Climb – Trotsky’s Folly Date(s) – January, 1995 Area/Range – Banks Lake, Eastern WA Approach Route – Devils Punch Bowl Area Ascent Route – Trotsky’s Folly Decent Route – Same Altitude – feet Elevation Gain – 40 feet Total Distance – N/A miles Maps/Guides – Desert Rock, page 116 Grade – I Class – WI 3 Pitches – 2 Weather – Snowing but warming enough to drop a lot of ice from above Climbing Partners – Tom Nicholas Climb Leaders – Les Profitt Number in Party – 2
Comments: Neat place, we wound up here after checking out the North face of Chair Peak and deciding there was too much avalanche hazard. We also drove to Frenchman’s Coulee, but the ice there wasn’t well formed.
So we drove all the way to Banks Lake to do a recon and a little climbing. We started up the slope to do the left side of Devil’s Punch Bowl, but a big chunk of ice cut loose as we were climbing up the slippery base. Tom managed to duck behind a boulder but I was trapped out on the slope and decided to play dodge ball with the huge chunks.
I avoided all but one chunk about the size of a basketball. It kept zigging and zagging and I wound up having to deflect it with my hand. It bent my hand way back the wrong way; it hurt for a while and then became very numb and worthless.
We decided that was a bad place to be and climbed/slid back down the slope and over to Trotsky’s Folly. The photos are dark as it was the middle of winter and it got dark early…but we still wanted to crank a few more ice moves.
This is a nice climb, too bad my hand was messed up. We climbed up to the right and tried to find a solid place to put up a top-rope from on top of the first pitch, but couldn’t find a good placement.
I decided to aid up the pitch and place some screws. I got up the pitch and we played around for a while, chipping, thunking and sticking front points all over the place.
Tom’s brand new Footfangs came apart and he lost a bolt. His foot was level with my head so he clipped off to a screw and I took off one of my crampons and attached it to his foot.
We climbed until it was too dark to see and then Tom tied off a sling around a small tree and jumped off the route when it became too funky to traverse. Sparks flew everywhere and I just hoped he didn’t bend my crampon all to hell.
A small frozen pool at the base provides a nice flat belay stance, but it wasn’t entirely frozen. All in all a good trip.
Coming back we were going to bivy back in the Chair peak area but it was real late by the time we got to the pass and Tom decided he would spring for a motel room in North Bend.
I got no sleep because of the “snoremeister”, but at least I was warm and dry. I watched the same music videos all night long. The next morning we headed back up to Snoqualmie Pass and decided to ski up to Chair Peak.
It was snowing heavily and we passed several fresh avalanche paths and heard the avalanche control explosions over on Cave Ridge.
Conditions were really primed for bad slides. We met a couple of guys that had just got some new ice tools and wanted to try them out on Chair. I tried to talk them out of it but they went on ahead.
I’m sure they got to the base of the climb and turned back. Oh well. We got some good turns in on the way back and had a great time.
This story was originally written as part of a climbing resume several years after the event to get credit for the Mountaineers, Mountaineering Orientated First Aid class (MOFA). A MOFA postmortem is included at the end.
Rick and I decided to give Mt. Baker a go on the last weekend in September, 1990. I had just purchased a brand new expedition tent, and wanted to test it out before the winter season hit. The weather forecast was for clear skies and no precipitation.
We started up early Saturday and made it up to the “Hogsback” just before noon. This is an area just below Heliotrope Ridge where most climbers set up base camp for the Coleman/Deming routes. Our intention was to set up basecamp, lay around, eat and get to bed early. We wanted to start off early Sunday morning, summit, and descend all the way down the mountain the same day.
I noticed as soon as we got to the base of the glacier that it was severely crevassed, and that the ice was bare right down to the hard blue glacier ice. I knew the glacier would be opened up this late in the season but it looked menacing. Route finding up the ridge looked pretty challenging, and very intense.
We went out and tested how our crampons would bite on the hard ice and found that we really had to kick them in to get a good purchase. Our ice axes barely scratched the surface. Good thing we had ice screws.
Self-arrest on ice that hard and steep is all but impossible. I spent most of the afternoon scouting the whole ridge with binoculars looking for a line that could be put together. I wanted to be sure I could navigate it in the dark so I spent a lot of time studying the glacier.
Another tent was set up nearby, and I figured that the owners were up climbing and should be back shortly if they had set out early. I wanted to see how they descended through the crevasse field so I was constantly watching for them to break over the ridge about 1500 feet up. I was beginning to worry a bit that they weren’t in sight yet, it doesn’t take all day to summit Baker, and the ice conditions were nasty.
A Canadian party of three climbers made it up to the basecamp area and set up their camp. We chatted a little and discussed the fact that we hadn’t seen the climbers from the mystery tent all day and were joking about hating to do a rescue up the nasty looking slope in the dark. The glacier looked funky enough that the Canadians weren’t sure if they were going to climb or not.
About 5:30 I was watching as three climbers popped into view over the high ridge. They were just little dots in the distance. I was watching them closely with the bino’s as they maneuvered through the shattered ice. I told Rick that I thought they were moving pretty fast over ice that hard.
The entire rope team was moving at the same time and hopping from block to block, no belays of any kind with a lot of slack rope between climbers. They looked like they were beat. I laughed and said that it looks like they smell the barn and wanted to get through the nasty stuff before the sun set.
As I was watching everything suddenly seemed to go into slow motion. The climber in the middle had slipped and was sliding down the mountain. I stopped breathing and every muscle in my body tensed as I watched him tumbling totally out of control. I was willing him to self-arrest, but as he slid faster the rope came taut and jerked the third climber off his feet, followed by the leader and they all went sliding down the glacier.
My stomach felt like someone had taken a full swing at it with a baseball bat. I couldn’t believe it was happening right before my eyes. I was waiting for them to self-arrest even though I knew there was no way in hell that they could on that ice. They slid for about 150 feet before they all disappeared from sight. They had all fallen into a crevasse.
Rick yelled “shit, I can’t believe they fell, what are we going to do”? I knew he wasn’t wild about going up the crevasse field to start with, let alone starting up just before dark.
I looked over at the Canadians and they were looking up at the slope also. I told Rick that we would wait a few minutes and see if the climbers would reappear. The Canadians came over and asked if we had seen the fall, they only knew that they had disappeared from sight. I told them what happened and we started making plans.
