​Letters From the West: Of Tornadoes and Pedal Steel Guitars

When I was just a kid—long before the internet existed to either kill off old irrational fears in avalanches of pedantic data or germinate brand new ones in its' rich and fertile fields of bullshit—I had a morbid fear of tornadoes.

I would often feel a sometimes-paralyzing fear during tornado season every spring as I was growing up in Kansas City. I would often lie awake at night, eyes wide open and absolutely sure that at any moment the ceiling and walls of our home would be torn away by the wind, and I—and everything I loved and held dear—would be sucked up into a swirling storm and shredded into bits.

The daylight wouldn't bring much relief, beyond knowing that while I still might die a terrifying death from a tornado at least it wouldn't be able to sneak up on me out of the darkness. I spent hours staring up into the sky, studying the towering cumulonimbus clouds that would rise up over Kansas and barrel into western Missouri once or twice a week in the spring and early summer, scanning for signs that a spinning column of air, water and debris was about to lower from the base of the storm to the ground—and being nervous that there would be no place to hide.

Everywhere I would go—the mall, the park, the ballgame, school, a friend's house—I would quietly scan around for a place to hide in the event of a disaster, just in case.

Assuming that I could get to it, I had my hiding place picked out and ready in our basement—under a sturdy workbench against a wall, away from all the windows and shielded by several big, heavy pieces of plywood—but what about the rest of my family? Where were they going to hide? What about my dog?

I never talked much about it, because I guess part of me felt kind of embarrassed for being scared of tornadoes. Nobody wants to admit that they're that neurotic, even a child. And anyway it seemed like a subject that nobody else—family or friends—honestly gave much of a shit about even when there actually was bad weather, let alone stayed awake at on perfectly clear, storm-free nights planning tornado escape plans or designing underground GI Joe fortress-style tornado-proof homes in their minds like I did.

My father could be the most frustrating guy to be around in a severe storm. I can recall the times when the tornado sirens did go off around our home, my dad (much like every dad in the history of fatherhood, probably) would be irritated and mumble about this "tornado bullshit" as he reluctantly got up from the TV and trudged through the garage and into the basement to huddle around a radio with the rest of the us.

My young, OCD'd brain could be worked into such a state of fear and paranoia that I would sometimes hallucinate the sounds of tornado sirens going off in the distance, particularly in the middle of the night when I would be the only one awake. I never knew quite what to do—surely my parents would hear them if they were really there, and there would surely be enough time to get to the basement…right?

And when I would finally drift off to sleep, the tornados were still there—I could feel actually feel them slam into me, the screaming noise and crushing wind and debris tearing at my body, the air getting sucked out of my lungs making me unable to scream or even catch my breath.

Sometimes, if I were lucky, I would wake up in time before the tornado hit. Most of the time, though, I wouldn't. But they were there almost every night, always lurking in the shadowy background of every dream.

In truth, I probably could have used a Xanax. A whole crate of them would have been nice. And with the benefit of hindsight, I probably could have used some counseling as well.

But here's the worst part: Every damn bit of it was based on my own vivid imagination. I had never actually seen a tornado in person. Not even a funnel cloud. It was almost entirely a product of my mind, mixed in with snippets from the occasional National Geographic special on PBS.

Anyway, this is pretty much how I became a fan of country music.

Running Down Roads, Loosening Loads, etc…

My parents were, in quite different ways, products of the 1960's—and both had ended up in Kansas City separately for their own reasons.

My father had arrived in Kansas City after getting out of the army (circa 1968) because it was the one place he could find a paying job with his degree from New Mexico State University—the only work that was to be found in his hometown of Carlsbad, New Mexico, was down at the bottom of a potash mine and even those jobs would soon be gone. He brought music like Hank Williams, Bob Dylan, The Byrds and the Rolling Stones into the relationship.

My mother arrived in town around that same time, and I have to imagine Kansas City, Missouri, must have seemed an elysium-like cross between Summer of Love San Francisco and 1920's Berlin compared to her hometown of Alva, Oklahoma. She was the weekend hippie of the two, throwing The Beatles and Jefferson Airplane albums into the mix.

Neither of them probably thought of Kansas City as their long-term home—they liked the town on occasion but I'm still not convinced that either one ever actually loved it—but it was there they chose to stay, first having me and then a few years later my sister. I have no idea where I picked up my fear of tornadoes—like I said, I never actually saw a tornado in my time in Kansas City, just a lot of really crazy intense thunderstorms—but somehow it happened. Maybe it was some sort of mental defense mechanism protecting me from something worse that I can't remember, or maybe it's just something my mind dreamed up on its own.

Before I became afraid of tornadoes I had an equally terrible fear of headless mannequins. So your guess is as good as mine…

Anyway, many of my childhood memories are based around the music they liked to play. I remember sitting in front of the radio on Sunday mornings—while the other kids in the neighborhood got shuffled off to Sunday School—listening to stuff like Led Zeppelin and the Stones and reading the Kansas City Star comic pages while my parents read the rest of the paper.

