Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Terrible Tuesday

Mostly I expected this blog to be about my morbid fascination with historic true crime and epidemic disease. But in thinking about things to write I've come up with several other morbid fascinations as well, and one of those is my subject for today. I have a morbid fascination with severe weather and natural disasters as well, which stems from some of my experiences as a native of North Texas. Twenty-eight years ago yesterday was Terrible Tuesday, April 10, 1979, when an outbreak of tornadoes ripped through my hometown and other small communities nearby. I was seven, and I will never forget it. I'm going to draw on some previously written materials for this post, but nothing I've ever published or put out in a public forum like this.

First it can help to know that we had tornado watches and warnings all the time, and this is how they'd usually go.

Now, a watch simply means that conditions are right for a tornado to form but none has actually materialized. Watches are annoying to us, since they don’t really tell you anything you don’t already know in April, and they result in an annoying crawl along the bottom of thescreen while you’re watching “Hee-Haw” on Saturday night and waiting for your dad to pick up the babysitter so he and your mom can go for steaks at Fats McBride’s and two-stepping after.

A tornado warning I remember this way. There has been a tornado watch all day, all week, all month, who knows. But this one is different because the air is a little bit still and and metallic and yellowish-green on the walk home from school, and the rain starts heavya s soon as we get in the door and is almost horizontal by the time “That’s Incredible” comes on. The scattering of hail starts with a blast against the skylights. Golfball-sized hail from the sound of it. The weatherman confirms this a minute later. We’ve got the police scanner on just for extra news. It’s crackling and mumbling to itself in sheriff-speak on the end table by Dad’s recliner.

The watch is widening, the bottom of the screen scroll lengthening ascounty names are added: Archer, Baylor, Clay, Commanche, Cotton, Jefferson, Montague, Wichita, Wilbarger. I learned my regional geography from weather maps and lists of counties on tornado watch. We go about our evening mostly as usual because it might just be asevere thunderstorm like any other—-maybe the roof will lose a shingle or two, and the extra car will suffer some hail damage—-but the scanner stays on because you never know.

Then, the sirens sound. That’s the signal that it’s not just a drill, someone somewhere in the county has spotted the funnel cloud and we probably ought to take shelter. There are two options.

One: we could gather up some blankets and the dogs and a flashlight and a radio, maybe even some cookies or something, and retreat to the confines of mysister’s closet, which is the only suitable small place in the house with no windows and all interior walls, and which we keep reasonably cleaned out for this purpose.

Two: we could bodily pick up those same squirming overfed dogs and struggle across the rain-slicked street tothe well-appointed storm cellar in the Stilleys’ yard.

Thinking back I’m not sure how we usually determined which choice to make. It could have been dependent on how close we heard the tornado was and therefore how much time we thought we’d have to take shelter. Or maybe we would have called the Stilleys up to see if they were headed out to the cellar. More likely it depended on whether or not wewere dressed and ready enough to scramble outside in the weather.

So we'd be out there in the cellar for a while, listening to the scanner and waiting for the all clear. The weatherman begins repeating himself and changes the projected ending time of the warning from 11:30 to 11:15 to 11:00. Promising, but we’re not off the hook yet.

Then we hear on the scanner—the farmer who first called in the funnel cloud sighting has confirmed that the twister has faded from a funnel to a wisp to nothingness, that he’s on his way out to check the damage to the barn, and that we citydwellers can all go back to bed. We gratefully burst back out into the sweet smelling rainy night laughingwith relief and calling our goodbyes to the neighbors. At home, the scanner continues to crackle, and the tornado watch continues to scroll along below the Johnny Carson Show, but nothing else is different beyond a few lost shingles and some new dents in the neighbor boy’s already battered hand me down pickup truck.

At least that was how it usually happened. There was one exception and it was a big one. Terrible Tuesday, it was called locally. Weather professionals call it the Red River Cluster of 1979. It was the worst tornado most people in Texoma ever saw or ever hoped to see, and it changed everything.

For me it started the way the other tornadoes I described earlier did, with the tornado watch and the rain and yellowish sickly air and thehail. I was spending the night at the Burgers’ house. Frank and Anita had two girls. Kelsey was a year older than me,and Valerie was my sister Amy’s age. Amy and Valerie were best friends. Kelsey and I didn’t get along quite as well; I think that each of us thought that the other was too bossy. But we still hung out, and often we kids would trade houses for the night, so this particular evening I was staying with Kelsey and Valerie was staying with Amy at our house.