We decided to wait ten minutes for someone to appear, if they didn’t show we would start up after them. It was pretty tense because it was fall and the sun was rapidly descending.
About then a climber popped up and started pacing back and forth along the edge of the crevasse like a wild animal. I watched through the bino’s for him to signal or something. He seemed very preoccupied and disappeared again.
Soon two climbers were visible and we started hoping that they were all OK. The two climbers disappeared for awhile and we couldn’t tell what was happening up there.
I started dumping out my pack and collecting head lamps, clothing, foam pads, water, stove & pot, sleeping bags, first aid kit and food. I put my harness on and got the rope and climbing gear ready to go.
It soon became obvious that something was seriously wrong. The other two climbers hadn’t been seen for a few minutes and the third had not been seen at all. Then the two appeared again and started waving their arms at us. They both paced back and forth, stopping once in a while to talk and wave their arms again.
Then one of them started down the slope alone. We waved back at him and tried to make him stay put. He kept coming, staggering around crevasses and across ice bridges. He finally had to stop when he came to a huge crevasse about half way to us.
He dropped down on the ice and put his head in his hands. He quickly jumped back up and started yelling but we couldn’t hear what he was saying. He then collapsed back on the ice.
We finalized our plans with the Canadians while all this was going on. Rick and I were ready to go, so we would start up first and try to get to the upper group and help them.
Since this was before cell phones, one of the Canadians would get ready to run back down to the trailhead, several miles, drive out to a pay phone and call the sheriff for a rescue.
The other two Canadians would follow us up and help the fellow stranded in the middle of the slope back down to our camp. The Canadians had some signal flares that we would fire to start the runner down the trail if we decided that a rescue team had to be called in to help the missing climber.
Rick and I started up, picking our way through the broken ice fall as fast as we could. I was very concerned about making it all the way to the accident site before sunset.
I wasn’t even sure about being able to climb the slope at all, and now we were climbing with night coming on, up a route I would not have chosen if the climber hadn’t been stranded in the middle of the glacier.
I’m a strong hiker and I was charged with adrenaline, wanting to get up the slope as fast as possible. I was soon tugging at Rick, he couldn’t move any faster and was very apprehensive about going on.
He reminded me several times that it would serve no purpose to add another body or two to the rescue effort. I knew he was right, but I still felt like I was in control and within our technical ability… so far.
We made it to the lip of the crevasse directly across from the climber in the middle (Steve). He had gotten up as we got nearer and was again pacing back and forth in a nervous manner.
I yelled for him to sit down and wait for us to get to him. He appeared confused and disoriented. I could see blood on his face and he was holding his wrist. I eventually got him to sit down and stay put.
The crevasse was about 30 feet across and about 80 feet deep, with steep overhanging sides. The uphill lip of the crevasse was about 15 feet higher than the lower lip. The only way across or around was a knife-edge bridge that ended about three feet short of the other side. It started out about 3 feet wide and narrowed to a few inches. It was at a diagonal angle to the slope and about 30 feet long.
Rick came up and took one look at the bridge and said that I shouldn’t even try it. I tended to agree with him, but the guy on the other side was looking pretty crazed and I didn’t know what shape he was in.
It was getting darker and darker and I didn’t see any other possibility to get across. Rick got into a good stance and belayed me on a tight rope. It was a very spooky walk across the sliver of ice.
I got close to where the bridge ended and tried to talk to the injured climber. It was obvious that he was in a panic. He wasn’t talking coherently, blood was crusted from his nose and his face had cuts all over it. I tried to calm him down and I finally deciphered that the climber we hadn’t seen yet was in bad shape, wedged in the bottom of a crevasse with broken bones.
Steve turned out to be a very inexperienced climber and was feeling guilty about pulling the other two off. We took a few minutes to calm him down a bit and convince him that he needed to get down to basecamp and we needed to get up the glacier to help his friends.
I threw a loop of rope across to him and had him plant his axe pick as deep as he could, tie a knot, and clip it to the ice axe head. He was very confused and I had to go over it several times. He wasn’t sure how to tie the knot so I ended up pulling the rope back and tying the figure eight myself, and tossing it back.
His wrist was injured and he couldn’t seem to get a good swing with the other hand, so I had him chip a good stance into the ice with his axe to brace his feet and then plant the pick and lay on the axe in a self arrest position. This gave me enough confidence to get a pick in across the gap and step/hop up onto the upper lip using the rope for balance.
By this time the two Canadians had arrived. We fired the flare and the climber at base camp started off for the rescue call. He had a long way to go and wouldn’t make it all the way out before dark. Our signal flare meant that an evacuation with a litter was necessary, on a very nasty slope, with one climber in serious but unknown shape from a crevasse fall.
He was to tell the main rescue party that we had enough gear to keep the victim warm and enough first aid training to help anything but very severe injuries. Rick and I both had quite a bit of first aid training and Rick works at a hospital. We had no real idea what we would find at the bottom of the crevasse.
The two Canadians started setting up a Tyrolean traverse to help Steve across the huge crevasse. We determined that he had a broken wrist, broken nose, facial cuts, bumps and bruises and at least a minor concussion.
Rick and I continued up, now thinking that the injured climber might die from hypothermia before we even got there. Just as we got to the victim’s crevasse the sun disappeared behind the mountains. At least now we could just concentrate on the victim.
The rope leader (Reese) was unhurt except for minor bumps and bruises. It turned out he had been pulled into a different crevasse than the other two. He had set up a Z-pulley system while waiting for us to climb the slope.
The victim (Vince) had fallen about 25-30 feet into the narrow end of the crevasse. He was loosely wedged into the crevasse where it pinched together at the right side. A large ice block was wedged about 20 feet left of where he lay, forming a false bottom or shelf. The block was about 8 feet long and maybe 3-1/2 feet wide from wall to wall. The left side of the shelf dropped off again another 50 or 60 feet to the bottom, as did the right side of the shelf.
I looked over the edge and yelled down to the victim that he was indeed a lucky man, two of the greatest mountain climbing gods in the whole world had come to his rescue and that he would be out of that hole in no time (trying to ease his fears with a little humor and confidence).
No response from him. We used their rope to drop into the crevasse to the victim. I jumped up and down on the perch block to see if it could hold our weight, it seemed solid, so Rick came down.