We also did a lot of long-distance road trips when I was a kid, and we'd listen to Emmylou Harris, Buddy Holly, Neil Diamond among a wide-assortment of others on our battery-powered portable tape deck in our old Datsun station wagon. I'm pretty sure we burned through three or four copies of The Eagles Greatest Hits 1971-75 on tape just through road trips to Yellowstone alone.

Eventually, when I was about nine or so we got cable television and I became a full-on 1980's rock and roll kid, getting immediately introduced to The Clash and Def Leppard on MTV and R-rated movies on HBO. I had already worn out my parent's music collection, so I added heavy metal, punk, power pop, new wave, psychedelia, some rap, classical, blues and Weird Al Yankovic to a reasonably eclectic but heavily rock-based musical stew.

But thanks to my mysterious fear of tornadoes, my go-to security blanket became country music—especially when it's played on an AM radio.

Oh, the Sweet, Dulcet Tones of the Pedal Steel Guitar…

It's funny how music can associate itself so strongly with a time, place or emotion that it doesn't really matter if you necessarily even like the song or not—just a few chords and you're swept away, for better or worse.

For instance, in my mind The Grateful Dead's "Box of Rain" will be forever associated with westbound I-70 between the Kansas state line and Denver, yet that same route going back east is associated with Boston's "More Than a Feeling" or The Who's "We're Not Gonna Take It."

Syd Barrett and Uncle Tupelo are associated with Tucson. Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry fit in with Texas and eastern New Mexico, and The Flying Burrito Brothers get I-40 in southern California—except for Los Angeles, which is claimed in my mind by an awesome but long-defunct and virtually forgotten band out of Oklahoma called Barnyard Slut.

But there are also a lot of admittedly oddball musical associations in my mind as well: Meatloaf's Bat Out of Hell got paired up with Thermopolis, Wyoming; Genesis' Invisible Touch is somehow associated with I-90 in western Montana; Suicidal Tendencies got locked into the Iowa State Fair; the Oak Ridge Boys got the Embarcadero in San Francisco and for some reason Living Colour's "Cult of Personality" has found itself inexorably linked with Durango, Colorado.

(Curiously, The Flying Burrito Brothers will also be linked forever in my mind to Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn, but that's another story. Anyway, you get the idea…)

So, on stormy spring nights—unable to sleep because of the imaginary killer tornadoes rampaging through my brain—I would listen to the stereo by my bed through a pair of gigantic, busted, straight-out-of-1970 green headphones. Only the right side ever really worked properly—the left side had a short so you had to spend what seemed like hours in the dark carefully fiddling with the plug to get it to work.

But when I could finally get it to work, I would lay there in the dark listening to music. I tried listening to tapes at first, but my tornado-fueled paranoia needed to hear a living human voice. It was that need to feel connected in real-time to somebody that had access to information that soothed my brain and would finally allow me to get a little sleep.

Into that role stepped WDAF-61 Country, broadcasting live from Signal Hill in Kansas City, Missouri. It could be found a 610 on your AM dial, and with a good receiver on a clear night you could hear it from Scottsbluff, Nebraska and Limon, Colorado all the way to East St. Louis, Illinois, Fort Smith, Arkansas and Des Moines, Iowa.

And as their name suggests, they played country music—which tended towards the extremes in quality. There really wasn't a whole lot of middle ground. Some of it was great—Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Don Williams, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, Freddy Fender, Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard, George Jones, Emmylou Harris, Charlie Rich, Kenny Rogers, the Statler Brothers, Tom T. Hall, Conway Twitty, etc.—while the rest landed squarely in the realm of pure shit (Barbara Mandrell, Lee Greenwood, John "Bo Duke" Schneider, among many, many others).

At first it was my favorite station simply because they (unlike most of the other stations in town) had a live DJ on the air 24-7. That was the appeal—knowing that a calm mature voice with a slight country twang, kind of like what you might expect to hear out of an old airline pilot, would be there to talk you through a severe thunderstorm with additional updates from cranky veteran reporter Charles Gray in the 61 Country newsroom, as events warrant.

"Again, Johnson County on the Kansas side is under a Severe Thunderstorm Warning for another 20 minutes until 3:00 A.M. In the meantime, here's Merle Haggard with some 'Rainbow Stew' on Sixty-ooooooone Country…"

It may sound silly now, but as long as I could hear that live voice on the air the fact that a storm could be actually be bearing down on me didn't matter quite as much as it did if I were on my own in the dark, hearing only the scared voices in my head. I mean, if the good ol' boys working the overnight shift down at 61 Country didn't seem to give a single shit ("The rain and high winds have apparently just caved-in the roof at Kemper Arena. More updates in a bit, but now here's Moe Bandy on Sixty-oooooooone Country"…) then why should I?

