees had been uprooted and they had all fallen in the same direction. It looked as though some giant had swept his hand along, flattening everything in his way. The trees might have been to the giant as toothpicks were to me. Right next to the giant hand’s path, the trees and bushes were left untouched. It made me realize how small I was compared to the forces of nature.
The Amish used the tornadoes as a reminder of how the power of God is mightier than the power of people, and how our allegiance to God is more important than our allegiance to our nation.