I had to stem a crampon into either wall of the crevasse to climb out to the victim. He was still conscious, and in a lot of pain. His leg was twisted grossly back against the wall of the crevasse. He said his head and neck were really hurting and he couldn’t move his head.
They had used a few pieces of clothing and a small blue foam pad to try and block some of the cold, but his clothing was soaking wet from being pressed against the ice wall. They didn’t have any sleeping bags or heavier clothing.
He was shivering uncontrollably and moaning continuously in pain. I thought “great, we have to move this guy over to that block. One false move and we snap his neck and kill him instantly. If we don’t move him he dies of hypothermia and shock in no time.” He has already been laying on ice with water dripping on him for close to 2 hours with a broken leg and busted head.
We talk to Vince constantly, trying to gage his condition and reassure him that he’s going to be fine, just in a lot of pain while we move him. We lift and slide a sleeping pad under him and use it to support his weight as we move him to the block. There is very little room to maneuver in the narrow crevasse, and I have to stem my crampons on either wall of the crevasse and hold the broken leg with both hands as we move him. Rick has to immobilize the neck as much as possible while he stems as well. We used the small foam pad as a splint to support his neck as much as possible.
I told Vince that “this will really hurt but we have to move you”, and explain that he will be much more comfortable once we get him to the block. This took a while since we were in such awkward positions. He was in severe pain and screaming like hot nails were being pounded into him. I could feel the bones in his lower leg grinding and grating in my hands. I thought that every small move was going to snap this guy’s neck. I didn’t get a full breath the whole time we were moving him.
Finally we get him to the block. We slide a Thermarest pad plus the foam pad under him and slip a sleeping bag under him as well. Hoping not to compound the fracture, I didn’t want to move the broken leg too much so we left it in position. We cut his laces and took his boot off to allow us to monitor the temperature and blood flow of his foot.
My thermometer showed that he was already several degrees below normal. We checked the knot on his head and his eyes and thought he probably had a concussion as well. His face was also cut in a few places but nothing major. We loosened his harness and clothing and checked for signs of internal bleeding and other injuries. We were very afraid of moving his neck/spine, so we left any clothing that would have to be pulled or yanked to get it off.
We got our other sleeping bag on top of him and started our stove to heat water. This was quite an operation, because Vince was taking up almost all of the ice block perch. There was less than a foot of space beside his head and about the same at the base of his feet.
There was no room for our packs or other gear, so Reese lowered what we needed from the top of the crevasse. We filled several water bottles with hot water and put them in the sleeping bags. Soon there was steam rolling out of the sleeping bag when we checked his pulse and temp.
We told stupid jokes and silly stories continuously to keep the situation a little lighter, and keep him awake. His pupils were still dilated and we believed he had a concussion (he did in fact have a skull fracture). We fed him hot chocolate by emptying a Visine container and using it as an eyedropper so he didn’t have to sit up.
It was a long night at the bottom of that crevasse. Neither Rick or I could sit down, so we had to stand the entire time, yelling at Vince every so often so he wouldn’t pass out. He was in such misery that he was moaning stuff like “just let me die, I can’t stand this anymore, this night will never end” and on and on.
Then we would tell some awful story or have a farting contest, and tell him there was no way we would let him die with all the misery we were putting up with (you had to be there).
The glacier moaned and groaned and creaked and snapped, dripping water all around us. Every once in a while an explosive cracking sound would scare the crap out of us. It felt like the crevasse would snap shut any time, smashing us to greasy spots in the ice. The glacier seemed sinister and alive and determined to get the last laugh.
At the same time it was like being in a fairy world. The candles we had placed in the bubble pockets in the ice flickered and illuminated the clear, bubbly ice like a vast crystal palace, with the stars twinkling overhead through the narrow black slit above us. Our lack of sleep and fatigue from climbing had us punchy, and it was easy to imagine this giant hole swallowing us up and not spitting us out until years later.
Around 2:00 AM Reese yelled down from the edge of the crevasse that he saw lights down at base camp. The main rescue team had arrived and was gearing up to climb the glacier. It took them all night to climb what Rick and I climbed in an hour. We heard them clanking and yelling for hours as they slowly moved up, setting screws and belaying each other.
Finally, as the sun was coming up around 6:00 AM, they got to the crevasse. It was pretty odd when they got there as they totally ignored us at first. No one on the rescue team asked how we were doing, what shape the victim was in or anything for at least 10 minutes. Rick and I looked at each other and shrugged like WTF?
They looked down at us like we were some kind of side show and shuffled back and forth on the rim. They were busy up on top doing something and apparently none of them thought it important enough to talk to us. I will always remember the feeling of anticipation as they approached the crevasse and then the disappointment I felt when they ignored us. Not even a hello.
Rick and I just looked at each other like “what the hell are they doing up there?” I hope they have a better bedside manner when they reach a victim that hasn’t received assistance. If nothing else, I will always remember to give immediate assurance that I am there to help and ease the victims anxiety.
The paramedic finally got to the crevasse and leaned over and tried to figure out what was going on. He was the first one to say anything to us. There was little room in the crevasse so the team put some screws in up top and set up a rappel line. The paramedic then rappelled down right over the top of me. As he came over the overhanging lip an explosive crack rang out and I thought the whole edge was going to cave in. He moved over a bit and came down a bit more carefully. He got to the bottom and quickly quizzed us on what had occurred as he began checking the victim.
We explained what we had done and all other pertinent information. He checked Vince’s vitals and put a stabilizing collar around his neck. The only thing left to do was put Vince in the Stokes litter they had brought up and assembled.
First we had to straighten and set the broken leg so it would fit in the Stokes litter. The paramedic had me apply traction since I was at the foot end. I could feel the bones grating and grinding as I pulled back and slowly twisted the leg back around into its normal position. Rick held the leg steady as the paramedic maneuvered a wrap-around splint into position. Vince, understandably, was screaming bloody murder the whole time.
Meanwhile, the crew on top was rigging for a litter raise. We lifted Vince into the litter, strapped him down and then climbed out of the crevasse for the first time in over twelve hours. A big Navy rescue chopper from Whidbey Island flew in to do a cable lift right out of the crevasse, as the crevasse was in the middle of a very severe slope and couldn’t land.
The giant chopper nearly blew us off the mountain as it came in close to hover and maneuvered to pick up the litter. It slowly cranked the litter up out of the crevasse and then flew down to basecamp with Vince dangling and spinning below.
