Glen Wesman, world famous painter, and mentor and father figure to renowned painter Thomas Kincaide inspired young Thomas to paint the light, something that Thomas took to heart and focused his paintings on, captivating millions during his career. And while I am not a painter, as a photographer I also hear that call and seek to do the same. I would not say that I have always been successful at that, but I can tell you that I have "painted the light" at one moment in time in a way that I will never forget.
That call to paint the light on film/electronic medium, whatever the case may be, is, for any photographer, a never ending passion. It is at the same time both magical and illusive as its beauty can appear suddenly and unexpectedly and then disappear just as suddenly which is especially true in western Oklahoma where this particular photograph was taken where the ruggedness and flatness of the plains is like a stage for the weather to perform on, both brilliantly and powerfully.
Needless to say, this is one of the reasons why I love spending time traveling Route 66 in western Oklahoma, especially during the fall. And, if I am fortunate and patient enough, I get to experience moments like the one in this photograph when the light is literally dancing in the sky. Unfortunately, the weather in Oklahoma also has a dark side.
During my walking journey on Route 66 I used several locations between Chicago, Illinois and Santa Monica, California to serve as home bases. Since I was self-sponsored on this journey I had to work along the way to replenish funds so I often situated myself for months at a time to do that which was the case when I reached the Oklahoma City, Oklahoma area. And, fortunate for me, I had relatives in the area that I could stay with which I did for the duration of my time there.
As I understand it, Oklahoma City was once recognized as the largest city in America landmass wise. I don't have the official documentation of that at hand, but I can tell you by experience that it is a place where you need to drive fairly long distances in order to go places such as, in my case, to work. It just happened to work out that the job I landed while in the area took me from the far southeastern edge of the metro area my where I was staying with family to the far northwestern edge of the metro area requiring a pretty substantial commute six days a week. I should also mention here that Oklahoma City, the suburb of Moore, Oklahoma in particular, also holds another title, one for which it still holds today; Tornado Alley.
While in the Oklahoma City metro area I worked as a temporary employee for what was then known as Southwestern Bell Wireless, a company that is no longer in existence as you can imagine in the ever changing corporate world of wireless communications. I acquired a position there as a customer service employee early in the spring of 1999 and worked there through the end of September that year when my walking journey required me to move to the next home base further west.
I am sure that many of you reading this remember that catchy advertisement for Verizon Wireless with the man in dark clothes, hair, and glasses who uttered the immortal words, "Can you hear me now?" Ironically Verizon Wireless would also come to have a place in my walking journey, but even before my brief connection with that company and the creation of that infamous advertisement, I experienced a variation of those words that would forever be a part of my walking journey and life while living in Oklahoma City. And that variation was, "Can you see me now?"
May 02, 1999 began as a beautiful spring day. The skies were deep blue and clear and the temperatures were mild, but during the course of the day things quickly changed. Familiar with the spring weather in Oklahoma, my supervisor told me to leave early for the day about mid-afternoon. I thought his request odd at the moment, but still took advantage of it and left. In only a matter of minutes and a few miles, I came to understand just how quickly the weather can change in Oklahoma. I left the store with partly cloudy skies, but then, all of a sudden, I was being pummeled by rain and wind as the skies turned eerily dark. Still, even then, the only thing that concerned me at the moment was buying a Mother's Day card. So, only a short distance from my sister's house, I stopped at a Walmart to buy one.
As soon as I entered the store I was greeted by a group of employees who quickly informed me that I had to go to the center of the store. I told them that I was just there to purchase a Mother's Day card and attempted to move past them. They, however, insisted that I wasn't going anywhere other than to the center of the store. I was quickly ushered to where a group of people were huddled together on the floor and packed in, as if in a shipping box, with pillows and other things all around them. To be honest, I was actually considering sneaking away to look for a card when the store employees left until I heard the rain and hail pounding the metal roof. At that moment, it occurred to me that my situation was concerning, but then when I heard the voice of a weather reporter being blasted over someone's portable radio the reality hit me that my situation was not only serious, but life threatening.
That weather forecaster was a part of a local television station and was flying in a helicopter following a tornado, one that would come to be recognized as the largest and most powerful tornado in America history, concealed behind a wall cloud of rain and headed straight for where I was. In hindsight, I later discovered that I had been heading directly into that wall cloud during the drive from work. At the sound of the weather man's voice though, there were no clouds hiding the reality of my situation. Then, just as suddenly as that reality hit, the lights of the store went out and the metal roof began shaking violently. With that, I quickly forgot all about the Mother's Day card, sat down, huddled tightly among the others there, and quietly waited to see what would happen next.
A moment like that can make your life flash in front of you and in the midst of the pounding rain, wind, and hail, mine did. Then, as I waited for what I thought was the inevitable, the noise of the storm pounding the store suddenly stopped followed by the voice of the weather forecaster announcing that the storm had suddenly stopped, shifted its direction briefly to the north, and then continued on its way heading northeast. Logistically what that meant was that the storm basically made a "Z" pattern dodging right around the Walmart store that I was in and then continued its path of destruction not even a mile away.
It would turn out to be a very long night for Oklahoma that night as the tornado that not only set the record for being the most powerful tornado in American history, also set the record for the longest time for a tornado to touch the ground. It's path of destruction ironically traveled through central Oklahoma right along the path of Route 66 and its affects that night are still visible today.
In an odd twist of fate I returned to the Oklahoma City area several years later to visit family and got the "privilege" of experiencing the second deadliest tornado in American history. This time I hunkered down inside a storm shelter beneath my sister and brother-in-law's garage, huddled up tightly once again, only this time it was with family. For a brief few minutes I actually refused the invitation to join them in the shelter, but the memories of years ago convinced me otherwise. And, once again, as it was with my experience in May of 1999 I heard the familiar pounding of rain and hail on the house above us, but then suddenly, as it also was with my experience years ago, it all eerily stopped . It might not have been the wisest choice knowing that these storms have what are referred to as eyes in them when things get still but only momentarily, but I just couldn't resist taking a look at what was going on all around/above me.
Once outside, I quickly climbed up onto the bumper of one of the vehicles in the driveway while being showered with debris such as things like other peoples photographs and even checks. And then from that position I caught a glimpse of a tornado hiding behind a cloud of rain and I knew that I was watching it because high up in the air there were beams of light dancing in the sky.
I had no camera in hand that day, but I can tell you for sure that I have the image of that painted on to my memory banks; the day that the lights of nature danced in the sky.
"Light is sweet, and it pleases the eyes to see the sun." - Ecclesiastes 11:7