The night of the tornado I remember sitting on their couch, watching Kelsey on the other couch watching the TV scroll warning about the bad weather. After that I don’t remember anything else until the tornado wasalready coming through. We must have all heard the sirens and Frank must have taken the mattress off the bed, because we were under it, Frank and Anita and Kelsey and me all together in the hallway. It was dark, and the wind was loud and there were tapping and whistling and banging noises outside, debris I guess hitting the walls and the neighbors’ walls. We were saying the rosary. I remember feeling ashamed because I couldn’t remember the prayers. I knew them, my dad and the Sunday school teacher had taught me the Hail Mary as soon as I could talk, but I must’ve been scared because I couldn’t remember. ButI do remember Frank and Anita’s voices saying it over and over, Hail Mary full of grace the Lord is with thee…

The Burgers’ house wasn’t hit. Our house wasn’t hit. I don’t know how long we huddled under that mattress with its blue stripes and buttons that I still remember almost 30 years later. The next thing I can call up in my mind is a car ride home. The air smelled like mud and tinfoil and fresh cut wood. I think Frank drove the car, and I think Kelsey came with us. I know I was more terrified right then thanI had been under the mattress, because I felt so exposed out there in the strangely clean quiet air with the splinters and shingles and branches and glass in the yards and on the sidewalks. I had visions ofthe tornado coming back and the windows of the car bursting in on us. I don’t even know how I knew to be afraid of something like that having never been in a tornado before. I couldn’t have known at the time how devastating this storm had been. It wasn’t until a day later that any of us knew.

Here’s Wikipedia on the topic. And here's a map of the three tornadoes' paths.

With the paths marked in that dark red, they look like open wounds to me, like clawmarks.

And here are pictures of the tornado itself, which don't even do justice to how huge it was.

Finally, some damage pictures.

I remember walking around days after and seeing sights like these. Especially the mall, we shopped there all the time and it was pretty torn up. The one above the mall is from McNeil Junior High School.

It was very frightening to me as a young child. Later, at slumber parties, we kids would tell gruesome ghost stories, like all kids do, but ours were always adapted to be about people who had died in the tornado, who had been crushed or cut or decapitated. I think now that ghost stories and urban legends like this are often ways for children to try to deal psychologically with scary occurences like tornadoes or floods or car crashes or whatever.

Fifty six people died, and 1,916 were injured. I didn't personally know any of the dead at the time, but Ronald Dale Harbour was the father of a boy that I later went to high school with at Rider, which was rebuilt after being almost destroyed in the tornado.

I also remember something about Kelly and Ember Hull from the list of those who died. Some days after the tornado, there were obituaries for most of the victims in the paper, and I remember looking at the page and being fascinated by the picture of two little girls around the same age as mysister and me. The story I heard about them was that they took shelter with their grandparents in the bathtub of their home (which along with closets and hallways is a recommended place to take shelter if you have no cellar) but the tornado hit their house directly and they were picked up out of the bathtub by the wind and killed by debris in the funnel cloud. I was frightened for years afterward thinking about them.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Carlo Gesualdo: Composer, Cuckold, Killer

I sing in the choir at my church, and since this is Holy Week that's pretty much ALL I've had time to do. I love the Lenten music, it's so dramatic, so overwrought, so sorrowful and agonized and just dripping with despair. It really appeals to this dark side of mine. Plus it's really fun to sing, full of dissonance and resolution, swelling from a whisper to a cry, with all those high notes sopranos like me love to show off on.

Anyhow last week, on Palm Sunday, we sang a piece by late-Renaissance Italian composer and nobleman Carlo Gesualdo. Our choir director included a small biographical blurb on him in the mass program, that referenced family connections (his uncle became Saint Charles Borromeo, and his mother was the niece of Pope Pius IV) and the beautiful innovation of his compositions, which used chromaticism well before pretty much anyone else did. The paragraph ended with: "Gesualdo was also famous for several murders."

Well, ok, this piqued my interest. Besides it being a rather abrupt shift in tone, how often do you read about murderers in the Sunday mass program? Plus, Simon rather coyly left out any detail whatsoever about these famous murders. Who'd he murder, and why, and how? So a'Googling I went.

Gesualdo lived from around 1566 to 1613, and besides being a musical prodigy, composer, and murderer, was the Prince of Venosa and Count of Conza. He married his first cousin (with special papal permission according to some sources), and apparently that was his first big mistake. At least one source references Gesualdo's usual having been "the other young boys that he sang with" but apparently that was considered such a terrible problem by his family until his older brother died, leaving Carlo as the last great hope to produce a male heir and continue the line. If they didn't get quiet Carlo a wife and get them down to their babymaking duties, the family fortune could have ended up with the papacy instead of with the rest of the clan, and no one wanted the pope to get all their loot. That's where Donna Maria D'Avalos came in.

