Nothing Up My Sleeve
Weather or Not…. (part 3)
My mother was scared silly of storms. I’m not sure where this fear came from, if she’d ever been involved in a tornado or if it was just one of those things. As a pre teen, I can remember her pacing the house whenever severe weather was forecast, and should anyone – me, my dad, my brother or sister – make any kind of noise during a weather warning on the radio, the punishment was a slow, painful death.
Well, maybe not that extreme, but no one ever had the guts to find out for sure.
I guess that means that I should have grown up being petrified of storms too, but somehow, I missed that gene. Instead, I’m the guy who makes sure my family is safe, then head out with the camcorder in hopes of filming a funnel cloud on the ground.
Although I’m not scared of storms, I respect them. I’ve seen what they can do and I hope that I’m never in a tornado.
I got a little bit of a scare in 1975 when I thought for sure I was a goner.
I had just gotten my very first car. It was a 1969 Volkswagen Fastback and I was anxious to show it off. It was a little bitty thing, but big enough to hold my girlfriend and her two sisters. Somehow, I managed to convince her folks that at 18, I could be trusted to drive all three girls, aged 16, 14, and probably 12, all the way to a movie in Galesburg. This wasn’t easy.
We went to Carroll’s Cinema on North Henderson Street where the movie Earthquake was playing. Charlton Heston led an all-star cast, but that didn’t matter. The movie was being shown in “sensurround,” a new technique that catapulted you right into the movie.
What it was was some really big speakers put at the rear of the theater. Whenever the earthquake would hit in the movie, these speakers would kick in bombarding the audience with enough bass to loosen fillings. It’s sort of like some of the cars that teenagers drive today. The speakers cut loose with enough sound that it was supposed to feel like you were in an earthquake.
The weather that night was pretty grim. It’d been hot all day and by the time we got to the movie, it had started to rain. The clouds in the west threatened to douse us with torrential rain.
A few minutes into the movie, we heard sirens going off outside the theater. At first, everyone in the theater thought it was part of the movie. Then, a few customers started getting up and wandering off towards the concession stand, trying to find out what was going on. I was one of them.
The manager stood there behind the counter, telling us all that he didn’t know what was going on. Those were, in fact, civil defense sirens that we were hearing and the weather outside was getting nasty. He’d tried to tune in a weather forecast, but the radio was broadcasting a ballgame and he didn’t have any information for us.
The sirens stopped wailing while he was reassuring us everything was okay.
I returned to my seat, told my girlfriend and her siblings that everything was fine.
A half hour later, the sirens went off again. We repeated the trek to the concession stand. Again, the manager had no new information, but he promised to make a phone call or two. We all went back to enjoy the movie.
When the sirens went off for a third time, no one was paying a lot of attention to what was happening on the screen. This time when we went out to the concession stand, the sirens didn’t stop wailing. The manager had managed to get some information. Evidently, a funnel cloud had been spotted somewhere in the area and they were watching it. They had set off the civil defense sirens as a precaution.
Once again, I returned to my seat. Only this time, just as I stepped back into the theater, an earthquake hit the screen.
This means that the really big speakers that were now about six inches behind me, went off.
My knees turned to liquid.
Or maybe I just peed my pants. I can’t remember.
I just know that when the earthquake hit in the movie, I thought that a tornado had just ripped into the theater. I managed to grab my girlfriend and her sisters and we headed for the car.
I got to see just how well the car handled in the rain and how fast it could go (I could have peddled a bicycle faster).
No tornado hit that night, at least in Galesburg. Later, we would learn that a tornado had done quite a bit of damage at some relatives of my girlfriend down by Fairview.
And we found out that quite a bit of the city of Canton was missing because of the F-4 that had ripped through there.
I was in Peoria for some reason, but I can’t remember what. I needed to stop by and see my insurance agent on the way home. His office is in Toulon. That’s not exactly on the way home, but gas was cheap (at least it hadn’t hit a buck and a half a gallon yet), so I got off the interstate at Exit 71 and headed up Route 78 to pay him a visit.
It was around noon. I remember this because I was trying to tune in Paul Harvey’s noon broadcast. I wasn’t close enough to Galesburg to pick up WAIK well enough, there was too much static to listen to it on WGN, so I was trying to pull in WKEI out of Kewanee.
The closer I got to Toulon, the darker it got. Clouds had been banking up in the west since I left Peoria, but it really didn’t seem out of the ordinary. By the time I turned off of Route 78 onto Route 17 heading into Toulon, I was getting concerned. It was like I’d walked from one room into another.
The second room was not very friendly.
The wind had picked up considerably and my little car, a Sunburst if I recall correctly, was being pushed all over the road. It was as dark as it got after the sun went down. The closer I got to Toulon, the weirder things got.
