Having lived over a decade of my life in the Mid-West, I had heard all sorts of stories about the odd happenings during a tornado; the “freight train”, whole houses lifted intact and sat back down, playing cards splicing half way into light poles, etc. So, when my family moved back to Tennessee, I just thought that was all behind me, we were no longer in “Tornado Alley”.
Twenty years ago today, I recall I left a little early to make it to a per-marrital counseling session with my pastor and fiancé, now my wife, Hannah. As I left the State office building in Nashville where I worked, I noticed how gray and bleak the skies were. I didn’t think much of it, because it wasn’t raining… how bad can it be? You will realize in this story, just how slow on the uptake I was that day.
I got in my car, put in a CD, and left the State parking lot on Charlotte Avenue to make my way back to Murfreesboro. As I pulled under the I-40 overpass, I noticed the red light was swinging violently in the wind. The idea of a tornado never crossed my mind; after all, it was Tennessee! As I sat there, I noticed several other cars lining up behind me as we waited for the light to change. Then I watched as a plastic box fly by which was followed by a tree branch about four feet long. I still had no idea what was happening but remember thinking; “Wow, this is going to be a really bad wind storm, I better protect my car”. Realizing other motorist would like the relative safety of being under an overpass; I ran the red light, bypassed the on-ramp, and gunned it to the gas station across the street. No way was I going to have flying debris hit my car on the interstate. I would go to the convenient store, get a Dr Pepper and just wait it out.
I parked near the carport to protect my car from this “wind storm”. As I opened the car door, I was struck by how hard it was to open my door. I STILL didn’t understand this was a pressure issue, I just thought it was heavy wind pushing against my car but when I got out, I was stunned at how little wind there actually was. I noticed there was a lady who was apparently trapped in her car next to me. I went over to her and pulled on the door handle as she pushed. Together we were able to get her out. I stated “I don’t blame you for waiting out this storm”. Apparently, she was actually listening to the news on the car radio, because she gave me a funny look.
We went in the gas station and there was a man who appeared to be of Indian decent ushering us into the back storeroom. I asked him, “Do you think it’s going to be that bad and can I get a Dr Pepper first?” To which he replied in a thick accent; “Get in the storeroom!” I had stopped here for a soft drink several times before and this reaction was very uncharacteristic for him, so I responded “Okay”. After all, I didn’t want to upset him more than he was already. I guessed his fear was broken glass from tree branches and other debris hitting the windows.
The shopkeeper and I were the last to enter the narrow cinder block room, where to my surprise there were about half a dozen other people all facing forward. I guess a lot of other people had the same idea I had. It was deathly quiet in the tiny space, except for me humming and rolling back and forth on the balls of my feet, waiting this thing out. It was a lot like being in an elevator with strangers waiting for the doors to open. Then the lady I helped out of the car asked “Did anyone hear WHERE the tornado was on the radio?” Several people shook their heads in silence. “Tornado, where?” I thought. This was Tennessee, we don’t HAVE tornadoes. “There’s a tornado in the area” I asked her. She nodded in silence.
Then out of the silence, I heard a hum NOT from me. Roarrrr, roarrrrr, roarrrrrrrr. It’s a cliché, but I could hear the whistle of a freight train blowing in the distance at different intervals. Having a better understanding of the gravity of the situation from those who were listening to the news a few minutes before I made a profound announcement; “I hope the tornado doesn’t hit that train.” Two or three people looked over their shoulder to me and gave me a look as if to say; “You moron!”
Once the “train” had moved on, we all made our way out of the small storage space. As I stepped into the main room of the filling station, I could see all the chip bags, candy bars and aspirin bottles had leaped from the shelves and were now on the floor. The windows however, were still intact. No explanations for that other than odd happenings occur in a tornado. I realized the poor store clerk would be cleaning up this mess for hours, so I felt it was a bad time to ask for a Dr. Pepper.
Fortunately, my car was not hit by any of the storm debris but the shop across the street was a mess. As I drove up the interstate on-ramp, I looked over to the other side and saw not one, but two semi trucks knocked over on their sides. Several other cars were pushed into the ditch. It was complete mayhem. That’s the point at which it finally stuck me; I was actually IN the tornado! Had I not been in that little storeroom, I could have been killed.
Each year on this day, I run the scenario over again. Though my car and a soft drink were the only things on my mind, I behaved pretty well. I did at least have consideration for other motorist behind me, I helped a lady into the store and had empathy for the shopkeeper. I’m not patting myself on the back; all I wanted was a Dr Pepper to wait out a storm. But what if I had listened to the weather report instead of the Stone Temple Pilots that day? How would I (or any of us) have reacted if the exact same conditions were under the banner of “natural disaster”? Labels can make people react in funny ways. Would I have told the shopkeeper “Don’t tell me what to do”? Would I have helped the woman out of her car? Would I have taken the attitude of “I was here first” for the cars not under the overpass? I guess in my situation, ignorance is bliss.