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This Is Only a Test

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On April 27, 2011, just days after learning of their pregnancy, B. J. Hollars, his wife, and their future son endured the onslaught of an EF-4 tornado. There, while huddled in a bathtub in their Alabama home, mortality flashed before their eyes. With the last of his computer battery, Hollars began recounting the experience, and would continue to do so in the following years, writing his way out of one disaster only to find himself caught up in another. Tornadoes, drownings, and nuclear catastrophes force him to acknowledge the inexplicable, while he attempts to overcome his greatest fear—the impossibility of protecting his newborn son from the world’s cruelties. Hollars creates a constellation of grief, tapping into the rarely acknowledged intersection between fatherhood and fear, sacrifice and safety, and the humbling effect of losing control of our lives.

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Goodbye, Tuscaloosa



Let me tell you about my wife and my dog and our bathtub. How just minutes prior to the storm—minutes prior to peeling the cushions from the couch and positioning them over our heads—my dog and I stood barefoot in the grass staring up at a swirling sky.

She began to bark at it.

“Quiet,” I hissed. “No barking at tornadoes.”

I pulled the dog back inside, checked the television, but it wasn’t until the power cut out that we were prompted to enter the tub. The meteorologist—who would become a god that day—had just switched from radar screen to video feed, and in those final seconds before we were plunged into darkness, the TV revealed a single gray cloud narrowing as if sucked toward the ground through a straw.

Flashback to the tornado drills of my youth—folded face-to-butt in the bowels of Lindley Elementary in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Face down and neck covered, in the rare moments when the drills turned real, I’d steal a glance at our lion mascot painted on the school’s cinderblock walls, hoping he might protect us.


A Test of the Emergency Alert System



To the best of your ability, please answer the following questions.

1.) Which of the following is not currently found in my bathtub?

 a.) My wife

 b.) My dog

 c.) My unborn child

 d.) Tornado

2.) Which of the following activities are best performed while enduring a disaster in your bathtub?

 a.) Secret sharing

 b.) Secret keeping

 c.) Dog petting

 d.) Scrubbing the tub

 e.) All of the above

3.) Which of the following is the proper response in the immediate aftermath of a disaster?

 a.) Calling family

 b.) Calling friends

 c.) Waiting for the cell phone signal

 d.) Continuing to wait for the cell phone signal

 e.) Leashing your dog

 f.) Unleashing your dog

 g.) Introducing yourself to God

 h.) Introducing God to your wife and dog and unborn child

  i.) Living up to your part of the bargain

  j.) Exiting your house

 k.) Wondering how your plant didn’t tip


Epistle to an Embryo


May 8, 2011

Dear Future Child,

I write to you today so that you might have some account of our first disaster endured as a family. You see, you were there, too, as the tornado swirled overhead.

This is the part of the story we don’t tell people because you are not here yet—just some tiny embryo—and the world is too unstable. There are still far too many factors left unaccounted for, too many variables.

Only sometimes, I’m told, does X + Y = BABY.

This morning, while cruising the cereal aisle in the grocery store, your mother nearly gave our secret away. There she was, mulling over the mini-wheats, when confronted by a cereal stocker named Al.

“Happy Mother’s Day,” he told her.

“Thank you.”

Are you a mother?” Al inquired, and after a moment’s hesitation—after weighing the unforeseen consequences of confiding in a stranger—your mother whispered, “No, but maybe one day.”


To the Good People of Joplin


May 23, 2011

To the Good People of Joplin:

This will get worse before it gets better. I know this because of what I’ve observed from my own firsthand experiences in Tuscaloosa, a city much like yours which was ravaged a month prior to your own ravaging. Likely you watched us from afar, which is what we do now, our cities forever wedded by our season of misfortune.

Allow me to share with you a difficult truth:

In the coming hours and days your death count is likely to rise. Cell phone reception will return—which, on the surface, seems like a good thing, though this increased communication will mostly only bring bad news. People will begin to learn who was lost and how, and as their stories are sifted from the rubble, it will soon become clear that everybody knows somebody now gone. You will begin hearing stories, though unlike the phone calls not all of them will end badly. Like the one where the bathtub blows away but the family remains safely inside; and the one where the dog survives two weeks on broken legs before reuniting with his people.


