The recent tornado destruction in Port Orchard got me thinking about the time a tornado ran over over me and my friends back in the 70’s. Tornadoes are pretty rare in Washington State, unlike forest fires, floods, landslides, earthquakes, tsunamis and the odd volcano blowing up. Seems like a good bargain most of the time.
This is what reminded me from the local newspaper:
Emily Silverman told KOMO News she was caught in the tornado. She was in the car with her husband and 2-year-old son near Walmart.
“And it’s raining and it’s pouring down really bad and before you know it everything was flying everywhere,” she told KOMO. “Our car back windows blew out, our side windows blew out. Things hit us — there were a few people who had some head injuries from being hit by things. A car got pushed into a back… there was an accident. It was crazy. There were things flying everywhere. I thought I was a goner.”
My story starts when I was home on leave from the Army, maybe around 1979, just before I shipped out to Korea. I was hanging out with my buddy Rick and his girlfriend Bonnie before going to my next duty station.
We were driving around in Bonnie’s old Pontiac Bonneville. I don’t remember exactly what we were up to, probably no good. It was summer time, with typically muggy thunder storm weather in southern Ohio.
We happened to be out in Fairborn, by Wright Patterson, the local Air Force base, when I saw in the distance what looked like a funnel cloud forming up over some farm fields.
I had my new Canon SLR camera with me and I immediately began trying to convince Bonnie, who was driving, that we needed to get closer to the funnel so I could get some good pictures.
My argument consisted of “as long as we drive 90 degrees to the direction it is moving we will be fine”. I knew this to be true because I read it somewhere. There was no internet back then, so people generally still believed the printed word.
Rick and Bonnie were not convinced it was a good idea, but I kept it up, explaining this may be their only chance to see a tornado up close and personal… you only live once… go for the gusto… I think that was a beer commercial back then for Schlitz beer. (I should probably confess a hurricane party has been on my bucket list since I was around 16 and still is)
I was either very convincing or just wore them down as Bonnie eventually pointed the car in the direction of the tornado. It wasn’t raining all that hard where we had started, but as we got closer and closer the rain came at us harder and harder until it was coming at us horizontally.
We were getting buffeted around by the wind pretty good but I was still convinced her big boat of a car would be fine. The tornado still looked like a baby compared to the massive EF-5 that had wiped out the town of Xenia in 1974 and the hood alone on that Bonneville was the length of a football field and it was as wide as an oil tanker, so I was still pretty confident.
As the intensity picked up they both started in again about how this was “another one of my crazy ass ideas and why do we ever listen to you” complaints. By this time the windshield wipers were on high-speed, beating the window to death but still couldn’t keep up with the rain enough to see very well.
It was like being inside a car wash that had gone off the track. I could still get a glimpse of the tornado once in a while to direct Bonnie which way to go, which was pretty much exactly opposite of the way she wanted to go.
As the sky got darker and darker we found ourselves on one of those straight, lonely roads that cut through Wright Pat that have the 10 foot security fences on both sides of the road. With steep, deep ditches on either side, it was essentially a fence canyon with no place to get off or even turn around, and no where to go but forward.
The car was whipping back and forth, rain coming at us in buckets with shortage of irony in the fact that the closer we got, the less we could actually see of the tornado, much less get “good” pictures.
Suddenly, up ahead in a field on the other side of the fence I see the funnel cloud touch down along a hedge row and explode all the trees and bushes. Vegetation was whirling everywhere and you could see it moving across the field, with crops swirling around like one of those invisible monsters on the old Johnny Quest cartoon as it bounced across the field.
The funnel then hit a big billboard sign and exploded it to pieces. A full sheet of plywood was spinning right at us like a Frisbee and Rick and I were like PUNCH IT!, we’re gonna get creamed!
Bonnie put the pedal to the floor to try to speed past it but the car was being shaken back and forth all over the road, again with nowhere to duck into or get out of the way.
The plywood came at us like it was in slow motion, slowly spinning as it came at us with the Johnny Quest monster right behind it.
As we crossed the tornadoes path it got extremely loud and with a big blast the side windows blew out of the rubber seals around the door frame with a big pressure blast. Our ears all popped at the same time and then the plywood Frisbee smashed into the front of the car, luckily taking most of the initial impact and as it continued on back and sheared both windshield wipers off in one big slice.
By now Bonnie is screaming “what have you gotten me into, I’m going to kill you if I live long enough” or something to that effect…along with plenty of more colorful language that I richly deserved.
She slammed on the brakes as she could no longer see anything out of the windshield and as we watched the tornado bounce across the road into the another field we all looked at each other kind of surprised we were all still in one piece.
I can’t remember what kind of tongue lashing I got after that, if I ended up paying for new wipers or any details really…I believe Rick switched to driving at that point since in order to see anything the driver had to stick their head out of the window and get a continual face full of rain. We somehow limped back home with a great story to tell.