As the helicopter descended and began hovering over basecamp, my brand new Eureka Expedition tent was blown up into the air, bouncing around and nearly sucked up into the rotor until the Canadians ran over and finally snagged it. I just knew my beautiful, and expensive new tent was going to be shredded before we even had a chance to spend a night in it.
They eased Vince to the ground, moved him into the main cabin and picked up the other victim with the concussion and prepared to medivac them off the mountain.
As the chopper flew off, everything suddenly became very silent as the main rescue team had already begun descending with the tinkling of climbing gear and crunching of crampons on the hard ice.
We were left alone to pack our gear, looking back down the chaotic glacier to basecamp. My feet were frozen blocks from standing on bare ice all night. My Thermarest pad was punctured full of crampon holes from Rick standing on it all night, but at least his feet weren’t frozen. All our fuel, water and food was gone, and we were totally wiped.
We looked wistfully at the summit…the day had dawned beautiful, sunny and clear, a perfect summit day, but we were trashed after being up all night and the summit was not to be that day.
We picked our way carefully down a better route to basecamp and packed the rest of our gear…the new tent still un-slept in. As we made our way down the trail we started bumping into hikers coming up that wanted to know what was going on with all the rescue guys and excitement at the trailhead.
At first, still kind of jazzed up, we carefully told the tale to each group we bumped into, but finally, just wanting to get off the mountain, we just shrugged when asked and told people we didn’t know what was going on.
Looking back, I think my biggest disappointment was deciding to leave my camera and film at base camp to save some weight. With all the time we spent in the crevasse I would have had some killer photos with time exposures, the Navy chopper, cable rescue tent flying in the air and so on.
My second disappointment was that Vince, Steve and Reese never even said thanks or even acknowledged what we had done for them. I’d like to think if someone went to the efforts we did that I would at least buy them a beer and give a heartfelt thanks. Maybe they were embarrassed as they were real “Mountaineers” (this was before I took the course myself several years later), or perhaps they were just shell shocked the whole time.
We did get our names mentioned in the Bellingham Herald that quoted the “Rescue Team” saying “they did the guy a world of good by keeping him warm before the rescue party got there”. I know in another hour or less he would have been dead from shock and hypothermia and they would have been doing a body recovery.
Comments for MOFA Postmortem
Summary: I believe all three victims had gone through the Tacoma Mountaineers Basic course. I know that Reese and Vince did the course and had some level of climbing experience. Reese was leading the team and seemed to have the most experience, although Vince mentioned he had climbed some big mountains. Steve had the least experience, I believe Baker was his first major climb.
They all had minimal packs, presumably because the weather was very good that day. They had basic technical gear for climbing Baker, rope, axes, crampons, good boots, screws, etc., but they didn’t take a sleeping bag or full rain gear for the summit attempt. No stove & pot for melting additional water. First aid equipment was not even close to adequate. They did have one bivy sack that did nothing to insulate Vince from the ice. They couldn’t even get it around him in the position he was in. Vince was wearing cotton thermal underwear with a cotton T shirt. Reese had a vinyl poncho that he used for his night on the rim of the crevasse. None of them were prepared for an unplanned bivy on a mountain like Baker.
All of their water was gone when we got to them, so they were all probably dehydrated and very tired from their long day. Fatigue mixed with the desire to get back to base camp or just bad judgment forced them to move through the icefall without using belays or using good rope management. The inexperience of Steve was enough in itself to set up a belay of some kind over the tricky hard ice.
Once the accident occurred, panic seemed to set in and they weren’t quite sure what to do. They were in sight of camp the whole time but wasted quite a bit of time before signaling that they needed help. It was a major mistake to send or allow Steve to down-climb the heavily crevassed icefall alone and in his condition. He had already shown that he had trouble on the icefall.
MOFA 7 steps from the rescue party perspective:
Step 1) The situation was taken charge of twice; once at base camp by planning the course of action with the Canadians, and again at the crevasse site with the victims. There was no doubt that I was the one directing the actions of the rescue, and everyone responded with the best of their ability.
Step 2) Approaching the victims safely was a judgment call. I think it could be argued either way that the rescue party endangered itself while climbing the icefall. I felt I was in control and within my climbing abilities. Delaying climbing the icefall until morning or waiting for Mountain Rescue would have meant that Vince would have died from hypothermia. The false bottom in the crevasse could have dropped out, but it appeared to be stable for the moment.
Step 3) Emergency rescue was performed as well as could be expected. The victims were moved to safer environments so that additional first aid and comfort could be given. Steve was evacuated to base camp and Vince was relocated to the level area of the crevasse as soon as possible.
Step 4) Both victims were protected from further environmental hazards as much as possible. Steve in the relative comfort of base camp, and Vince with the foam pads and sleeping bags, along with hot water bottles. Both were constantly conscious and were warmer than the rescue party. Both victims were given reassurance and told exactly what was going on at all times.
Step 5) I assume the Canadians treated Steve at base camp. Our immediate need when I last saw him was to get him off the icefall. Once we had Vince on the shelf ledge we took precautions to keep his spine from being moved and didn’t allow him to move around. Although we loosened his harness and clothing to allow better circulation, we didn’t notice until morning that he may have been laying on his ice screw all night. We checked him for other injuries and tended his scrapes. The one thing I would do differently now is to go ahead and set the leg as soon as he was to the shelf. Although he only complained of pain when his leg was moved, he may have been a little more comfortable with his leg straight. I was afraid at that time of further injury and possibly compounding the fracture and having to deal with bleeding.
Step 6) Our planning was done fairly well. Everyone pitched in options and the best course of action was chosen. Everyone knew what was expected and carried it out great. In the crevasse we ensured that Vince was kept awake to guard against his concussion, he was checked regularly for a good pulse and that his injured foot was still warm enough. Water was heated at regular intervals so that we knew we could make it through the night with our fuel supply. We knew our only option was to keep Vince alive and comfortable until an evacuation team could get him off the mountain. We sent back the information that we knew. There was no way to know the extent of injuries and to wait until we climbed up and then sent someone back would have meant several hours delay and endangered us by night climbing down the icefall.
Step 7) The rescue party was uninjured, the victims lived, the plan worked great. If bad weather had dumped on us, I feel we still would have been OK, just more miserable.
