Sunday, May 6, 2012


In much of our country, spring is Tornado Season.  Michigan, where I live, is hardly Tornado Central, but we do get twisters around these parts.  In fact, just in the last couple weeks, there were some pretty nasty tornados that hit a town not terribly far from us, and we know some folks who actually lost their house to it.

The behavior of tornados is sometimes utterly baffling.  I can recall one time, on a muggy day in late spring, when Jen and I were visitng friends of ours on the far side of town from where we live.  We were grilling out in their back yard, the sun was shining, and we were pounding the iced tea to compensate for the sweat that was leaving our bodies, due to the extreme humidity.  Suddenly, the tornado sirens went off in the distance.  We looked around.  All around us, the skies were hazy and bright, and the sun was beating down mercilessly.  Near the horizon to the north of us, however, we saw a row of low, black clouds - I mean, it looked like someone had splashed black ink on the sky.  As we watched, the black clouds proceeded eastward at a fairly rapid pace, until the sirens quit, and the ink-blot passed out of viewing range.  Sure enough, a funnel had grounded about a mile to the north of us, moving eastward, and causing minor havoc for 15-20 miles before dissipating.  And where we were, the sun was shining the whole time, a mile away. . .

I've never actually seen a live tornado (nor am I particularly inclined to go seeking one out; just sayin').  Which is not to say that I've never encountered one. . .


Jen's grandmother died in the first year or two of our married life.  We went to the funeral, in Michigan's 'Thumb', near where Jen had grown up.  Afterward, Jen stayed on for a couple days, to help the family take care of all the details of disposing of Grandma's earthly goods.  I had to return home and be at work the next day (corporate bereavement policies being what they were, 'Wife's Grandmother' entitled me to a single paid day).  So, after the funeral dinner, I kissed my young wife, hopped in my car and headed for home.

I hadn't driven very far before I noticed that the clouds on the western horizon were starting to look pretty threatening, so I turned on the radio to see if I could find a weather report.  Almost immediately, I heard that obnoxious claxon-sound, signaling that some important weather-warning was going to follow.  For the next two hours, the report said, there would be a severe thunderstorm warning, and a tornado watch (indicating that conditions were ripe for a tornado), in Genessee and Lapeer Counties.  Oh, joy; for the next hour or so, I would be driving through precisely those two counties, with no reasonable alternative route.  So I resigned myself to the fact that I'd be driving through some heavy weather on my way home.

As I drove westward, my car, and the line of threatening clouds on the western horizon, drew inexorably closer to each other.  Soon, the skies overhead were a scudding, ominous gray, and it began to rain.  As I drove onward, the skies got progressively darker, and the rain became progressively heavier, to the point where visibility was starting to become an issue.  I wondered whether I should pull off the road and wait out the storm.

By the time I was roughly halfway home, on the outskirts of the city of Flint, the skies were pitch-black, as if it were the middle of the night.  Suddenly, all hell broke loose around me - the rain intensified, to the point that it was like someone throwing buckets of water onto my windshield; my little car was pelted with pea-sized hail;  and five (count 'em!) lightning bolts grounded, all within 100 yards of me, virtually simultaneously.  If that wasn't freaky enough, my car began to drift sideways on the roadway.

I've always taken a degree of pride in my capacity for taking hints.  There was an overpass just ahead, so I pulled off the road under the overpass, and decided to wait until at least the worst of the severe weather had passed.  And in just a few minutes, it did.  As I pulled out from under the overpass, there was already a broad band of bright sunlight in the west, and I hadn't driven very far before the rain had stopped.  By the time I arrived safely back home, the sun was out, the streets were dry, and the birds were singing.

Being home alone, I clicked on the TV to catch the news, just in time to see reports of a tornado that had touched down near Flint.  They mapped out the twister's path, which was parallel to the road I'd been driving on, about 50-100 yards north of the roadway.  Then they showed live video of a multiplex theater, at which several cars had been tossed through the large plate-glass windows.  I recognized the theater; it was a prominent landmark along the route between our house and Jen's ancestral home, and right near the overpass where I had decided to wait out the storm.

And then I understood.  When my car had begun to drift sideways (to the north!) on the road, I had figured it was hydroplaning on the rivers of water flowing across the pavement.  But now, it seemed more likely that it was suction from the funnel cloud passing 100 yards away from me.  But I hadn't seen a thing; all I'd seen was torrential rain, lightning grounding all around me, and otherwise, pitch blackness.

And then, sunshine, and singing birds. . .


  1. That is so frightening. We drove through something similar during a family vacation in Illinois back in the '70's. Saw a double twister across miles of cornfields out the window. Everyone was pulled over and in ditches and my dad kept driving. I really need to do a post someday about our wacky family vacations.