Cousin Donna was already a widow twice over with demonstrated fertility in the form of two children. As one of the victims of Gesualdo's famous murder she comes in for a pretty bad rap, because she was having an affair with the Duke of Andria, Fabrizio Carafa. Who, unsurprisingly to any of us who feel we've heard this kind of story before, was the other victim, stabbed with his married lover after the two were caught in bed together by the wronged husband.

I'm not one to condone infidelity, but on the other hand, it's easy for me at least to sympathize with Donna Maria to some extent. She was stuck in an arranged marriage to a homosexual workaholic (Gesualdo, by all reports, was more interested in his harpsichord than in his home life). And maybe Fabrizio was a dish, who knows. She certainly must have been lonely. Carlo was paying so little attention to his marriage that he didn't even notice the affair going on for two years under his own roof until his uncle, Don Giulio (NOT the saintly uncle), ratted out Donna in a fit of pique over her refusal to sleep with him as well.

Regardless of Donna and Fabrizio's motivations for the affair--lust, boredom, true love?--they certainly didn't deserve what happened when Gesualdo caught them red-handed and bare-assed. He stabbed them repeatedly, probably with help from his servants. The Duke of Andria died of "deep sword wounds, as well as by a shot through the head." Donna Maria was mutilated "in those parts which she ought to have kept chaste," according to court documents of the time. Fabrizio was found dressed in Donna Maria's nightgown, almost certainly put on him as a form of posthumous humiliation. Both bodies were displayed at the local church for everyone to see. There was even a rumor that a a San Dominican monk ravished Donna Maria’s corpse while it was displayed.


What fascinates me about this case is not so much the murder, as the aftermath. As a nobleman, and a wronged husband, there was no question that Carlo Gesualdo would get away with the crime. Contemporary accounts called Donna Maria a "strumpet," and it seems that Gesualdo had nothing to fear from the law, only from his late wife's family who might have sought revenge. There were whispers of course--even claims that Gesualdo went on to murder his and Donna Maria's infant son and Donna Maria's father--but no one ever brought him to justice.

In a way however, he brought himself to justice. This is the part of the story that intrigues me, especially now, during Lent, which is a time for penitence. Penitence has a major role in the history of criminal justice; that's where the term "penitentiary" comes from after all. But mostly, criminals don't seem very penitent in the accounts you hear these days. Especially men who have committed violence against women, especially cheating wives, especially cheating wives caught naked in bed with their paramours.

Some criminals don't feel sorry because they are sociopaths, and lack conscience, which is the capacity to feel sorrow or guilt. Others, I'm convinced, aren't necessarily incapable of feeling guilt by nature, but instead cannot allow themselves to do so because that would mean first admitting that they were wrong, and second opening themselves up to the despair of knowing that they have done something truly evil that they cannot take back. They must maintain their innocence, or justify their actions, in order to construct the denial that gets them through the day, the year, the life sentence.

Gesualdo is interesting to me because he couldn't maintain that denial, and he didn't entirely lack conscience. No one punished him, so he punished himself. He became a virtual hermit, rarely leaving his castle for the last decade and a half of his life. He did remarry when forced to by his family, but the union was, unsurprisingly, unhappy. He had the forest on his estate cut down, leaving his surroundings barren and lifeless. Even more disturbingly, he required his servants to beat him daily. There was one servant for whom this was a primary duty. What a job to have!

And then there's his music. We can't prove, of course, that he took his compositions from the Bible's most difficult and painful source texts because of his guilt, but it's pretty suggestive. The motet we sang on Sunday oozes pain and conflict. It speaks of suffering beyond measure, supposedly that of Christ on the cross, but possibly Gesualdo's own suffering as well.

Don't get me wrong, none of this excuses him, and none of it makes it ok that he got away scotfree. And I'm certainly not one of those people who thinks that mental imbalance is necessary or even all that helpful for artistic brilliance. However I do think that our destructive impulses and our creative impulses spring from the same place within us, from the sum of our experiences and personal idiosyncracies.

And I wonder, is punishment meted out from society good for the soul, not only the soul of the murderer's victim, but the soul of the murderer himself? If he had been punished by his community, would he have felt the need to continue punishing himself? Would he have composed the motet we sang last Sunday?

O vos omnes, o vos omnes... oh you people passing by, attend and see, is there any sorrow, any sorrow, like unto mine?


My sources for this entry:

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Hurray for Plague

Here's a little insight into the part of my personality that led me to start this blog. A couple of weeks ago I was watching tv, when a commercial came on for a show on the Black Plague. My response? I shouted in to my long-suffering boyfriend, who was checking out Spring Training stories online in the next room, "All right, plague! There's a show on plague tomorrow, and you KNOW I feel about plague!"

I feel that such enthusiasm for a scourge that killed millions of real people the world over must be wrong. But that's just the way I am. It's a morbid fascination, and I just have to accept that about myself. Hence, this brand new blog.