Posted by: Martin Scherer | 30/04/2011

Remember the Twister

Having travelled the world as a child, one might assume nowhere is beyond my limits but for some reason I was never keen to visit America. Once I arrived, I soon found America a spectacular country of wonderful people. One day, I sat wondering why I had been so inhibited. The reasons for our inhibitions often lie in early childhood, often multiple reasons and often perverse. Exploring these reasons reveals how memory works. Whilst we do, lets pray for the safety of Americans whose lives are at risk while I write. 

Born in East Africa, I love thunderstorms. The first you know of an African thunderstorm is its the smell. Not a cloud in the sky, but after dry months, you can smell rain from a hundred miles. Cool and refreshing. Slowly the storm approached. A giant aircraft hanger sliding over, turning day to night. Birds stop singing, animals find safety, I drew the veranda curtains behind me to block out the house lights, so I could watch. Lightening. Count 1,2. Thunder that shook the house. The garden brilliantly lit, leaving an impression on the back of eyes for moments later.  That is called eidetic memory. You see it every time you look at a light bulb. It has no real significance, except to tell you not to do it again.

The storm raged on for hours. We fell asleep to tranquil rain and the distant sound of departing thunder. We woke to a morning dripping in rain, flower beds washed onto lawns, trees and bushes sprouting news leaves and flower buds. A couple more months and I’d be picking mangoes from the garden tree.

Moving to England I found it such a disappointing place. It was five years before I saw a mango again. At a specialist fruit stall in Soho, London. It drew me to it, down and across the road. I picked one up and smelt it. Back into my life flowed the smells, sounds, and images of Africa. We are taught memory lies inside our heads. It doesn’t. We don’t remember until something out there prompts the memory. Some people think memory lies in smell, but that is only because smell is one of the finest senses we have. Most of our taste lies in our smell.  

Away from the prompt we keep our memories by practicing, carrying the memory from one place and time to another. We ‘re-membering’. ‘Re’ means again. ‘membering’ comes from something that prompts us to be ‘mindful’.  Recall is not the real thing. It’s a borrowed, its a borrowed memory, divorced from its roots. We may remember the places of our childhood, but we don’t feel them, sense them, until we return. When we do, back flood people, places, events, we have long forgotten. We are often feel offended by people who have changed our childhood places for they have stolen our memories. There is no such thing as short, medium, or long-term memory. They are false theoretical constructs.    

Humanity has always personified its fears. The God of Thunder has many names, from the ancient Egyptian Set, to the Greek Zeus, Roman Jupiter, Norwegian Thor, Celtic Taranus, Mexican Jasso, Indian Indra, Australian Namarkum, Brazilian Tupa, and American Indian Thunderbird. If you are in Asia and a child runs past calling Idiot, he’s not insulting, but trying to tell you a thunderstorm is approaching. Only science and knowledge can remove such fears.  

Thunderstorms were rare in the UK and often remained in the distance. As a teenager, I must have been one of the first storm chasers, riding my bike and later motorbike in search of distant thunder. You can imagine what I really wanted to see on arrival in Florida.

A hurricane.

One year, I arrived the day before a Category 3 Hurricane was due to hit the gulf coast, some twenty miles south of our house. Unfortunately I was tired when I left the UK, had a bumpy flight and I’d caught a bug on the plane. I slept straight through the hurricane!

I was so disappointed. I phoned my sister who has lived in the US for twenty years and told her. Indignantly she chastised me. Didn’t I realise what a hurricane was? How terrifying? I didn’t expect that. I showed respect for her greater knowledge, but listened to Floridians who told me: Category 3, go to the bar for a hurricane party, with car keys in pocket in case it turns to a Category 4. Category 4, move of the way. Category 5? Run! 

I waited. And waited. For ten years I’ve been waiting. Only once have I seen a thunderstorm and that was a disappointment. Hurricane season is late summer and then I am in the UK. The closest I get to a gulf storm is to track it on the Internet.      

A twister

Then one day whilst in Florida, the TV reported a tornado that hit Tampa, fifty miles up the road. Not a big one, but it rooted me to the TV. Cold fear flooded through my veins. Why?

As a five year old child, on a trip to England, I watched silent movies of Buster Keaton. On in one a twister raced across the plains and struck, shattering houses to match sticks, sucking houses miles into the air in raging winds, to drop them onto the edge of a precipice as Buster Keaton ran unawares from one side the other to keep it balance on the edge. I didn’t laugh. It terrified me. I vowed then, never to go to a country that did that.

But I forgot. Memories are not ‘processed in our heads. I forgot because from the age of five until I sat that day near Tampa, I had never seen a twister on TV. A twister that hit Tampa,  just up the road, dangerously close, and without warning.  But for the grace of God, that could have been me lying dead, that day.

Today on British TV, I watch awesome twisters hit Alabama and Kentucky. Not just one, but one hundred, and more. Whole towns are match-sticks and hundreds are dead.

Only in death do we loose our memories, and that is why some choose to die. Because they hold memories too painful to bear. This is a time to hold those who are today forced to bear such sad memories.

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