Godless tornadoes

The other day I was next to one of Decatur, Georgia’s outdoor warning sirens when it delivered its monthly test wail. I’ve heard it many times before (approximately monthly, in fact) but I’d never been so close to it while it was going off.

It’s very loud. So loud that for a minute I stopped what I was doing and thought about them.

Grosvenor Elementary School in Bethesda, Maryland, where I went to kindergarten, had such a siren in its parking lot. It wasn’t a tornado siren though. It was an air raid siren. That’s what all of those sirens are.

My elementary school years were mid-late Cold War, and we were an ICBM’s throw from the U.S. Capitol, White House and Pentagon. So we had drills. Not duck-and-cover. More like a mellow fire drill, but the fire was Marxism-Leninism.

I recall when the siren was tested we’d gather and sit criss-cross applesauce*. I imagine many of us plugged our ears. I plugged mine the other day. Those things are loud.

My kids don’t know them as air raid sirens. We call them tornado sirens. Our town’s sirens, and probably your town’s sirens, are maintained via a grant from the federal government. The alarm hardware we built for the Cold War turned out to be more durable than the Soviet Union though. Rather than tear the sirens down and turning them into freedom funnels, we kept them and rebranded them. As tornado sirens.

The idea that tornadoes and Communists are co-equal threats to the American Way of Life isn’t recent. It was part of the popular discourse as early as 1979, coincidentally the year I was in kindergarten.

In an episode of the WKRP in Cincinnati, a sitcom about a struggling radio station, the hapless-but-self-serious news reporter Les Nessman panics because he doesn’t have a contingency plan for going on-air to talk about tornadoes. He does however, have a script for a Soviet invasion. At the station manager’s suggestion, Les repurposes his Soviet-invasion contingency plan for the tornado.

10 or so years later, hundreds of American municipalities pulled a Les Nessman, repurposing our nation’s air raid sirens to defend us against Communism’s windy cousin.

(*For those who haven’t been around kids since being casually racist in schools started going out of fashion, it’s the sitting Style Formerly Known as Indian.)