The longer you live overseas, the less you feel tethered to the American mothership.
This month, I’ve been overseas for 20 years, and I’ve missed so much.
To put this into perspective… I was in New Zealand, half a world away from America, when:
— The Murrah Building was bombed
— Gulf War II was launched
— The horrific 9/11 attacks happened.
Because I was not on home soil when America was attacked — first by our own crazies in OKC and then by jihadders in NYC and Washington, D.C. — I never felt “personally” threatened. Those two hideous events were not directly — emotionally or intellectually — encoded into my “threat” DNA.
So I am different. I will never be able to think, or more importantly, to feel, like most Americans, especially on matters of terrorism and national security, because they were attacked on the very soil they were standing on.
I was not. I was standing on New Zealand soil. And that made a big difference.
Yet, even though I’ve lived in NZ for half of my adult life, and I have dual citizenship, I am not a Kiwi. I don’t sound like one. I don’t think like one. I mean, how can a citizen from a super power ever think like someone from a country that has eight times as many sheep as people? A Hobbity country that no one wants to blow up?
So, you see, I am caught betwixt and between. I’m an American, but not totally any more; somewhat removed. And I’m part Kiwi, by osmosis, but only a little bit.
It has made me feel like a man without a country.
On the plus side of being away from America for two decades, I haven’t had to suffer through Donald Trump, Howard Stern, the demise of the Dallas Cowboys, reality television, pat-downs at airports, recessions and chronic unemployment, and the mud-slinging orgies which seem to have replaced presidential elections.
On the down side, I’ve had to make due without my beloved TexMex, Dr Pepper, OU T-shirts, Monday Night Football, Rockport shoes, 7-11 Big Gulps, Netflix, and Walmart pricing, because, in a country of 4 million people, there is no such thing as economy of scale.
All things considered, I have been adrift from the U.S. for a very long time; drifting further and further away every year.
But last week, I felt like an Oklahoman. Right down to my boots.
Despite all the years and all the miles, and the lack of so many shared experiences, I felt like an Okie through and through; so much so that it startled me. Deep in my gut, I felt pain and fear and helplessness as I watched what that damned Cat 5 tornado did to Moore, a city maybe five minutes from my hometown, Norman.
From the moment the twister hit, I could not do any work at all. I was glued to my laptop, transfixed, watching news in real time. It made me sick to my stomach, and slowly, over the hours, pushed me into darkness. Yet I just couldn’t stop watching.
In that way, it was like September 11 to me. On that day in infamy, I felt patriotically obliged to watch those planes fly into the World Trade Center, over and over and over again; to share the awful pain with other Americans.
Last week, when the tornado crushed Moore, it wasn’t the same. Yes there was pain and fear and helplessness. But it felt different. And it’s taken me more than a week to figure out why.
I think it’s this. While the 9/11 terror attacks wrenched my guts, and I truly feared for America, the attacks didn’t seem real, somehow. They were like something horifically awful happening to innocent people who were a long way from me, and different from me.
Sure, I’d been to New York City before, but only on a fly-in-fly-out basis as a reporter. Emotionally, intuitively, genetically, I’m different from them. My grit is not New York grit. I could not then, and I cannot now, relate to living in a city of 8 million people or working in a 110-story building. That’s not in my DNA. So in some weird internal way, the 9-11 attacks were somewhat removed from me.
Please don’t get me wrong! I am in no way trying to reduce the tragedy or impact of 9/11, on every American, including me. The attacks were huge, horrific and evil. They created a new normal that is not in any way normal. Maybe 9/11 was just too big for my small mind to grasp. Or maybe it was just different to someone who was born and bred in Oklahoma and living overseas.
I only get my Okieness now. I only now understand that my people are different. They have a Dust Bowl history and twisters in their DNA. They have three seasons, Summer, Winter and Tornado. That’s just how it is.
Even when I was four or five, tornadoes were real. I will never forget my best friend Steve racing crazy, out-of-control through my house while screaming, “Ponado coming!”
I will never forget the omnipresent tornado warnings of Spring and Fall. And, every now and again, the stress on Mom and Dad’s faces as they tried to figure out if it was bad enough to get into our car and race to Aunt Mackie’s tornado shelter.
I will never forget being caught in the mother of all hailstorms while driving down the highway. I truly thought I was about to die in a shower of broken glass.
And I will never forget watching greenish, cyclonic activity start directly above my sister’s house in Quinton, OK, forcing us into the dark root cellar because we were more afraid of what was above than the copperheads below.
Because of all this, and more, tornadoes are personal to me, and to all Oklahomans.
That’s why when that damned killer tornado tore through Moore, it was my disaster. I could feel the barometric pressure drop; taste the pouring rain; feel the whipping wind; and hear the train overhead. The Moore tornado literally stirred up the red dirt in my veins. And it made me weep.
Then, a few days later, despite an oppressive, lingering darkness of spirit, I started to feel proud.
Like when an Okie spray painted this on the rubble of their house: (“Tornado, you hit like a girl.”)
Like when my vet-tech niece left her clinic in Arkansas to come home and care for stray animals in Moore.
Like when I watched You Tube clips of Blake Shelton’s “Healing in the Heartland” concert, and I teared up right alongside Miranda and the 14,000 Okies in the audience.
Because this stuff was my stuff. It was absolutely real to me. I was there. Back home. Amongst my kin. Thinking that I really am “Sooner born and sooner bred, and when I die I’ll be Sooner dead.”
Since the tornado, I’ve found myself praying often and hard for the poor people who lost their homes, and especially — especially — for the parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins who lost their babies under the bricks. And almost every time, my eyes flood with tears.
The enormity of their loss, of our loss as Oklahomans, has had an unexpected affect on me. At least for now, I’ve stopped grumbling about things that, even two weeks ago, seemed really big and bad; like not having as much business as I’d like, or as much disposable income as I’m used to.
Instead, I find myself praying in thanksgiving for having a roof over my head, because I am so, so aware that thousands of people just like me don’t have a home or a roof anymore; thankful that my son is safe and sound playing music on a cruise ship in Alaska, even as grief-stricken families in Moore are burying their babies and mourning to the depths of their souls; and I’m thankful for being from a state where people roll up their shirt sleeves right now when tragedy strikes their neighbor, because that’s how we were raised. That’s what we do.
From way down here in safe little New Zealand, I’m still working through my emotions. My heart is still on the ground. But I may be more grateful than I’ve ever been before, or at least in a very long time. The Moore tornado reminded how quickly it can all be gone. Just that fast. In an instant. All gone.
I share the loss of every single person affected by the tornado that smashed a town that shares my last name. And, for the first time in a very long time, I feel every inch an Okie. I am painfully aware that RIGHT NOW, as I publish this blog post, even more killer tornadoes are hammering my home. Lord have mercy.
(Here’s what I wrote while feeling so helpless and watching the real time tornado coverage)