Fifty Ways of Looking at Tornadoes



For nine months now, I have been trying to write my way out of disaster. I thought it would be easier than this. Yet no matter how many times I report on that April afternoon in Tuscaloosa—when my wife, dog, and I hid in our bathtub—still, the storm will not leave us.


Once I made them by hand. You can make one, too. Pour a teaspoon of salt into a cylindrical glass and spin the spoon clockwise. Or counterclockwise. It doesn’t matter.


I am not the first to have fashioned one. In 1955, New York University’s James E. Miller placed a pan of water in a circular box, positioning air slits on either side. The water was heated, emitting steam, and as additional air blew in, that steam grew into a cyclone.


Do not be fooled by the aforementioned examples of scientific ingenuity: humankind did not invent the tornado, nor has it improved upon the design.


Prior to creating them, we created warning systems against them. In October of 1883, Edward S. Holden issued a call for an “apparatus” that might provide towns a few minutes’ warning before a tornado’s impending touchdown. He suggested a highly elaborate network of bells, even created a prototype—a wired bell that rang upon exposure to a particular velocity of wind. Perhaps inspired by the recent invention of Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, Holden envisioned spools of underground wires connecting house to house and person to person, ensuring safety for all.


The Longest Wait


We have been waiting for you for nine months now, but still you are not here. On the longest days, I make a beeping sound, then turn to my phone, tell your mother, “Hey, I got a text. Says sorry it’s late, but it’ll be here any minute.”

You’re not.

You are not here one minute and you are not here the next.

Are we concerned by your late arrival? Yes, secretly, though the midwives insist that your tardiness is hardly unusual.

Relax. Babies do not wear wristwatches.

This seems like sound advice.

Nevertheless, TV has convinced us that there must be scientific certainty to your arrival.

We understand that there is to be the breaking of water, the white-knuckled pushing, and then you are ours—promptly at forty weeks.

Better late than never, I tell your mother, and when that doesn’t work, I say, Hey, at least it’s not an if, but a when.

We are grateful that you are a when, and we are equally grateful that you held tight when that tornado tore through our town. You were just a poppy seed then, half a thumbnail bobbing in an endless ocean, the definition of vulnerable.


The Girl in the Surf


You may have heard of these pictures before: the ones of the girl in the surf on Plum Island. At least, I’d always heard the figure was a girl, though when I actually saw the photos I came to understand otherwise: she is a woman, and while she is a breathing woman in one frame she has stopped breathing in the next.

The photos were taken by Marc Halevi, a photojournalist on assignment to capture the highest tides to have reached Plum Island, Massachusetts, in over half a century. Instead, he captured the effects of those tides—a woman drowning.

What we know of the woman’s last moments we know only from Halevi’s photos and witness testimony. The woman was believed to have been drinking that day and, prior to the drowning, reportedly mumbled, “Let the ocean take me.” Yet when the water did take her—gripping a beer bottle in one hand, a cigarette in the other—people began wondering if her death was intentional and, more to the point, whether Halevi might have prevented it.


Dispatches from the Drownings



It is our first night in a new town and we sleep soundly. Brush teeth, crawl beneath sheets, and listen to the crickets just beyond the bedroom window. There is a river beyond the window, and in that river, a boy. A boy who—we will learn the next day—has the river inside of him, too.


Our lives begin in the water. In utero, a fetus relies solely on its mother’s water-based womb. Oxygen is not yet introduced through the fetal lungs, but through the umbilical cord—a more direct route. Nevertheless, with the snip of the scissors, this route closes for good. Dear Child, if you wish to live, you must try to trust your lungs . . .


On the third day, God divided water from earth and two days later he filled them. “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures,” he cried, “and let birds fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.” Despite his miracle, God’s work remained incomplete. On the sixth day God created humans, endowing us with lungs and free will. Sixteen hundred years later, he drowned us like dogs in the Flood.




Once a boy drowned at a summer camp. This was June of 1968. It was early evening, a dinner of fried chicken and green beans already breaking down inside the boys’ bellies, and as their counselors shouted numbers to the sky (“98 . . . 99 . . . 100!”), the campers hid, determined not to be found in the all-camp game of hide-and-seek.

