A Sound Even More Frightening than a Tornado Siren!

I remember the day in fifth grade when the students at Saint Mary's Elementary School in Antigo were asked to practice for a sound new to our years -- a tornado siren. At this point in our lives, we only knew how to respond to other stimuli: when we heard the recess bell -- great elation; or in response to a fire drill -- true joy -- we're getting out of class for a walk around the block! I hate to break the news to my former teachers and principal, but we were never taken off guard by the 'surprise' fire drills. You see, on the days when our teachers wore either two watches (an extra one with a second hand on the watch) or when the teachers wore a gym teacher's stop-watch around their neck, we knew we'd be timed for something. Not even our walks over to church for Daily Masses, Rosary Devotions or the Stations of the Cross were timed; just the fire drills. In essence, we busted the teachers: it appeared as though we were always prepared!

But in the fifth grade, our school introduced a new sounding alarm, a tornado drill -- basically it was the recess bell rung nervously over, and over and over again based on Sister Mary Albert's precisely timed intervals. At this point, we did not leave the building to spread across Antigo's Third Ward to flee from fire, nor were we released to the playground for the much welcomed 15 minute liberation from classes. Rather, we would be taken down a central hallway near our cafeteria. It was the longest stretch of the building that was shielded from any external door or window. Each class had a place reserved for them -- once we got to our destinations, we were required to sit down with feet flat on the floor with our heads between our legs. Today, this seems strange to me; but back then it was sometimes fun -- depending on who was left, right, in front of or behind you. It was always best that good friends should stick together. With Rory Gilbert on one side and Ann Brehm on the other, that was not the worst place to be!

Many of us -- including the two identified above -- always wondered why we did not simply go downstairs in the school basement. (To this day, I've still never been down there.) As young kids, we were certainly intrigued by the dimly-lit foreboding stairwell that disappeared in the darkness below. Above the door to the stairwell was one of those ancient fallout shelter signs that made the stairwell seem even more mysterious. Because that area was off limits at all times, we naturally assumed that the lower dungeon was the area where the teachers would take the kids who really misbehaved -- we never pleaded intently on seeing the space, nor were we ever 'invited' into the space -- I suspect a blessing in disguise!

Back upstairs, our teachers informed us that our school was basically employing the same safety measures for our new tornado alarm as they did early on when the school was first built -- back then it wasn't a tornado siren, however: it was a civil defense drill. "Quick but orderly, make your way to the center hallway -- sit with your heads between your knees," the students of the 50s and 60s were told! No wonder the teachers directed us so effortlessly and in relatively good order in such a short time. I wounder if I'd be as quick -- or as obedient -- these many years later?

But these days, the alarms may sound the same, but they seem to be alerting the hearer to a new sort of disturbance. While up north last week for the 4th, my parents' TV kept sounding that terrible eerie sound without that familiar disclaimer, "This is a test. For the next 60 seconds... ..." This time it was the Amber Alert system in effect -- on NBC26, CBS5 and via Antigo Cable Vision. Throughout the entire holiday we would hear the same siren over and over again -- it seemed to have sounded every half hour. Upon echoing in my ears, I did not have the same nervous reaction as I did when I was a kid anticipating a pretty scary storm. This time a certain sense of sadness echoed in my ears -- knowing that (in this case) four young kids were in the way of potential harm. A different set of emotions received the warning with a similar call to vigilance.

While I am happy to learn that the Amber Alert system is working rather well -- not only on the silver screen and piercing through your car radio -- but on solar message boards lining major highways as well. Yet I am also saddened that such measures have to be taken. It seems so incomprehensible that there are people out there who are actually shopping for kids, looking for the best opportunity to snatch a kid and make a quick getaway. Issues of such violence affect us even here in North-Eastern Wisconsin. Even here at St. Norbert College, we keep vigil on our campus by introducing the "blue phones" all over campus a few years back. I remember people wondering back when these emergency phones were installed, "What are we becoming?" "Is there a need for those things on such a small campus where everyone seemingly knows each other?"

Sure, there's a certain degree of sadness that we would need such devices on our campus, or such alerts on TV, but perhaps it gives us a slighter peace of mind knowing that we are responding to the realities of life in our world. I think we all pray -- and pray hard -- that those phones will never be used -- we hope to be rid of sirens that call for war, fire, an act of Mother Nature, civil defense, or a young student in need. But should these devices be employed, hopefully we will be awakened to respond boldly and faithfully realizing, "God's flock is in your midst, give it a shepherd's care!"

Take Care, Folks!

Father James Baraniak, O. Praem.


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