The year was 2006. I had just returned home from Fire Safety Night at the preschool where I was student teaching. I was living in Iowa City on the top floor of an apartment complex. My roommate was not home, so I changed into comfy clothes and settled in on the couch to watch my favorite show: The O.C. A few minutes later, my show was interrupted for a severe weather report. We were under a tornado warning. Great. I can't remember exactly where the storm was at that point, but I remember them telling people in Iowa City to "find the safest place in your home." Uh...third floor apartment, remember? So, being the perpetual rule-follower that I am, I grabbed my cell phone, turned up the volume, and headed into the bathroom to wait it out. They must have tuned back into regular programming at some point, because I remember trying to track what was happening in Orange County from the safety of my bathtub. I think I also placed a call to my parents to let them know I was okay.
It wasn't long before the weather team was back on the air, letting us know that the tornado was heading toward Iowa City. Okay, feeling a little nervous now. And then these words: "The tornado heading toward Iowa City will be reaching Menards in five minutes." MENARDS?? I live approximately 2 blocks from Menards!! Oh crap. And this is the point in the sequence of events where my panic unleashes. All I could think about was getting to the lowest level possible...whatever that meant. I didn't know anyone else who lived in our building, but I didn't care. I grabbed my car keys and my cell phone and dashed out the door. Now these apartments were the kind where the door goes directly to the outside, so once I stepped out of my living room, I was OUTSIDE. I ran down two flights of stairs to the lowest level and I could actually hear the tornado. It sounded like a combination of a hair dryer and a train. I knocked on the first door I came to. No answer. I knocked again and heard, "Who's there?" I shouted, "Please let me in!!" The door opened and an older man (probably mid-sixties) was standing there staring at me. And he was scary looking. I quickly spit out something like, "I live upstairs and there's a tornado and I need a place to go." He nervously let me in, pushed me into his bathroom, and shut the door. Oh, and I forgot to mention this part: He was on oxygen, so I was sharing the bathroom with about a dozen oxygen tanks. It wasn't until this point that I actually considered I might be in danger, aside from the tornado. This guy was creepy and much bigger than me. I knew I could outrun him, but what if he tried to hurt me or something? Yikes. I figured I should at least try to let someone know where I was. I tried to call my roommate. No answer. I tried to call my friend. No answer. I tried to call my parents. NO CELL PHONE SERVICE. And then there was a knock on the door and the guy says, "Girl, do you want some juice?" "No," I say. "Girl, do you want a cheese sandwich?" "No," I say again. (What the heck, right??) So now I'm crying. Then I hear him on the phone to his mom. He says, "Mom, I've got a little girl here. I don't know what to do and she's freaking out!" I continued to sit there and wait, thinking the storm had got to be over soon. And then Oxygen Tank Man opens the bathroom door and says...
"Come here, I need to show you something."
"No, I'm staying here."
"No! You need to go to a safer place. Another tornado is coming! I'm going to show you the laundry room."
For some reason I felt like it was safer to comply, so I followed him. We walked through his apartment and past the couch, which had a bear head sitting on it. A bear head, people. He pauses by the kitchen and says, "Can I make you a cheese sandwich?" "NO!" sheesh. Then he leads me to the building laundry room, which had cement walls. (I never knew that room existed. Woulda been nice to know about 15 minutes ago.) He told me I should stay in there. This is when I decided I needed to make a run for it. I think I had heard the weatherman say there was a break in the storm, cuz I somehow knew that if I hurried I would be okay. I quickly told the guy I was leaving, to which he replied, "You can't leave! It's dangerous!" I told him I'd be fine. Then he stepped in front of the door and locked it. AHHH! I squeezed around him, unlocked it, and pulled. It wouldn't open. I tugged harder and broke the seal. I decided I needed to get to my cousin's house, so I ran to my car and drove as quickly as I could the mile or so to his place. I got to their basement just in time for the second tornado to whip through.
The next day, we learned that the roof of Menards had been completely ripped off. Thankfully, there was no damage to our apartment building. The tornado had jumped over our block and taken out the Dairy Queen a few streets over. When I told the story of my survival skills (ha!) to my roommate, she was in total disbelief. She had seen Oxygen Tank Man before and knew which car was his, so we were sure to keep our eye on him in the following days...just to be sure he wasn't lurking around the corner or something. But I did have to walk past his door every day to get to our mailbox. And by "walk past his door" I mean "dart by, hurriedly jiggle my key in the box, snatch the mail, often leave the little door hanging open, run up the stairs two at a time, burst into my apartment, and lock the door behind me."
A few weeks passed without any run-ins and I was confident I'd never have to come face-to-face with the guy again. And then I went grocery shopping at Hy-Vee. I was minding my own business, picking out my spaghetti sauce. As I rounded the corner to the next aisle, I literally ran into a motorized cart that was coming around the same corner. Just as I went to say, "Excuse me!" I saw the oxygen tank. And then we made eye contact. My knees literally wobbled. Nothing else on my grocery list mattered at that point. I was outta there.
Throughout the next few months that I lived in that building, I saw Oxygen Tank Man often but only in his car. My roommate would report sightings of him, too, but I never had any more encounters. But tornadoes, oxygen tanks, and cheese sandwiches still set fear in me. And maybe always will.