More determined than most, ten-year-old Bobby Watson slipped away from his bunkmates and wandered toward the floating docks on the shores of Blackman Lake. He blocked the sun with his hand, allowing his eyes to refocus on the best hiding spot of all. There, glistening at the edge of a dock, was a Kenmore refrigerator. It was powder blue, round-topped, complete with silver handle. Bobby—smitten perhaps by the peculiarity of a refrigerator in such a strange locale—headed toward it.

Bobby knew as well as everyone else that the waterfront was off-limits to campers except during open swim. The head lifeguard—a broad-shouldered, sunburned man—had made this abundantly clear on the first night of camp (“You do, you die”). But it was a game of hide-and-seek, after all, and Bobby, a boy who wanted simply to hide, convinced himself to duck beneath the peeling fence. He jogged toward the fridge, peeking behind him to make sure he hadn’t been spotted. He hadn’t. No sign of him except for footprints in the sand.


The Changing


You are twenty-one and preparing to change your first diaper.

This is not how you imagined it might go.

You are a counselor at a summer camp in a midwestern state, and the boy in need of changing is not your son. Years later, when you have a son yourself, you will better understand the intricacies of the process—how half the trick to diaper changing is keeping the kid from squirming.

But on this day, there will be no squirming. This boy could not squirm if he tried.

During the flag lowering, a fellow counselor whispers, The boy in the Med Shed requires assistance.

You nod. You believe you can handle it.

Already this summer, you have surprised yourself by handling all sorts of things—driving a tractor, a pontoon, a pickup truck. You have kept campers safe as they scaled towers, roasted weenies, and cannonballed into the lake.

What’s so hard, you wonder, about changing a diaper?

Once the flag is folded and properly stowed you make your way toward the Med Shed. You enter, open the door to the room on the left, and stare at the fifteen-year-old boy lying limp in his bunk. Only he is not limp. He is the opposite of limp. Rigid. Solid. Statuesque. A narrow rail that twists. His eyes flitter toward you, and you wonder if he wonders if you know why you are here.


Death by Refrigerator


When inventor Oliver Evans first conceived of his “refrigeration machine” in 1805, he never dreamed it could be a killer. He, much like Jacob Perkins and John Gorrie (both of whom would soon improve upon the design), dreamed simply of extending the preservation properties of food. None of them imagined their invention had deadly potential, providing a perfect-sized trap for a curious child who dared step inside.

I first learned of refrigerator deaths while serving as a camp counselor in a small country town in Indiana. The victim was a boy named Bobby Watson, who in the summer of 1968—while lost in the throes of a game of hide-and-seek—wedged himself into an abandoned fridge left to rust on the edge of the dock. A maintenance man wandered past moments later, tied the fridge to the dock, and heaved it into the water, wholly unaware of the child hiding within.

The fridge, we informed our campers during weekly retellings, was meant to serve as an anchor for the docks, though for Bobby it served as a coffin instead.


Fabricating Fear


We searched for a lake monster on the shores of Lake Superior. This was in July of 2012. My wife, Meredith, son Henry, and I had headed north from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, in the hope that the vacation town of Duluth, Minnesota, might momentarily insulate us from the horrors of the world.

It didn’t.

Didn’t drown out the drone missiles dropped in Pakistan or silence the Syrian uprising.

In the days prior to our trip, I’d found I could hardly turn on the television without learning of the latest in a long line of disasters—flash floods in Russia, drought in West Africa, a car bombing in Kandahar. Not to mention an earthquake in New Zealand and Ireland’s torrential rains. For days on end, cable news had little trouble confirming that every last vestige of the planet was crumbling or washing away, bombed or broken or both.

Except, of course, Duluth.

By the time we arrived at Minnesota Point beach, we were disheartened to find that we’d already lost most of the daylight. Still, I kept my six-month-old son confined to the safety of the shore by using what little light remained to search for monsters.


Fort Wayne Is Still Seventh on Hitler’s List


For Michael Martone

In the 1940s, citizens would tell you that Fort Wayne, Indiana, was so wrapped in magnetic wire, superchargers, sonar systems, bombshells, pistons, amplidynes, and dynamotors that for a brief moment the people there became important enough to fear obliteration. Employees at General Electric, Rea Magnet Wire Company, and International Harvester clocked in seven days a week to support the war effort, churning out all the necessary parts.

Without Fort Wayne, perhaps there would be no B-24 bomber.

Without Fort Wayne, perhaps there would be no atomic bomb.

