Monday, April 30, 2012

Taking shelter from the storms

An Associated Press article this morning about storm shelters brought back memories of the lump in the of dirt in the back yard of the home where I grew up. We called it the "storm pit" — a concrete-walled room set into a pile of dirt on the fringe of the yard. Its front was a stone wall emerging from the red clay with a badly weathered wooden door.

My siblings and I knew the storm pit as a remnant of the house's builder and former owner, a man known to us as "Mr. Privette." We knew little about him. We were told that his wife was frightened of storms, so he built the storm pit as a refuge where they could ride out storms. A steel pipe poked through the dirt at the back of the storm pit, providing a horizontal chimney for a wood stove that was no longer in the small, underground room. The earth on top of the storm pit eroded away over the years, revealing the concrete roof with protruding rebar, but the structure itself wasn't going anywhere. It would easily stand up to the worst weather, although that door might fly away in any major gust.

My family never used the storm pit for its intended purpose. No tornadoes ever roared through that section of North Carolina where the Piedmont turned into the Sandhills. Thunderstorms were common, but we never hid in the concrete safe room from their flashing and booming. The storm pit was a playhouse and a storeroom for us. I could stand atop the mound and look out over the stoney rim and pretend I was on a castle's parapet or the Alamo's roof. Snakes, insects and other critters took over the unused concrete room, discouraging us from entering its dark, musty confines. Some old furniture was stored there because there was no other place for it.

When people across the country began building fallout shelters in the early 1960s, my parents talked about a new use for the storm pit. We might ride out a nuclear attack in that little space. I'm glad we never got to try it out.

Now, the AP reports, storm shelters are all the rage. Mr. Privette was 80 years ahead of his time. Safe rooms are being built into houses, and storm shelters are being dug into back yards. Last year's horrifying, deadly tornadoes make such precautions seem not so eccentric or wasteful. None of us who grew up playing in and around that storm pit have a storm shelter at our current homes. If a storm comes, we'll huddle in a downstairs bathroom or closet and hope for the best.

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