EAST of NORMAL
Has it really been almost sixteen years now? Sixteen years since the epoch of blue rooftops? When Mother Nature bounced off Charlotte, blew out windows downtown and then opened a can of catawampus all over East Nashville? Indeed it has been.
That afternoon, in April of 1998, I was leaving work at that sober bastion of weak smiles otherwise known as Vanderbilt Medical Center. I’d snuck out a few minutes early and just missed the lockdown, when security sealed the whole place up and wouldn’t let anyone leave. I was strolling across the Peabody campus commons under dark skies when the wind whipped up. This being Nashville, where high winds and dark clouds mean rain, I made it my mission to make it to my truck before the squall opened up.
Buildings were on all sides of me, obscuring the horizon. Over the rooftops to my left, I noticed that the clouds had begun to move quicker than I’d ever seen clouds move, and there seemed to be an arc to them. Then the whole commons came alive. Trees began to bend, and leaves that had been settled in shrubbery since the last autumn flew straight into the air. The wind actually ripped my shirttail right out of my trousers. I bent forward, put my head down, and walked on. I saw a yellow diamond “Watch For Pedestrians” sign swinging left and right, like it was going to come out of the ground and take flight. It didn’t occur to my tiny little mind what might be going on. After all, this is Nashville; we don’t have tornadoes. That’s a Kansas thing.
It was over in less than a minute, followed by an eerie calm. I made it to my truck at 16th and Edgehill and turned on the radio. There was not a station to be found until I flipped over to AM and found life. I don’t remember what the announcer was saying but it was along the sanitized lines of, “What the f— was that?!?”
Cell phones weren’t pervasive then. I didn’t have one. I just drove on home, to find the answering machine full of entreaties from Kentucky relatives, all checking on my heavily pregnant wife and me, hoping we were OK. I thought, “Why wouldn’t we be OK?” It still hadn’t dawned on me that I’d taken a stroll through the outer reaches of an F3 tornado, if it is possible to “stroll” through such a thing.
We all spent the next few days calling friends, especially the ones in East Nashville, to ascertain everyone’s sense of well-being. Thankfully, most everyone was OK, although a student in Centennial Park, trapped under a felled tree, perished. Then the blue tarps came to decorate so many desiccated rooftops. Why they were all blue—and never a red or a green one, or a nice mauve—I don’t know. I guess a company making blue tarps had a lock on the market.
That weekend was full of rattled weirdness, the most entertaining instance for me being the next night at the Sutler during a Tin Pan South writers round with Bill Lloyd, Ross Rice, and a liquored-up New Yorker who’d been a Gin Blossom for five minutes and apparently had Pablo Escobar on speed-dial.
But that’s a story for another time.
— Tommy Womack is a singer-songwriter and author, and a former member of both Government Cheese and the bis-quits. His memoir, Cheese Chronicles, has just been released as an e-book by Amber House Books. Visit his website at tommywomack.com and keep up via his popular “Monday Morning Cup of Coffee” series. His column, "East of Normal," appears in every issue of The East Nashvillian. He is currently working on both a new memoir and his seventh solo record.