When Little Boy was dropped over Hiroshima, a small piece of Fort Wayne was lodged inside. On Taylor Street, Joslyn Steel Manufacturing shaped uranium into ingots, contributing to the killing of 160,000 people 6,700 miles away.

Days later, when Fat Man was dropped over Nagasaki, once more Fort Wayne was to blame. Twenty-one-year-old assistant flight engineer Corporal Robert J. Stock of 415 Downing Street—just five miles from where I grew up—peered down from his instrument panel at the mushroom cloud ballooning thirty thousand feet below.


The Year of the Great Forgetting



The fever strikes, and we, too, are struck by it, my wife and I suddenly jarred awake by the same cold sweat that’s worked into Henry’s small frame. In his eighteen months (541 days), this is the first of these sweats, and therefore the scariest. Mainly because it is without cause, an unexpected overture to an illness we can’t yet see.

All of this takes place a thousand or so miles from our home, in a cabin in the woods in the Poconos. We’d found ourselves there at my mother’s suggestion. “A nice halfway point,” she’d argued, “so we can spend a little quality time together.” I agreed to the trip, not because the Poconos were a halfway point by any measure, but because I’d recently endured an existential crisis brought on by the purchase of a minivan, and a road trip, I figured, might help me acclimate to my new life in the slow lane.

Once the decision was made, I immediately began poring over maps, a maniacal Magellan hell-bent on arranging a 2,800-mile road trip from Wisconsin to the east coast. As a result of my overzealousness, what began as a three-night stay in the Poconos quickly morphed into what we’d later call a “cross-your-legs-because-I’m-not-pulling-over” death march, complete with stops in Hartford, Salem, and Niagara Falls. We had no vested interest in any of these places, but I was lured by the open road.




Before there was nothing, there was everything: a flash like magnesium, followed by the darkness. By 1945, the people of Hiroshima had grown accustomed to the flashbulbs that preserved them in photographs, though they remained unfamiliar with the curious light they glimpsed in the sky one early August morning.

What, they wondered, could possibly cause such a

Across the ocean, there were men who could measure destruction to the kiloton, men who had done it just three weeks prior, while hidden behind dark glasses. In the hours leading up to the test, scientists and soldiers gathered in New Mexico’s desert and placed bets on their creation’s destruction.

Will we incinerate the entire planet, they wondered, or simply some small part of it?

Sixty-six years later and seven hundred miles from Hiroshima, a high school buddy of mine—let’s call him John—glances up at a squawking speaker in his classroom in Sendai.

The voice on the speaker tries to warn him of what’s soon to come, but the warning comes too late.


Punch Line


One night when my wife is pregnant with our second child, she asks me for a glass of water. It’s late, and though it is a minor request, I still grumble as I sleepwalk to the kitchen. Who can say what time it is? Even the clocks are asleep. But the water is there, and the glasses are there, and so I fill a glass to the brim. This is no hyperbole; I literally fill a glass to the brim, measure each droplet until the water forms a perfect plane. This is my idea of a joke.

My wife and I are exhausted—mostly the result of Henry’s sleeping proclivities (i.e., not sleeping)—and so, we work in laughter wherever we can.

“Here,” I say, straight-faced. “I’ve come bearing water.”

“Why do you insist on doing this?” she asks, eyeing the brim.

(The last time she asked for a glass of water, I brought her a pitcher instead.)

“You’re welcome,” I say as she lifts herself up and chugs. “The pleasure’s mine.”

And then I feel another joke brewing—this one even better than the first.


Bedtime Story


April 2014

Dear Daughter,

Once upon a time many years back, the citizens of Eau Claire, Wisconsin—your future home—tilted their heads skyward and observed what they couldn’t explain. This was in 1870, back when lumberjacks still ruled the land and lived among the trees.

But on this particular night all their axe blades stopped swinging long enough to take in the unusual sight: a light that resembled the northern lights but was no northern light. Not only did it inhabit the wrong section of sky, but its movements were unlike anything the region had seen. It was a core of light expanding like a halo, soon joined by a second halo, both of which merged to form a pair of magician’s rings in the sky.

I suppose the details don’t much matter, dear. What matters is that the event was so mysterious that even the most grizzled lumberjacks were roused from their bunkhouses, forced to admit that even they—who’d seen it all—had never seen anything like that.



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