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Feel the Wheels A-Spinnin' Round

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I.

In the beginning, it was Rabbit and Jo.

That was forgotten in the stories, because Jo went to Norman and Rabbit went to Stillwater, and Jo met Beltzer and Beltzer introduced her to Dusty, and the three of them were skipping class to chase twisters in the back of an S-10 Chevy for four years.  By the time Rabbit caught up with them, some of the stories were already legend.

But it was Rabbit and Jo in high school, competing for top honors in their physics classes.  Jo was this smart and beautiful girl who, in any other life, would have been an Okie City deb, a cheerleader, on track to fuck the OU quarterback.  The ’69 twister, while hardly the worst they saw as kids, fucked Jo instead, and Rabbit didn't hear the whole story for nearly thirty years.

He did get her to go on a date with him, junior year.  Later, if telling the story, it was really about how Jo took him on his first chase.

The sky went green just as they sat down to eat at the Lot-a-Burger.  Jo didn’t even wait for Rabbit, she grabbed his keys and ran for his truck, and she almost left without him altogether. 

Jo didn’t know her way around town very well, she didn’t have her own car.  So she turned to him to ask for directions, in an impatient and choked voice.  He looked up at the sky, leaning forward to peer up into the clouds, and told Jo to turn northwest.  She all but shouted that she wanted “street names, goddammit!” Rabbit focused his gaze on the street ahead of them and took Jo where she wanted to go.

The funnel never touched the ground, and it was maybe an F1 if the damage to Mr. Wilson’s famed pecan trees counted. 

For Jo, it was an exercise in adrenaline addiction.  She was so wound up, she kissed him, and if more happened, well, that part of the story was never told.

For Rabbit, what did or did not happen when the sky cleared was not as revelatory as the madness of chasing something as capricious as an Oklahoma twister.   

 

II.

“Yeah, well Kansas is a mess, there's a big crease right through Wichita. Roll the maps.”

He said it at least once a spring to whichever undergrad was assigned to his truck on a chase.

The crease through Wichita was three seasons old when Sanders rode with Rabbit.  The story was, it was Bill and Jo’s fault.  No one, least of all Rabbit, ever wanted to know exactly how that happened.

It wasn't very long after the incident with the whiskey, the story they all told every newcomer who was in the least enamored with Bill, that Bill and Jo became an item.  Of course they did.  Bill was arrogant, loud, and cocky as shit.  Not much different than the rest of them, maybe, but he was whip-smart and good-looking.  It was a foregone conclusion, even as Jo was cursing the very air he breathed when he wrecked her taping of that twister with his naked ass and a fifth of Jack.

It took a long time for them to get around to actual marriage, though their working relationship was certainly that before Jo ever accepted a ring.  They argued, nagged, disagreed, fucked, had obnoxious little traditions.  They got serious - Jo told Bill about her dad and the F5.  Bill held her while she cried when her mother died.  And finally, Bill got a vasectomy, the same day he bought the ring.  

Rabbit had driven Bill to the doctor and home.  

The divorce, though.  The divorce rocked the team, damn near split them in half.  Autumn was always a quiet season, twisters less prone to whip down in blind fury.  That left the scientists and the students and the chasers more prone to it, however, cooped up as they got to be as the temperature cooled.  Nose to the grindstone would suit Bill just fine, as it turned out, and he was aiming for tenure-track one day.  It suited Jo, too, for about a month.

She couldn't sit still, and Bill could.  She wanted to be in the field, testing, learning.  Chasing.  And she got reckless in Kansas, on a trip to chase a freak November outbreak.  Right near Wichita, she and Bill had their big fight, while she was in a cast and a neck brace and Bill was telling her he wanted to slow down and become a weatherman.

"Weatherman," Jo would later say, spitting the word.  "He wants to be a weatherman."  She mumbled it on occasion when welding Dorothy's receiver to it's body.  

Jo'd gotten lost on the way back.  She called with tears in her voice asking for directions, and Rabbit fumbled with the map as he gave her road names and approximate distances.

Roll the maps,” he repeated to Sanders a week after the Wakita F5. 

 

III.

Before Rabbit was two years old, his dad’s job took him to four different countries.  After Mrs. Colonel Nurick said no thanks to another European tour, the family racked up a list of addresses in six different states.

He ended up in Oklahoma at the impressionable age of eight.  It was their first Midwestern stint and it was their final, permanent address.  Colonel Nurick ran some sort of joint operation at Tinker, and Rabbit and his sister went to the same school long enough to make friends.

His first tornado didn’t come in April or May, and it barely registered on the nascent Fujita scale.  It was the day before Halloween in 1971, and the reason he remembered it was the sirens.