Growing up in the small town of West Carrollton as free-range wildlings in the 60’s-70’s, it never occurred to me at the time how truly lucky we were to be able to wander around our neighborhood without fear or being subjected to the long parental leash of a cell phone, not to mention the seduction of video games. We weren’t as crazy as the Lord of the Flies, but we were left to our own devices and would be gone the entire day, coming back in time to avoid a spanking for missing supper and then head back out to play hide and seek or catch fireflies.
There were no hovering parents in my family…quite the contrary. Dad was always working and mom preferred us not to be underfoot. On a non-school day when the weather was nice or on summer vacation, we got chased out of the house and were on our own as soon as we woke up.
Breakfast? Get your own bowl, typically a recycled margarine tub and fill it with Trix, Apple Crisp or Cap’n Crunch after rummaging through the box to see if there was a prize.
The prize is how we picked out our cereal, as long as it was sweet we would eat it. Dinosaurs, super balls, glow in the dark stuff, submarines, you name it…prizes ruled! There were even records on the back of the box you could cut out and play on the old Close and Play. The Archies “Sugar Sugar” comes to mind.
Of course, the tooth-rotting amount of sugar already in the cereal was not nearly enough, so we emptied the sugar bowl into our Jethro Bodine size bowls (Beverly Hillbillies reference for y’all young-uns) to the point where it wouldn’t even dissolve, leaving big spoonfuls of milky sugar at the bottom as dessert.
With six kids, food in my family was done on a military scale. The main food groups us kids were in control of, beyond our morning cereal, were milk, bread, peanut butter and jelly and baloney and cheese…and it was always baloney, not bologna. And there was always a big basket of tomatoes for snacks once they started coming in from the garden.
Milk was delivered by an actual Borden milkman in glass bottles and left in a galvanized box on the front porch to keep it cool. 4 gallons of milk were delivered every couple of days, along with butter, cottage cheese, butter milk for dad and other assorted dairy products. Elsie the cow even made the glue we used at school!
When they came out with those 2.5 gallon plastic dispensers there were always at least 2 of them in the fridge. We helped keep dairy farms in business as dad still might have to pick up a gallon or 2 on his way home from work to tide us over.
The bread was typically whatever white bread was on sale the cheapest at Woody’s, but if we got Wonder Bread we thought we were farting through silk and would immediately sacrifice a piece slathered with peanut butter to the dog.
The peanut butter served as the glue to stick to the roof of the dog’s mouth, and the soft Wonder Bread made an almost impermeable barrier once compressed and licked by the dog, who would spend the next 15 minutes trying to lick through the bread shield to the delicious peanut butter hidden beneath. Cheap entertainment.
The peanut butter came in 5 lb plastic buckets, bought at least 2 at a time. These buckets then became cheap utility Tupperware. Arguments over whether the next bucket was going to be smooth or crunchy style were fought with the gusto of an MMA fight. Jellies, jams and preserves were made by mom and in a seemingly endless supply from our cellar pantry.
Apple, grape, strawberry and rhubarb were standard as we had those fruit trees and plants… maybe some peach, plum if dad picked up a few flats at a roadside stand. Wild blackberry, mulberry and raspberry depended on us kids getting out and picking peanut butter tubs full of them…usually paying dearly with days of suffering relentless chigger scratching.
Making a PB&J entailed slathering peanut butter on as thick as possible and dumping jelly out of the jar so it would ooze out of the bread every time you took a bite. You had to eat it like an ice cream sandwich…licking the sides after each bite.
There were no Ziplock bags in those days, you used a sheet of wax paper or foil to wrap it up or if you were lucky mom bought some of those new-fangled sandwich bags that you had to fold a flap back over the sandwich and pull the top of the bag inside out to form a loose seal. Which leaked if you fell in the creek. We ate a lot of soggy sandwiches.
Lunch meat was just baloney, and was named Oscar Mayer. Mom bought it by the cart load in the 1 lb packages and our family could decimate several packages a day like locusts.
Cheese (and I use the term loosely) was a box of Velveeta. Seriously, we thought that’s what cheese was for many years. At some point after Kraft invented the individually wrapped American Cheese slices, they became the standard, as it was not unusual for a kid to cut hunks of Velveeta an inch thick to put on a sandwich. After all, American Cheese is really just Velveeta squeezed thinly into a sheet of plastic, right?
You would slather that with yellow mustard and what we commonly called mayonnaise, but was actually Miracle Whip, a cheaper version of mayonnaise full of fructose, soybean oil, sugar and other nasties. I remember tasting Hellman’s for the first time and feeling cheated all those years…thanks for fooling us again mom!
Thus invigorated with a bowl of sugar fortified cereal and maybe a sandwich crammed in our pocket, we were good for a full day of exploration and adventure.
The first order of business was to try and sneak off without the younger kids noticing or receiving a mandate from mom to “watch you brothers and sisters”. This was not an easy task, the youngsters were on to us and stuck to us like white on rice. Sometimes we employed the “outrun them on our bikes” method until they gave up or simply tried to lull them into boredom, as if we weren’t going to do anything and then creep off. It really depended on how adventurous we felt, creek walking was open to anyone.
One of the first adventures I remember was exploring the new 3 story apartment building going up behind the house. What was formerly just an empty field, suddenly sprouted into a building site, with heavy equipment, excavation, framing and so on. As soon as the workers left for the day we would climb all over the bulldozers and trucks, checking out the construction and playing in the endless mud puddles.
We soon became a little braver and made friends during the work day with one of the construction guys. I can feel moms everywhere shuddering with the notion of “a friendly stranger”, but at least it seemed a bit more innocent in those days and the worker turned out to just be a friendly guy.
He would share bits of his lunch, sugar packets from his coffee breaks and so on. We would climb up and around everywhere in the 3 story building, watching the workers do their thing, fetching boards or tools or just getting in the way. No one seemed to care and OSHA had a low profile in those days.
But more typically, a good day of adventuring started in the nearest creek, which happened to be about 2 houses away if we cut through neighbor’s yards. We always cut through the neighbor’s yards. Fences, dogs and gates were just obstacles to be negotiated like we were on American Ninja.
Once in the creek we were in our natural element. We tried to stay clean and dry for about 5 minutes…until we saw our first crawdad or frog and all bets were off as we splashed right in after our prey. We would then wander up the middle of the creek, stopping to build a dam to make the water deeper and then wandering on, flipping rocks and poking in holes to see what was hidden away.
