I've done a lot of talking this year about chasing storms, sometimes therapeutic, because I talk about the first time I saw a tornado. This was published previously at www.verbict.com, and edited after my father corrected the memory of a seven year old.
I was seven years old and hated thunderstorms. Being a child of the Midwest, this meant every summer I was in abject terror. We lived behind a TV station and all around their radar tower was lightning rods. Across the street, was a church steeple. Lightning would strike within a couple hundred feet several times during the summer. Usually with a blinding flash and the sound of incoming artillery.
My family loved to fish and camp, so every summer we went to a little spot called Melvern Lake and we camped beneath the dam at a KOA campground. We were always there over Memorial Day weekend. So Memorial Day Weekend, 1980 (I think), storms had hit earlier and intensified overhead after dark. We sat in our fifth wheel Cobra camper and listened to hail plink off the roof, and rocked as the wind buffeted the trailer's side. The weatherman looked nervous and tired on TV with the constant coverage, there had been a lot of thunderstorm warnings, so we headed to the campground's storm shelter. I will use this in the loosest terms since it was a brown brick structure that housed the showers, washer and dryers, but more solid than a trailer if all hell broke loose.
The shelter was full but we squeezed in. There was a nice place in between a washer and dryer and I hunkered down. There was a lot of thunder and hail in the storm. People seemed tense, but the storm slowed down. My father called me and we went back to the camper. (Hint: for all you Twister Fans think of the term “Cone of Silence”).
Back at the trailer, Dad knew I was scared, and to counter that, tried to show me Solitaire. To this day, I still don’t know how to play. The rain started again, lightning hit right outside flickering the power, and the weatherman interrupted regular programming. A tornado was sighted at Melvern Lake heading toward the dam and we were camping right below it.
Dad ran outside and got the truck. He pulled it close enough to the camper door that mom and I were able to jump right in when it started hailing. It was the largest hail I remember, but sometimes that’s how childhood memories are. I remember softball size, he remembered ping-pong. We made it to the shelter with a line of people terrified and forcing their way in. We made it, right in front of a ripe pregnant woman yelling, “Oh my God. It’s going over the top of us”.
Being a young child terrified of loud, obnoxious Kansas storms, I got between the washer and dryer again, pulled my Dallas Cowboy's poncho over my head and waited for the end. I later found out my grandfather and father were outside watching the rotation go overhead. Luckily it fell apart as it went over the dam, then reformed as it went to the town of Melvern.
My father pulled me out from between the washer and dryer. Taking me outside, he pointed out into the dark. There was nothing until a bolt of lightning illuminated a wedge tornado and two satellite tornadoes over the town of Melvern. At that time something clicked in my head and I started studying tornadoes and thunderstorms. I used to sit outside of the house when they went through (we had a long deck on the house), really no longer scared of the near strikes. Then I started chasing in 2000.
My father later said that showing me that storm was the worst mistake of his life, because he hated me going out and chasing. I'd occasionally call him for a radar update or just to say "guess where I am". He showed up to a couple of my photography galleries usually with friends.
It's strange looking back and realizing my father made me conquer my fears of the dark (had me watch Cujo with him) and fear of storms (yes, that look at that moment). I wanted to take this Memorial Day post to remember him.