A child of Army bases who spoke with a bit of a swagger when the Cold War came up during boyish playground games, Rabbit earned his nickname that day.  He was playing at a friend’s house when the sirens went off, and they were hurried down to the basement.  A native Oklahoman would keep playing dominos or trading baseball cards, the flashlight more than enough to see by.  He would not lose his cool.

Robert, though, burrowed under blankets and pillows and shook so hard he could hardly hear anything other than his bones knocking together. 

“Just like a scared little rabbit!” laughed his friend Tommy.  And it was a little mean, but it was also a little true, and it stuck.

 

IV.

He learned to navigate on red dirt roads, in Tommy’s white Ford pick-up.

He learned to do it in broad daylight, dead sober.  And he learned to do it under a new moon, drunk as a lord.  On whiskey, because you couldn’t get drunk on Oklahoma beer, Tommy swore.  By then Rabbit had lived in Oklahoma County longer than he’d lived anywhere, and he was by rights an Oklahoman, but Tommy was a native.  He knew things.

Except the roads.  He left the navigation to Rabbit, every time.

They ranged far and wide, and later, Rabbit used maps mainly for show, on Oklahoma roads.

 

V.

When he showed up for advanced calculus on his first day at Oklahoma, he was unsurprised to see Jo sitting there, in the second row as had been her custom in high school, pencil poised as she worked a problem.

Within minutes, Jo introduced him to Tim Lewis, who everyone later came to call Beltzer for mysterious reasons.  “This is Rabbit Nurick,”  she said.

Jo was the only person who got away with calling him that in high school without a dirty look or worse in return.  For four years in Stillwater, he’d shaken it.

Jo gave him that awkward Baptist-raised side hug to welcome him to Soonerhood, and introduced him as Rabbit without skipping a beat.

He was home, then.

 

VI.

Jo’s orbit was a powerful one, and everyone drawn into it had a nickname. 

Except Bill.

It really did go down like they told it to Melissa.  Bill walked up to a twister, as naked as the day he was born, and chucked a bottle of whiskey at it, and the bottle never landed that any of them heard about.

Of course, it was more nuanced.  They were on a chase, the first spring of their first year in grad school.  Rabbit was riding shotgun and Beltzer was driving, Dusty was in the backseat with binoculars and a flask.  Jo was hanging out the window with a video camera, her own and not the school’s, because this wasn’t exactly sanctioned research.

Bill was already there, on the swell everyone called a hilltop that was prime space for watching storms come in from the southeast.  And when the twister shifted and Beltzer was starting the car to get the hell out of there, Bill was standing up, screaming obscenities to the wind and getting pelted with dime-sized hail.

Jo wouldn’t let Beltzer go anywhere.  In her frenzy she leaned across the seat and took the keys from the ignition, and got out of the car.  She started screaming at the crazy man outside – when Dusty told the tale the first couple of times, he actually reenacted the scene, all flailing arms and creative curse words. 

The three of them left in the car were suitably wound up about Jo’s daring, but couldn’t help exclaiming over what was happening.  Rabbit gawked at what was taking place in the elements, and was particularly struck by the absence of sartorial splendor.  “That guy’s…is he naked?”

“He’s insane!” yelled Dusty in response.  “And naked!”

The twister didn’t get very close, in reality, but the wind was something else, and the whiskey bottle, chucked as it was from the hilltop’s height, was caught in the wind. 

They had to end up together, Dusty would later say, because Bill’s naked, whiskey-soaked tornado chasing was matched in intensity only by Jo’s obsession.

You could tell, Dusty said, because when Jo told the story, she described the wind velocity and the color of the sky, and she claimed not to recall that Bill was very, completely naked.

 

VII.

By the time of the Moore twister in 1999, the gang was spread out.  That night, Dusty was chasing, and Beltzer was teaching high school physics, only chasing on the weekend.  Bill was, after all, a weatherman, and he was narrating the event for KOCO.  Jo was at NSSL.  Preacher was in south Texas, far from the danger.

Rabbit was in Newcastle, in a basement.  For years after he'd wonder how he'd gotten there.  No, really, he would insist when Beltzer would laugh at the attempted philosophizing.  Rabbit had quit, had walked away, or that's what he said.  He was done.  And he tried suburbia.  He tried not to travel, tried not to drive. 

He kept in touch with everyone, of course, and it wasn't like he was so far away.  But Newcastle seemed lightyears from Norman, in every way imaginable, and maybe he missed it.  Maybe he'd done his part to make it all safer.  He worked on a travel guide for northern Oklahoma and tried to ignore how his skin would tingle when the wind shifted and the sky went dark.  He tried so hard, he almost didn't make it to the basement when the twister that would change the game altogether came to his neighborhood.

