There’s No Place Like Home

Dorothy Gale is swept away to a magical land in a tornado and embarks on a quest to see the Wizard who can help her return home.
Wizard of Oz plot summary from IMDB.

“Iowa heat. Tornadoes. Now you can mildly get Dorothy’s point of view,” my friend from Chicago emailed me the morning after I sat out a tornado warning in the corridor of the Natural Science building on the University of Iowa campus. A two-foot long grasshopper sat across from me, sharing his glass case with a lobster.

It was the first meeting of my week-long writing workshop.

The woman next to me wrote about capturing grasshoppers and putting them in Skippy Peanut Butter jars when she was a young girl. When I was little, my father returned from an “exploration” in the empty quarter and described an Arab scooping a grasshopper out of the air and popping it in his mouth.

“Remember, Jesus ate locust and honey in the desert,” my mom said, trying to give us some context.

Locust. Grasshoppers. They’re all the same.

In their own way, my parents weren’t afraid to let the tornado take them to Oz. We moved to Saudi Arabia because my dad, an electrician, had trouble finding work, and working in Saudi Arabia was lucrative.
After two years, when we got our “long” vacation, we boarded a Dutch Freighter, the Wonosobo, in Dammam and spent the next seventy-five days sailing from port-to-port in the Far East as a means to return to California for a two-week visit with family.

We boarded the day before Thanksgiving. As we set sail for Karachi, the Dutch crew made us a turkey-with-all-the-fixin’s to make us feel at home. To give us a taste of their home, they made my brothers and I three-foot high gingerbread men for St. Nicholas Day.

In a strange way, I think that my dad’s interest in travel was his way of getting back home. He’d been raised on a farm in Iowa. They moved into town after losing the farm due to the Depression and alcohol-inspired decisions by my grandfather. Buster, my dad’s collie, disappeared shortly after they moved into town – my grandfather gave him away when my father was at school. My grandfather’s beatings increased in frequency and intensity.

Without fields to roam through and a dog to comfort him, my dad became dislocated – at sea surrounded by Iowa farmland. He joined the Navy as soon as he turned seventeen, and exploring unfamiliar people and lands rather than familiar Iowa landscapes gave him a new sense of place in the world.

I was out of place waiting for either the tornado to appear or the all-clear siren to wail that night. live in California, so the uncertainty – am I in danger, am I doing what I need to keep myself safe – was unfamiliar. With earthquakes, you’re just uncertain. They come without warning. With that, I am familiar.

Near the end of my week-long class, I learned that since I had last seen her in Iowa City, my instructor’s nineteen-year old cat died three months earlier – two weeks after she had her last round of chemotherapy.

“I didn’t want the week to be about that,” she said. About the cancer.

But it’s really never about that, about being in Oz. It’s about finding your way back home once you’ve seen Oz. Returning to the familiar after being pitched into the unfamiliar and learning to live anew.

I couldn’t tell whether the second set of sirens that wailed that first night were the all-clear sirens or the take-cover sirens. I stepped out into the night, anyway, knowing that a tornado might touch down on me and take me to Oz so I could find my way back home.

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