Down towards the old Kimberly- Clark paper mill, in the creek along Gibbons that ran in-between White Villa, there was a retention pond that settled out some of the solids before being discharged into the creek from a big pipe. You could tell what color paper they were making due to what color the creek water was that day. You could dig into a sand bank and see multiple layers of colors in the sand, like someone made a colorful cake. We thought it was cool at the time but who knows what chemicals we were wading around in.
In that part of Ohio limestone is the dominant geology, and it was so full of fossils that we became immune to the commonplace seafloor fossils, with seashells by the millions. Reading my fossil books, I was always on the prowl for a cool T-Rex tooth or mastodon tusk. It took a while to understand they did not walk around on the ancient seafloor of Ohio.
I really got into collecting rocks and minerals along with fossils. Pardon while I nerd out for a minute…I found brachiopods, crinoids, cephalopods, gastropods, cool horn corrals that I first imagined as dinosaur teeth, and eventually a trilobite or two.
I had boxes and boxes of all these rocks in my closet, many mounted and named on cardboard, in little sectioned boxes and just loose in bags. I still can’t help picking up cool rocks but I try to limit them to one or two per trip as a memento rather than trying to find one of everything possible. When we were selling off mom and dad’s house and cleaning it out, there was still a couple hundred pounds of rocks down in my old bedroom in the basement. I kept a few just for old times’ sake.
We also collected every form of fresh water critter found in southwest Ohio. Mom was into tropical fish for a while and had collected many fish tanks and paraphernalia of varying sizes. As her interest faded, we took control of the tanks and created terrariums and aquatic re-creations of the creeks and ponds, filled with frogs, toads, turtles, mud puppies, snails, tadpoles, crawdads, fresh water clams, hellgrammites and any other unusual insect larvae…everything but snakes. Oh, we caught them alright, but we had to hide them in the garage, as mom drew a hard line at snakes in the house. There may have been a death penalty involved.
As we wandered up the creeks, we often got side tracked by various woodlands around our area, many of which have been developed these days. One that hasn’t, was the woods right next to our elementary school, Harry Russell. I believe it was part of the school property and classes occasionally went up into the woods on field trips to study nature.
There was a house that had a long, private drive just off of Bishop Drive that wound to the top of the hill right next to the Russell woods. I used to remember the name of the folks that lived there, but it seems to elude me at the moment. In any case, as kids we of course placed a sinister reason for them living in their relative seclusion. They had to be rich and evil, as they had their own bridge across the creek and long driveway with acreage. Worst of all, they had no trespassing signs, the nerve!, so who knows what kind of sorcery went on in there and which were as good as a blinking neon sign saying “enter here”.
We would sneak up the drive, cautious for any sign of approaching cars or guards. We knew they had to have guards at such a house. We would dive and roll into the bushes at any indication of danger, which might be noise from a bird or cicada or just a giggle. I don’t think I ever saw any people, cars or activity of any kind from that house.
We would stealthily creep our way past the house, along old animal and kid trails, through what is today called Hintermeister Park (maybe the Hintermeister’s are the ones that owned the property and house?) at the top of Mayrose Drive, to enter the school woods proper. This woods was a playground for kids around the entire area, but we thought of it as our own. After all, when we first moved to our brand new house there were no other houses past the creek bridge on Primrose and they had just opened Harry Russell my first year there in first grade. We obviously had seniority.
It was a wonderful little woods filled with all kinds of possibilities for adventure. It was situated up the side of a hill, so it had gullies and ravines with little water courses to wander up. There were the more or less official trails through the woods, and then there were the “secret” trails…these were the more interesting ones of course.
They might take you to the edge of one of the ravines where kids had trimmed back the undergrowth to clear a path for swinging on a big vine out over the ravine.
There were a lot of wild grape vines in the woods so when one dried up or got ripped down a new one would be created somewhere else.
The trails would also lead to makeshift clubhouses, tree houses and secret clearings in the woods. You could tell the hangouts of the older kids by the stash of playboy’s, beer cans and cigarette butts littering the area.
We knew to tread cautiously in these places so we didn’t get into a turf war. That didn’t stop us from climbing tree houses and ransacking clubhouses for usable booty, that all seemed to be part of the game.
At the very top of the hill, along the property line, there was a fence enclosing a large meadow where the owners kept horses. The horses were always happy to see visitors and would come trotting over to say hi. In a little suburban town, this seemed like we were a world away in the country, in a place where we could call the horses, pet their heads and feed them grass or maybe even a carrot or apple if we had thought to bring them.
A couple of the creeks had steep dirt cliffs, where we became mountain climbers for the day. We had an old army rope of dad’s that we would coil up and use to act like Sir Edmund Hillary. The cliffs were eroding and dangerous as they were just clay and dirt, but that didn’t stop us from scaling them and getting into precarious situations where we were afraid to go up or back down.
This was made all the more exciting by throwing dirt clods at the person already in meltdown mode on the cliff to break them even further. I have no idea why we didn’t have more broken bones and injuries.
We didn’t limit ourselves to above ground either. When they were building out the then new Sherwood Forest development, they had built the sewer infrastructure but hadn’t yet built any houses. I thought this was a great opportunity for becoming cavers and exploring the subterranean.
The storm sewers were still clean and new, so we didn’t need to worry about nasty surprises like dead animals or people dumping nasties down the drains.
We would gather a collection of candles, matches, flashlights and string each time. We accessed them from an outfall pipe in the creek and would walk in as far as possible, then crawl on hands and knees, eventually traveling through even smaller pipes on our bellies with no way to turn around.
Claustrophobia was always in the back of our minds down in the black depths of the pipe, and we inched forward with a hopeful wish that there would be a manhole station at some point ahead where we could gather our courage and continue on or turn around.
I ended up mapping the entire system with drawings of the size of the pipe, where the manhole access points were and which ones made good clubhouses to stash candles and booty.
Occasionally a summer thunder storm would come up and begin flooding the pipes, but this again we didn’t really acknowledge as real danger, just heightening the adventure a bit more.
Over along the now buried creek under Liberty Lane next to White Villa, by a chigger filled raspberry patch, there was an old tree house notable for how high up in the tree it was and how rickety the steps were to climb to the top. When we “acquired” it, the past builders had, by all appearances abandoned it for some time. There was rotten wood, rusty nails, loose boards and so on. Maybe someone fell, or parents got wind of it and banished them from such a dangerous place, or maybe they just got older and pursued other interests, who knows.