I don’t know how else to describe what happened next other than to say that the air turned green. Air, of course, can’t turn colors, unless you’re in Los Angeles. Air just outside of Toulon wasn’t supposed to be tinted green. But it was. I swear.
Just as I hit the city limits, several things happened. First, the torrential rains started pounding my little car faster than my windshield wipers could work. Then came some hail. And more wind.
And I noticed that the fire sirens in Toulon were going off. I was just at the edge of town, but they were clearly audible.
The other thing that was clearly audible was the sound of a freight train. The only problem with this is that Toulon doesn’t have any train tracks that are in use. There hasn’t been a train go through Toulon in the past twenty years.
I knew what was happening. Just in case I didn’t, the radio made it crystal clear. WKEI was broadcasting a tornado warning, effectively immediately for Toulon. A funnel cloud had been sighted west of town and was headed east with Toulon directly in its path.
I pulled off to the side of the road and decided to abandon the car in favor of the deep ditch was just off to my right. I opened my car door, got hit with a wall of marble sized hailstones, and elected to stay in the car. I slammed the door shut, made sure my seatbelt was fastened, and gripped the steering wheel, waiting to be sent tumbling across somebody’s lawn.
Two minutes later, it was over. I was still alive and it was only then that I took time to be scared.
I made my way into town, pulled a U-Turn on Main Street and parked in front of my insurance agent’s office. By now, the sun was shining and birds were singing in the trees that surrounded the Courthouse across the street.
I walked into the insurance agent’s office and the receptionist bounded up to the counter to greet me. “Guess what!” she said breathlessly. “A tornado just went through. It didn’t touch down, but we all saw it.”
Yeah. So did I.
It was Mother’s Day weekend in 1995. Q93, WGBQ-FM, had hired me to help out with a “Live Remote,” which is a broadcast from another location. A Galesburg car club was having a Saturday night get together in the parking lot of the Eagle’s Food Store on North Henderson Street, and from time to time, Q93 was going to interrupt their regular broadcasts and cut to me. I would do a short report from the car show, then send it back to the studio for more music.
The whole idea was to get people who might be listening to stop by the car show.
But not too many people show up for outdoor car shows when rain is falling horizontally rather than vertically. This was more of a monsoon than it was a car show.
The show was cancelled and I headed back to the station with the Q93 van. By the time I got there, Mike McCullough, the owner, was watching the station’s radar. We had some storms in the area. There was some heavy rain, and some callers were reporting some pretty heavy wind.
I headed home, but not before Mike asked me to drive around a little and see what kind of wind damage had been done. I had a car phone so I could report back to him.
There were some scattered limbs down around town, but nothing spectacular. Still, it wasn’t a good night to just be driving around indiscriminately, so my report included the advisory to just stay inside.
As I hit the city limits of Knoxville, I noticed there was a little more damage than there had been in Galesburg. I called back to report this and Mike asked me how close I was to County Road 20. I knew the county pretty well, and knew that was the road that ran between Abingdon and Maquon. He suggested I head out that way.
I drove south out of Knoxville on County Road 8. When I got to a stop sign about eight miles away, I’d be at County Road 20. Not once did I hear a single warning broadcast over the radio.
I sure hope someone had been broadcasting a warning. I turned east on County Road 20 and was not prepared for what I found.
A house on the south side of the road had been reduced to a pile of toothpicks. Half a mile away in a field was the remains of a motor home that had been rolled out there, end over end or side over side, where it now rested in a crumpled heap. I stopped to see if anyone needed help, but was assured that someone was on their way.
I asked when this had happened and the older man I was talking to said it had been less than ten minute ago. Fifteen tops.
I kept driving east towards Maquon. There was more destruction along the way, a path that was unmistakably cut by a powerful tornado. A lump started forming in the pit of my stomach. My brother and his family lives in Maquon along with a lot of other relatives.
The twister, an F-2 on the Fujita scale, had missed Maquon, but tracked north of town. I continued to follow the path, and the knot in my stomach returned. I could see from a distance that my grandparents’ farm was directly in the path of the storm.
Both of my grandparents had been gone for several years. My brother still owned the house that they’d lived in, although it’d been empty for many years. I didn’t doubt that given the shape it was in, it couldn’t possibly have survived a storm of this magnitude. There was also a two story barn on the property, which was in relatively good condition.
As I turned down the gravel road that leads to the farm, I could see the house was still standing. Somehow that pile of rotting lumber had withstood the tornado. The barn had not fared so well. It was now one story high, and looked dangerously close to collapsing completely.
I called back to the station once again and reported that I thought that a tornado had just ripped through the southern part of the county. Mike didn’t put me on the air which is just as well. I’m still not sure if people in the path of the storm had any advance warning.
When all was said and done, the twister had caused 1.6 million dollars worth of damage. A newly planted orchard in the Hermon area had been completely destroyed. Eighteen homes had either been destroyed or damaged and countless vehicles had been twisted into scrap metal.