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I used to wonder why my wife Lori and her family are such avid weather watchers. Whenever we are in a storm warning in Kentucky, my mother-in-law in Oklahoma usually knows about it before I do. Not long ago she called me on my cell phone: “Are you okay?”
I had no clue why she asked. I quickly glanced around my office for vandals, felt my pulse and answered, “I guess so. Why?”
She didn’t call me a doofus, but neither could she hide her surprise at my ignorance, “Don’t you know you are in a tornado warning?!” She was in the process of checking on my wife and kids. (No, I didn’t ask her if I was the last one she dialed.)
Thank God for people who care enough to warn others.
That particular day, I was the only one left in the building. I could have been in real trouble had a tornado actually hit.
My wife, Lori, is like her mother. When a storm awakened us at 2:30 a.m., last week, I only wanted to put the pillow over my head and continue snoring, but Lori turned on the television, watched for the storm path, and proceeded to call any of our children living in the vicinity of the storm.
“Why is she like that?” I asked myself as I rubbed my eyes and gave up on sleeping.
Later the answer came to me when she asked me a question. “Where would we go in case of a tornado?” As I thought of an adequate response (I didn’t have one), I remembered what it was like growing up in southwestern Oklahoma during tornado season. When the sirens went off, warning us of a tornado, we would hustle across the street to the Parkers’ house. They had a storm shelter. The men would then gather at the top of the shelter’s stairs and watch while the women and children would huddle below.
And our source of information in Altus, Okla. was radio station KWHW. Lori’s dad, George Wilburn, was part-owner of the station, and he was the guy we listened to. George was by the necessity of his job, a storm chaser.
He had a few close calls with storms and naturally encountered people in dangerous situations. One time he was reporting on the path of a tornado when he saw a pregnant lady lying in a ditch. She lived in a trailer house and was trying to escape the oncoming tornado. George rushed her to the local hospital. “I thought she might name the child after me, but she didn’t,” he teased.
Chasing storms as a hobby began in the 1950s. One of the pioneers in that field was a man named Roger Jensen. As far back as he could remember, Roger was fascinated with storms. Roger lived near Fargo, N.D. The rumbling of distant thunder, the crack of lightning announcing the approaching storm, the swirl of wind in his ears---all this Roger loved, and he became virtually addicted to the thrill of the storm. Roger said he was “born loving storms.”
Some people, like Roger Jensen, are “born loving storms.” But storm chasing can be dangerous. The 1996 film Twister and the television series, Storm Chasers, both depict the risks involved in chasing storms. At one point in Twister, Dusty (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) spots a tornado and yells to his fellow storm chaser, Bill (actor Bill Paxton), “It’s coming! It’s headed right for us!”
And Bill screams back, “It’s already here!”
Storms are like that. All at once, they are “here.”
My father-in-law was not a storm chaser by choice. But he warned others. And when he could, he would rescue people in trouble. That quality was transferred to his family.
What I interpreted as a storm obsession was really a concern for people who could be in distress.
So, when that destructive tornado descended on Tuscaloosa, Ala. and unleashed its fury, I didn’t hesitate. I picked up the phone, disregarding the time, and dialed the number of my close friends, Butch and Cindy Larkin in Livingston, Ala., not far from Tuscaloosa.
“Are you okay?” I hesitatingly inquired.
“We’re fine, David. We’re fine,” Cindy told me.
Then I waited while she paused.
“Thanks for caring,” she said.
Email David B. Whitlock, Ph.D., at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website, davidbwhitlock.com.