In any case, we planted a flag and claimed it as our own. We began the rehabilitation by dragging more building material from dad’s stash of second hand lumber and banging in yet more rusty, bent nails into all of the many loose boards creating a ladder going up the tree trunk. Old school tree house ladders were just boards nailed onto the trunk. They loosened up regularly as the still living tree grew. We figured if 2 nails were good, 10 nails were great.
I recall there were a couple of places that had extended sections where you had to climb the tree, possibly to keep the squeamish from continuing to the top. This thing was easily 50-60 feet up in the tree…any fall would be a broken bone or worse. We continued adding nails, rails and new boards until we eventually lost interest as well, leaving it for other kids to discover.
As we all got older, adventures took us farther afield on our bikes, perhaps fishing at a pond or walking out on the dilapidated spillway on the Miami River. Eventually, I started hanging out more with my school buddies rather than my brothers and sisters and they had to create their own new adventures as I began stretching my teenage wings…but that is a different set of tales.
I wrote this story on Facebook a year ago and it showed up on my “Memories” this morning. It was just a quick little blip that popped into my head back then and I jotted it down for Facebook. I smiled over the memory then read through the old comments.
The post didn’t get much notice as posts go, 7 Likes and 6 Comments, but two of the comments were from my life-long buddy Rick. “Man, that looks like fun!” and “Those wool pants can take a beating!”. Very short and simple, but just the kind of thing that sets off a hundred memories.
He was referring to the photo at the top that shows Beckey on an easy flake doing a layback move. We had been on climbs like that many times. Each one flashed through my head and they were all fun indeed, even the nasty, chossy, dirt pile Beckey death routes no one had been on in years.
He knew that wool pants can take a beating because we had both worn them for many years before all the new-fangled synthetic stuff came out. I had given him a pair of my dad’s old wool Army pants back in high school and we both wore them until we got too old and fat, replaced by nice comfy fleece.
But the thing that stung was that it is coming up June 17th, the day he died a year ago. I’ve been reading his comments from the last ten years coming back from the past in those Facebook memories for the past year thinking “he was still with us a year ago”. I don’t know why a year is meaningful, but it is.
Maybe because it still seems like it was just yesterday. Maybe it’s simply a calendar year has an implied meaning. Or maybe because the memory is the first time it has popped up…we have had plenty of fun re-commenting on these old FB memories from 2, 5, 8 years ago, but his voice is now gone from them.
In a few days none of the comments will be “new” memories. Each would have been seen at least once before as a memory and repeated year after year like a scene in the “Ground Hog’s Day” movie. I suppose all very appropriate for the boy born on February 2nd.
In the early 90’s we stopped in to check out some routes in Squamish BC that were right next to a residential area overlooking the main highway. They were just beginning some home construction there and we figured we should bag the climbs before they closed it off from climbers.
We took the short walk over to the cliffs and were scoping the routes and noticed a group on a nice, classic looking crack. Most of them were young but there was an old dude on lead, dressed in long wool pants and a flannel shirt while everyone else was in shorts and t shirts.
The old dude would work his way up the crack with pretty good run-out and then do an odd layback that I can only describe as a “butt smear” so he could get a nut or stopper in. He was actually smearing the full length of the wool pants for added friction while he worked the stopper in. He could almost no hands it!
He turned to look down at us and I immediately saw it was Fred from his photos on his climbing guides. He must have been about 72 at the time. Here was our alpine messiah, whose words we poured over in his Cascade Alpine Guides to find some glimmer of how to find a route on some crazy “Beckey variation” doing a single pitch 5.6 fifty feet from a construction zone. Very surreal.
We immediately added the “Beckey Butt Smear” into our quiver of climbing moves…if it was good enough for the Master it was good enough for us. Photo (not mine) of the Legend on another climb, looks like up Icicle Creek in Leavenworth.
With apologies to Dusty Springfield for the title, one of my favorite memories of childhood is going “picking” with the old man, an activity he loved and my mother detested. You only had to step into the garage to see he was a collector of all manner of previously used “stuff”. I can hear mom shouting “Gordon, we don’t need any more of that old crap, I’m going to throw it all out!, with him hollering back “woman, don’t touch my stuff!”
He never met a bent nail that couldn’t be straightened out enough to pound into a board. Now, they may get flung into an old rusty Folgers can, mixed with sawdust, dirt and god knows what else and sit in that can waiting to be chosen and pounded straight for an eternity, but you never know when you might need a single 3.25” aluminum ring shank with extra-large head.
He knew all the good dumping spots within 10 miles and we would meander from one to the next, checking out what treasures the imprudent had offered up to the more experienced palate of the expert picker.
The best spots back then (and probably still) were along the Miami River between Miamisburg and the Dayton city limits. Vance and West River Roads along the West bank and East River Road on the East bank were particularly fertile grounds as almost no one lived or worked along the river back then. They were usually accessed down a dead end “fishing spot” road that resembled the entrance to the Bat Cave from the old TV show, not the groomed levee banks, bike trails and industrial areas you find today.
He would holler “let’s go for a ride”. We knew exactly what that meant…we could run wild in the woods and creeks along the river, exploring for snakes and frogs while he dug through piles of “stuff”. He would load us kids in the station wagon and off we would go for a few hours of prime entertainment.
It really was great fun for us as we were pretty undemanding kids. We were happy running the neighborhood, climbing trees, picking berries or wading miles up creeks, flipping rocks for crawdads and poking around for fossils.
As a rule, we didn’t get to go to fancy places (i.e., places that charged money or an admission) that smaller families took their children to have fun, so our expectations had a low bar set for what fun was. Just spending time with dad was fairly rare as he was usually working 2nd shift at Dayton Tire and Rubber.
Sometimes, there might be a specific mission in mind, such as finding some (barely) usable lumber to build some project he had in mind. We would all get hammers and descend on a pile of old wood to pound rusty nails out and refill dad’s coffee cans at the same time.
At least once a year during pollination season in the spring he would take us to old farmsteads that were most likely abandoned after the big 1913 flood, before the levees were built. They still had orchards that had gone wild and we had some fruit trees at home that needed to be cross-pollinated from other fruit trees. He would be busy cutting flowering branches off of apple, plum and pear trees while we dug through old foundations, ruins and out buildings seeking fabulous treasures.
