The Queen of Dairy, a Shelter in the Storm
And how some kids were saved from the fate of public education
We shivered in the freezer of a Dairy Queen.
Not the part where ice cream and frozen treats are stored. The manager had just squeezed out of that area and closed the door with a thump, making sure it was sealed tight. The power was out, so the freezing air was a precious commodity. She carried two Dilly Bars, trophies from her quick expedition, one for my daughter and one for my oldest son. My youngest, seven years old at the time, was too frightened to eat ice cream. The manager hadn’t offered any Dilly Bars to me or my wife. She had offered shelter, and that was enough.
It had been a muggy Spring night, where the air clung to your skin, so most of us wore short sleeves and huddled together to keep ourselves comfortable. The chill still kissed my arms. If I hadn’t just been pelted with horizontal rain, the cool would have been welcome. Instead, it seeped into the bones.
We could hear the wind outside. Not a constant sound, but the huff and puff of a boxer punching a heavy bag. Sirens warbled, rising and falling in volume. Just a few minutes before, I had been standing at the counter to pick up a mobile order when the lights went out. I ran out to the van and hopped in to see my wife staring through the windshield, her phone lit up but forgotten in her hands.
A funnel of twisting, churning power marched across the horizon, about a mile and a half away. It wore a thick, patchwork cape of clouds, smothering the twilight sky as if a Titan was rolling out a dirty, colorless quilt over the entire world. We parked the van in the lee of the building, protected from the brunt of the accelerating wind, and banged on the door until the manager let us in. She had ushered us behind the counter and through the metal door in the back.
“This freezer is made of one piece and bolted directly to the concrete,” the manager said, her arms crossed. “It’s not going anywhere.” She sounded as confident as a weather anchor, and I wondered if she would have the same record of accuracy.
Besides my family, there were two other customers taking shelter, two men who knew each other. One was nervous, cursing, spouting off every joke that came to his mind, and laughing at every single one. He was his own sidekick in a comedy routine. The other had been in Iraq the day after they killed Osama Bin Laden and said this was nothing compared to the 79 rockets they were hit with while hiding in bunkers. I supposed it was bravado intended as comfort.
My oldest son sighed. “How much longer is this gonna be?” He was the only person in there who seemed calm enough to be bored.
Several people were in a different section, hidden behind a corner. The light from the flashlight only skimmed the surface of the dark and left almost everyone there in shadow.
One girl spoke up. “I hope it hit the school. I don't want to go tomorrow.” She giggled. A few other voices gave their assent, giving a general idea of the average age of the workforce. More nervous conversation followed. Someone started singing The Wheels on the Bus before someone else told him to shut up because it was creepy. Someone offered to start up a game of “telephone,” and someone else said “no” because she didn’t like people whispering.
My youngest son kept wishing we were somewhere else. Disney World. His grandparents’ house. Anywhere. His voice trembled at a high pitch, each word teetering on the edge of a sob.
“Daddy,” he finally said, spitting out the word in barely controlled panic. “Can you pray?”
“Sure,” I said, wondering why I hadn’t thought of it myself. Out of the mouths of babes. The back of his head came just above my waist, and I held him tight with my hands pressed to his chest. I offered a quick prayer for protection and calm and that no one would be hurt. Nothing eloquent, but honest.
“Whoa, is he praying?” A scrawny teenager with mild acne stood next to the manager. His voice tilted up to a lilt at the end of every word. “I don’t know how I feel about that.” He looked to be working himself up to a fit, but like a dog panting in the shade, just couldn’t muster the energy.
“Amen,” said the manager at the end of my prayer, and that ended that conversation.
Soon after, the tension in the air had melted. We all knew the danger had passed, though no words to that effect passed through anyone’s lips. The wind still blew outside, but we heard no threats in its whistles and whispers. There was a knock at the freezer door.
The district manager came in, asking if everyone was alright and saying that we were in the clear. The manager yelled out instructions to her employees for cleaning up and closing up. There were a few groans. Now that the excitement and danger had faded, only the drudgeries of fast-food service remained. I had been in their shoes once. A long, long time ago.
My family and I made our way home through back roads and detours because so many trees and power lines were down. The winds had blown a few shingles off our roof, though we wouldn’t know it until the morning. Compared to the last scrape with a tornado, where our house suffered a total knockout, losing a few teeth seemed a victory.
The storm did save the high schoolers from their fate of public education, at least for a day. They didn’t get the brick-by-brick destruction of the school they wished for, the kind that many homes in the area suffered, but it was enough. Like crumbs from the master’s table, they accepted the tornado’s meager blessing.
I never did get the ice cream I ordered.
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