Wilson came into my life about two years ago. That was when James Spann, Birmingham’s most intrepid weatherman, boosted the bicycle helmet industry by wisely urging citizens of Alabama’s tornado-prone counties to add bicycle helmets to their “safe place” stashes of flashlights, quilts, pillows, snacks, and whatever else might be comforting while cringing beneath the roar of a freight train.
Twice a year, in April and November, Wilson curls up on a thick, comfy quilt in my guest bathroom tub, which at least theoretically would be the safest location in my non-basement abode. Some of my friends have puzzled about Wilson, not immediately recognizing his wide grin and button nose the way I do. I don’t see dead people like young Haley Joel Osment, but I do see faces and other shapes in the patterns of cupboard doors and floors and yes, even bicycle helmets. There is a name for this—pareidolia, which is defined as seeing images of things that do not exist. Think face in a cloud or man in the moon. So far, I haven’t seen Jesus or anybody else in my grilled cheese sandwiches or potato chips, but I will admit that the tile flooring in my master bathroom sports a handsome profile of Charlton Heston looking like Moses right alongside a cute little chihuahua dancing on its hind legs.
When I packed the car to head for Gulf Shores a couple weeks ago, I decided to take Wilson along because it was April in Alabama and the intrepid Spann, in white shirt and suspenders, was beating the Doppler drum about severe weather. Wilson promised he’d accompany me to the nearest ditch if we spotted any twisters, so we dropped off Gracie and her doggy paraphernalia with neighbors who actually ask if they can keep her for a few days once in a while. Then we headed towards Montgomery.
Though foggy and cloudy that morning, I’d concluded from constant weather reports that we’d be well south of Birmingham before any tornados arrived. Dogwood, redbud, wisteria, and azaleas were all in bloom as we drove along Highway 119 towards I-65, with deeply overcast skies enhancing the floral colors almost to a glow. Wilson, positioned in the backseat wearing a jaunty straw hat, was able to nap the whole way. I only used the wipers once or twice for light showers.
The suspendered Spann and other network weather gurus had pegged the time of danger after eleven o’clock that morning and the location “most likely” northwest of Birmingham. They got the timing right, but that was about all. Later that evening, snuggled into a little blue cottage across the road from the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, I watched the TV coverage in horror—ground and aerial footage of mind-boggling devastation from what would be upgraded to an EF-3 tornado that tore through Greystone Farms and Eagle Point, only a few stones’ throw from my own neighborhood southeast of the city.
Fortunately, thanks to Doppler and helmets and other measures, there were no serious injuries or fatalities this time, but horizons were forever changed, and scores of homes would need to be rebuilt completely. Blue roof tarps, toppled trees, and traumatized residents were everywhere from Hugh Daniel Drive on over to Highway 31. Major newscasters across the country uttered the words “Eagle Point” and “Greystone,” prompting piles of emails and texts to me and many others, checking to see if we were okay.
I talked to TOR that evening. The terror was still clear in her voice as she described huddling in a closet and then venturing out to discover what was left of her neighborhood. All she lost was a fence and some patio furniture, but just two doors down, there was no roof at all.
Though government often gets a bad rap—sometimes deservedly so—it was nice to hear from her that City of Hoover firefighters and other personnel were on the scene in Greystone within minutes, checking door to door, helping clear driveways and doorways, and checking for gas leaks. Church groups arrived with bottled water and snacks, hugs and reassurances.
Even intrepid meteorologist James Spann was not spared. Broadcasting from his TV studio, gesturing and exhorting people to get to their safe places, it must have been scary when he realized his own home was in the emerging path. Fortunately, his wife had gone to their basement safe place before the twister tore up their roof and downed trees all over their yard, but still, certainly scary.
Members of Spann’s daily prayer group showed up Saturday morning to help clear debris, and in an interview with a local newspaper, Spann commented on something I’ve learned to be true through the years. When it comes to helping others, there are times when asking if you can help or asking what you can do just isn’t enough because folks are likely to say they’re fine whether they are or not. Of the prayer group friend who called to offer help, Spann said simply, “He didn’t ask. He just said we’re coming.” Sometimes that’s exactly what is needed.