More typically though, was the “let’s go see what we can find” drive. We would pull off onto one of the many dirt paths, usually full of puddles that splashed the car with mud and brambles and briers to scratch the paint up with long, slow, teeth-grinding squeals as dad squeezed through the overgrown paths.
These dump sites contained pretty good sized piles, deposited over many years. There was some house hold garbage, but people were usually driving out to these sites to get rid of appliances and other “big trash” that they couldn’t easily get rid of or to avoid paying for getting rid of it at the dump.
Dad would flip everything around with a heavy stick, looking for washing machine motors, lawnmowers, bicycles, tools, old phonographs, radios and other electric gear for parts and pieces. 2x4s and other dimensional lumber was stacked in the wagon, nails or not.
There might be old flower pots, household knick-knacks, old lamps, brass stuff, ashtrays, glassware, crates, you name it. We were always on the look-out for bits and pieces to make go-carts, skate boards, push carts, bicycle choppers and other ways to injure ourselves like miniature Evil Knievel’s.
If we weren’t sure if something was a true treasure or not, we would hold it up and wait for the nod from the master. It felt like we were in the Coliseum, waiting for Caesar to give us the thumbs up or down, tossing it back down in disgust if it didn’t meet whatever standard dad had in his head.
Another favorite was just being down on the river itself. There were a number of bends and log jams along the river that had treasures that had somehow fallen or gotten tossed into the river upstream. There were always a lot of baseballs, softballs, footballs, kick balls, basketballs, whiffle balls and other floating stuff to be had.
Digging for snapping turtles, poking at dead animals, jamming sticks in muskrat holes and prospecting for snagged fishing lures and bobbers rounded out river activities.
Sword fighting with sticks was prized action. My brother Greg and I were playing gladiator on a log jam one time and he hit me in the face with a good size muddy pole that left a good sized gash. Per standard operating procedures, dad poked around with a Zippo heated knife blade, digging for splinters…mom splashed it with peroxide and called it good with slapping a butterfly bandage on. Left a scar for many years, but it has faded away over the decades.
It was not unusual to come across an uncle or cousin down along the river as well. They might be picking junk themselves, fishing or just plinking at cans with a .22.
One time we came across Uncle Pete or Uncle Shelby (Can’t remember which, we had a lot of uncles back then) bow fishing for carp. He was out in the middle of the river, bow at the ready, staring down intently into the muddy water that was almost up to the tops of his folded-down hip waders.
I was amazed because 1) He was only in knee-deep water. We had been told we would drown if we went anywhere near the bank of the Great Miami River. 2) He was using a bow and arrow to fish! 3) He looked very dangerous creeping around with a big bow in water you could barely see through!
The carp got pretty big and generally slow moving as they vacuumed up everything along the bottom, but it looked like grand adventure to me.
We would eventually grow tired of digging in the junk piles, leaving dad to do his serious picking work while we wandered into the woods exploring. I would run out ahead, trying to escape the younger kids, with Greg right on my tail, Laurie chasing him and Phil just trying to see which way we went.
Each time we came back to a familiar place we would fan out a bit farther each time, enjoying the feeling of adventuring on our own in unknown jungle territory. We were oblivious to any sense of danger, getting lost or being injured.
There were other dangers inherent to picking as well. Worst perhaps, given my dad’s predilection for emergency medical procedures, otherwise known as poking around with that heated pen knife, was stepping on a rusty nail in the endless piles of construction debris.
Not only was there an opportunity for a tetanus infection, he had to explain to my mom what we were doing jumping around on piles of wood covered in splinters and rusty nails and had to go get our tetanus shots updated…again.
There were often bee and wasp nests, chiggers, thorns, loose logs in the river jams, poison ivy, snakes…I have very vivid memory of running wild through the woods and stepping on a big snake.
There were low growing and high climbing viney plants that grew everywhere and hid the forest floor and climbed up everything along with wild honeysuckle, but I knew as soon as I stepped on it what it was. It just had that feel. It wasn’t a little garter snake either, it was big and meaty and curled up and now pissed as all Hell.
My blood went icy-cold as I saw it writhing around, striking at everything within range. I suddenly became aware that I didn’t know exactly what else was under all the kudzu and plants around me. I grabbed a stick and started back-tracking, heart beating like a jack hammer, whacking weeds with the stick like I had a machete in the Amazon jungle.
Not every trip was junk picking, some times it was just prospecting for new spots, or going to his pokeweed patches for a mess of poke sallet. He always knew what was in season, whether it was pokeweed, huckleberries, hickory nuts, fruit in the old orchards, paw paws or a wild rhubarb patch on one of the old farms. He could scrounge up a meal for free just about anywhere.
By the way, the whole poke plant is poison, especially the roots. Don’t eat the stems or any purple parts, only the leaves when they are tender in the spring and don’t forget to boil your poke leaves 3 times, with water changes in-between. Now you are ready to go harvest some poisonous poke come spring.
This reminds me of one of my favorite sayings that dad had, and he had many. Opossums seem to be immune to the poison in poke, and are known to eat the berries. When we had Kool-aid stains all around our mouths he would start chuckling and tell us “your mouths looks like a opossum’s ass in poke berry season”. Use your imagination.
Eventually we would pile back in the wagon, and drive home all covered in mud and burrs, bitten up with bugs, punctured with nettles and briers and totally worn out. We would hurriedly carry our booty to the garage before mom saw it, to be inventoried and examined in more detail later.
What did he do with all this stuff you ask? Most of it gathered dust on shelves built of scavenged wood, put together with those recycled bent nails. Us kids might slap together some monstrosity from old lawn mower wheels and wooden crates to rattle down Orchard Hill as fast as we could before we crashed and burned.
But occasionally, dad would have a project in mind and have just the item he needed, sitting on the shelf for the last 6 years waiting for its moment, or just the right screw or plumbing gizmo, even if it was only a nickel at the hardware store.
I don’t want to crawl too far into the old man’s head, because it was just great fun for us, but I think all this scrounging, living off the land, being self sufficient and gardening his own food was a product of growing up on a small tobacco farm in the hills of Kentucky, where his depression era family relied on getting by however they could.
I pale in comparison, but I’m not ashamed to say I inherited some of the master’s skills. I can’t toss an off-cut of hardwood, will stash a hunk of stainless, brass or copper away “for the future” and have my own cans of nails and screws to sort through when I need one “just right”. Thanks pop.
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.