  2. holy crap! if that doesn't put a pucker in yer po-po i dunno what does!

  3. Bijoux - See now, that's the way to view a twister - across miles of open cornfields. Anything much closer than that can get pretty dicey. . .

    Lime - Well, whatever a 'po-po' is, I'm sure mine was puckered; 'cuz pretty much my whole body was puckered. . .

  4. Tornadoes are scary thangs, indeed. I spent two and a half years in OKC and simply DREADED every Spring. I never got up close and personal with a twister but I've seen my share off in the distance... sometimes as close as a mile or two. I NEVER want to see another one, thank ya.

    Where is Jen's ancestral home in the Thumb, as in town? The Second Mrs. Pennington grew up in Harbor Beach and I know the Thumb area fairly well... or at least I used to. Given the Thumb is a small area they may have known each other, assuming they're close in age (my ex turns 56 next month).

  5. Buck - Well, I'm certainly not hankerin' for a reprise of my closest tornadic encounter.

    Jen grew up in Croswell, 25 miles north of Port Huron, and 5 miles inland from Lexington. On certain summer days, when the tailings from the sugar-beets at the sugar factory have had ample time to ferment, the town can have a real, uh, uniquely pungent aroma. . . And she and yer ex are within a month or two of the same age (but you didn't hear that from me). . .

  6. I've witnessed 3 tornadoes forming out of nearly clear skies. Best I can describe what it looks like is 2 astoundingly huge freight trains materializing and colliding in slow motion ...... on a curve ... ;-)

    Scary stuff. We had a nearly new car completely dimpled by the side-swipe of one, very similar to your experience only in day-light and in full view.

    Our car looked like old fashioned hammered wrought iron. For the final 3 years we put up with it.

  7. Xavier - Darned inconsiderate of it to ball-peen yer new car like that.

    When I was living w/ my folks in the Chicago 'burbs, a couple times, we watched tornados starting to form right above us, like a swirling cauldron of heavy clouds; then we heard about the havoc they caused a few miles 'downstream'.

    All in all, I think I was just as happy not to have seen exactly what I was dealing with. 'Course, if I'd seen it, I might've taken shelter a little sooner. . .

  8. I've been driving at least two different times as tornadoes passed through my town, either touching down or just ripping the tops off of trees without fully touching down. In both cases the green sky was really creepy and I carefully scanned for signs of an actual tornado but saw none.

  9. I have seen some scary clouds at times, torrential storm conditions and those creepy skies like Just Me talked about. But, thankfully, have never been close to an actual tornado that has touched down. We do get them very occasionally on the prairies... nothing like those areas of the U.S. that see such regular tornado action. One of my derby teammate's friends is a storm chaser and amazingly talented photographer. Some of the photos he has captured are astounding; both dreadful and beautiful.

  10. JM - Yeah, I've been in several storms that spawned tornados, and seen a few green skies in my day. But I've never actually laid actual eyes on an actual funnel cloud. Which is fine by me. . .

    Flutter - I wondered if tornados made it as far north as you on the prairie. . . Storm-chasers are a unique breed of cat, methinks. . .

  11. My goodness. I've never encountered anything close to a tornado. We don't get them very often here in the Northeast, of course. And I'm very glad :-)

  12. Suldog - Here in Michigan, we're nothing like Oklahoma or Kansas, either. And I'm very glad for that. . .

    (And even so, Flint, and Xenia OH, have had a couple of the most horrendous tornados in history. . .)

  13. Oh my goodness, someone was looking over your shoulder that day, for sure. Yikes, I can't even imagine living through something like that - we never have weather conditions resembling anything close to it (thank God)..!

  14. Shrinky - You know, I've often wondered what people think, who live in places that never get tornados, when they read about tornados. I mean, how do you even imagine it?

  15. Jen grew up in Croswell, 25 miles north of Port Huron, and 5 miles inland from Lexington.

    That's a fur piece from Harbor beach, so it's doubtful they knew each other, despite the (apparent) similarities in age.

  16. Buck - Yeah, about 50 miles or so, as I read the map. Maybe their schools played sports against each other. . .


  17. My husband's uncle's family survived the Xenia tornado. He also has a co-worker who was working in Xenia at the time in a retail store that oddly enough, had a basement (it was more like a small city shop). He and the one customer at the time went down to the basement and when it was all over, they came back up the stairs and the entire store was gone. Hard to even fathom that!

  18. Bijoux - That must have been utterly horrifying. There were huge chunks of the city that were just demolished, all in a few minutes that afternoon. . .

    In case anyone is interested, here is the Wikipedia article on the 1974 tornado outbreak that included Xenia. Xenia is about a quarter of the way down the page. . .