Of them all, Rabbit Nurick came the closest to the funnel that May day.

It went right over his head, and he learned what Preacher meant by the “finger of God.”

 

VIII.

They were all together later that year, for Meg’s funeral.  After, they went out for whiskey (“fuck that Oklahoma 3.2,” Dusty said) and steaks and told all the old stories until the wee hours.

In the middle of one of Dusty’s longer reminisces, Jo caught Rabbit looking maudlin.

“Did you see it?”  She ducked her head to try and look him in the eye.  “Did you?”

It. What was it? He used to ask her that, and she never gave a definition.  Now, after Moore, she didn’t need to.

“Yeah,” he said, voice rough.  He looked up at her, and saw recognition, acknowledgement.  He saw all the things she never told him about what it was like the night the twister took her dad.  He saw why she went back to Bill.  He wasn't learning all about her for the first time; it was a piece falling into place that had always been missing.

There, too, was Jo seeing Rabbit anew, wondering what it might take to bring him home.

She raised her glass to him, and tipped back the last of what was probably her fourth whiskey. 

“May we always be a step ahead,” she whispered, for his ears alone, and he almost couldn’t hear her over Dusty and Bill’s raucous laughter.

 

IX.

He went back to Norman, and Jo's grin was brilliant white, Bill's clap on the back hearty.  

The team changed over the years, sure.  Each spring was a crop of newly-broken-in grad students, a research assistant or two.  There were new colleagues, eager to chase, new to the rush.  And some familiar faces faded away.  The core, though, Jo's team, was the same.  Bill, Beltzer, Dusty, and Rabbit.  A little gray around the edges.

Rabbit could still find a road to nowhere and Dusty could still keep it light and funny on the radio.  Beltzer would track and they were a inimitable trio.  Bill's contribution, his instinct and his raw passion, would appear arrested for months on end, his ambition nearly overcoming it all, and the first spring thunderstorm would light him up. 

And they all gravitated to Jo.  Sure, Dusty could have taken the job in Lawrence, Beltzer might have gone on by now.  Bill nearly did, and Rabbit.  Rabbit had run, he knew damn good and well he had and he'd forgotten for a moment what it was like, on the outside.  Away from the chase.

Adrenaline junkies?  A bunch of perpetual college students looking for a high?  

It was an obsession, maybe.

It was Jo on the phone in the spring.  "We need to be in the Texas panhandle.  Rabbit, can you draw me a map of Borger?"

He did it from memory, of course.

"You can't explain it, not really," Rabbit said to Bill over drinks that semester.

Bill was staring at Jo, who was playing pool with the new masters candidates.  

"No.  Not really."

 

X.

It was, in the end, Rabbit and Jo, alone.

Bill went his own way after all, down to College Station, safe from the worst twisters but still teaching meteorology and doing research.  It was anathema to Jo, suggesting she leave, and the idea of “safer” – the blue streak she cursed in Bill’s wake was significant.

So Jo stayed at OU, teaching on occasion but mostly buried in the lab for most of the year, consulting for NSSL.  She came out of her warren – and it didn’t escape Rabbit that the grad students called it that without prompting – in the spring, and occasionally to chase in the odd months.  She and Rabbit were in Alabama when the Tuscaloosa twister hit.

As long as she chased, Rabbit went along to find the roads (“Bob’s road,” he’d murmur when she took a right instead of a left and they careened into a cornfield). 

They were in Tuscaloosa when Jo told him she was ready to hang it up, hide in a lab for the rest of her career.  The devastation was absolute, and it shook her like nothing had since Meg’s house collapsed.

But she didn’t hang it up, she still came out from underground to put a finger to the wind.  Her instincts by then were far more honed than Bill’s, and the only thing she needed help with was navigating.

And there was Rabbit, maps in hand.

Rolled, even though the crease never came out of Wichita.

 

XI.

“Can anyone tell me what we do when we hear the tornado siren?  Chase? Robert?”

“Rabbit can tell you, Miss Mornhinweg.”

“Shut up, Tommy!”

“Robert, we don’t say that in this classroom.  Tommy, you spoke out of turn.  Now, class, please focus.  This is the storm season, and we all have to know what to do when the sirens go off.  There will be a tornado drill this week, and some of you are new.  Can anyone tell me what we do?”

Miss Mornhinweg took them through it, and Robert – Rabbit, now – learned how to hook his hands behind his neck and crouch down against a wall.

“You know, in a lightning storm, you wanna grab your ankles and stick your butt in the air,” said Tommy to Rabbit, as they came close to mimicking that very posture.

“Yeah, well, yours would absorb the electricity for sure.”

They busted up laughing, and Miss Mornhinweg gave them detention.

Worth it, they would say.