And somewhere along the way I started to genuinely fall in love with the refined whine of a pedal steel guitar. It's an intricate and difficult instrument to play, and (kind of like the sitar) virtually impossible to master in a single lifetime. I eventually became pretty good (or at least serviceable) at guitar, bass and mandolin over the years, playing in everything from punk and metal bands to recording cheesy country pop in the studio, but the pedal steel was always a just bit out of my reach.

Late in my college career I finally bought a pedal steel for myself—a terribly abused, beer-stained, no-name single-neck model that I'm pretty sure had been dropped at least once over the years, and that weighed about the same as an average sedan. I couldn't even get the damn thing in tune properly, much less follow along with the "Introduction to the Pedal Steel" VHS tape I vainly hoped would help me figure it all out.

For me, playing it was incredibly frustrating—like trying to tap dance and take a calculus exam while very drunk. But I finally did master one small lick—the sort of thing someone who knew what they were doing would use to end a solo—and I played it over and over again for months. It was literally the only thing I could play, but the sound of getting something so pretty and right created such a Pavlovian response that I just couldn't stop.

I'm sure my neighbors were just as enchanted, too.

Finally, though, reality set in—I was essentially broke and the instrument that I paid roughly $400 for needed something like $800 worth of work to make playable. So I sold it and used the proceeds to help move to Colorado in a strange, Quixotic stab at being a ski bum—but that too is another long story that I'll save for another time.

God, I miss that guitar though.

I admit that I likely would have never gotten any good at it myself, but in the hands of someone who actually knows what they're doing there's nothing better than the sound of a pedal steel guitar and some plinking, honky-tonk piano playing simple four-chord songs about booze, trains and heartache.

Plus, pedal steel guitarists always had the coolest names: Red, Jay Dee, Buddy, Sneaky Pete, Speedy, the West Virginia Creeper...

Some folks associate homes or food with safety and comfort, others a favorite shirt or shoes, still others find comfort in a pet or a stuffed animal. I associate safety and comfort with a pedal steel guitar—and to this day, whenever I'm feeling stressed-out or afraid, I find myself reaching out to play some old country music.

It's probably every bit as effective as counseling. I could probably still use a crate of Xanax, though, just in case anybody has one laying around…

Coda

I'm not afraid of tornadoes anymore—or if I am, at least I'm not losing any sleep about them—which is probably all that matters. Once I actually started actually learning about them—also incidentally about the same time I hit puberty and discovered girls and a universe of other fun and highly-distracting times—the morbid fear gave way to a combination of curiosity and contempt.

That being said, I have to admit that I still watch every new tornado documentary I can find on Netflix, and tornadoes do still terrorize my dreams a couple times a week—but as I've gotten older the volume of the scream-sucking death roar of my youth has thankfully been turned down a bit to a more conversational tone.

In any event, tornadoes aren't exactly the most pressing concern here in north-central New Mexico. Plague and poverty, maybe, but not tornadoes.

Even 61 Country is long gone now. It moved over to the FM dial about a decade ago and was never the same, while 610 AM became one of those 24-hour sports stations where dipshits yell at each other about college basketball for eight hours every night. I don't know, that might even be gone too—it's been a while since I've checked.

I suppose at this point it would be fair to ask why I'm sharing all of this silly crap. Seriously, who cares about my fucked-up childhood fears and some country music station that doesn't even exist anymore?

Well, I guess I'm writing all this down for my newborn son, Benjamin—who is sleeping quietly in the other room while I furiously type away here at Goat Farm in the Rio Grande Valley of northern New Mexico.

I honestly have no way of knowing what kind of fears this world will throw at my son as he grows up. I like to think of myself as an optimist and I'll do my dead-level best to keep him safe from worry—but I know that's probably a fool's errand.

I grew up in a world where nuclear war was an actual, real and immediate possibility—yet I focused my fear on tornadoes. Benjamin Foster Vaughn could be faced with anything from economic collapse and terrorism to global warming, killer robots and a zombie apocalypse.

Which will probably just mean that he'll grow up with a morbid fear of lettuce or birds or something.

There's no way to predict, and by the time he's old enough to be freaked-out in earnest I'll probably end up being just as grumpy about his birds or lettuce or killer robots as my dad was about my tornadoes. I'll always do my best for him, but it's just a dad thing… Hell, if nothing else maybe he'll read this someday and it'll help him with some "WTF?"-type questions he might have about his old man.

However, if he ever does find himself staring up into the ceiling of his bedroom on some dark and scary night, feeling alone and terrified of whatever bogeyman his mind creates out of the nothingness—be it tornadoes, zombies or lettuce—I want him to know that in the end everything will be just fine.

But more than that, I want him to know that if he listens into the darkness with the right kind of ears—and ever-so-carefully adjusts his headphones so that he can hear through both sides—he may even get something entirely unexpected and comforting out of the whole lonely ordeal.

After all, tornadoes gave me the pedal steel guitar—just imagine what sort of gift an army of killer robots could bring.

Image via AP