Friday, April 29, 2011

Riding out the Storm

It's likely that most people in Alabama have a storm story this week. Many are tragic, some are miraculous. Mine is one of the latter. With so much bad news coming in from across the South, perhaps it's good to know that sometimes we're in the right place at the right time—despite the conditions.
   On Tuesday, I traveled up to Little River Canyon to my cottage there. We built the place right before Jack was born and it's a small, but efficient get-away—the perfect writer's retreat. I admit I don't travel up there as much as I'd like. It's somewhat cut-off from the world, without cable or DSL or phone service. Usually, that's just fine.
   I arrived late Tuesday afternoon. Of course, I'd heard there were storms brewing for Wednesday. This weather report was concerning only because I planned to meet one of my best friends, Janet, in Chattanooga on Wednesday. Janet and I had been friends for twenty years. We'd been with each other during some of the saddest and happiest times in our lives. We were long overdue for a reunion.  I was determined to go to Chattanooga to see her come hell or high water, as my Dad would say. It would take more than a little rain to keep me from seeing Janet, as planned.
   Wednesday dawned and sure enough the sky was dark and heavy with clouds. By 8 AM it was pouring. No problem, I thought, this storm cell would pass. It couldn't rain like that all day. I planned to meet Janet around noon. I spent the morning in my pleasant cottage, writing and fielding email on my iPhone, my only link to the outside world. By 10 AM, as if on cue, the rain stopped and the sun broke through the gloom. I was in my car at 10:30 winding my way down the mountain and heading north to Chattanooga.
   Janet and I met at a restaurant in downtown Chattanooga. Her step-son had recently moved into a loft apartment nearby. We hadn't seen each other in eight months and we settled in quickly over salads and sandwiches and a hot, bubbly bowl of pimento cheese dip to recount what had happened since last we met. We talked for hours there. Meanwhile, another storm front moved in and began to dump hail. We scurried over to the apartment and spent some time talking with the landlady about what we would do if a tornado came through. Our deep conversation continued at the apartment. The weather was getting worse, but Janet had to get back to Knoxville to her family there, and I, to my mountain house. At 5 PM, Janet departed. She encouraged me to stay at the apartment in Chattanooga. When she left I was checking the Doppler Radar for the area, watching red and yellow blotches move quickly across the path between Chattanooga and Little River Canyon. I saw a distinct opening in the storm at 6:30. The next calm spot would not occur until at least 9 PM. If I hoped to drive in daylight, I had to leave now. Yes, I could stay here, but I felt I should go back to my house. I had no compelling reason; I just wanted to spend the night there.
   By the time I reached I59 south, the rain stopped and the sky brightened. The storm had not passed completely, but I was traveling between cells. Winds whipped up in the trees once I crossed the state line into Alabama. I felt the forceful tug of gusts on my car and slowed down a bit, but I was just miles away from my exit, Fort Payne/Rainsville. I felt confident that once I was off the highway, the worst would be over.
What I happened upon on CR861
   Fort Payne was eerily dark. Shops, gas stations and restaurants closed. The traffic lights, black. Power was out in throughout the valley. Cars took polite turns going through intersections. My radio crackled, I couldn't get the news. Well, whatever was going on made little difference because I only had one option: Get home. Earlier in the day, I spoke with Jack's dad in Birmingham. Schools closed early. Jack was safe. There had been tornadoes on the ground near the airport. Damage and deaths reported, but I had no idea to what extent, only that my family was safe. Some roads and interstates were closed. It would be foolish to try to make the 2-hour drive.
   As I headed up Lookout Mountain, twilight settled in around me. Still, it was not raining and I felt confident I had outrun the storm. I would be at my house within 45 minutes. I felt more vulnerable on open highway, to be sure. Crossing over the Little River bridge, I could hear the rush of the powerful waters below. I clinched the steering wheel a little tighter, thinking of how cold and dark that water certainly was after all the recent rain. But I was so close now. I would soon make the turn-off on county road 861. Though I'd have to travel dirt road for another five miles, the forest offered protection and comfort.
   It was still light when I slowed for CR861. Respectful of the pot-holes, I edged along the dirt road, which was in good condition, considering all the rain we'd had this spring. I was so close now. I expected the power would be out at the cottage, but there was at least one candle and flashlight. The night air was cool, thanks to the storm, so the lack of electricity would not be a hardship. I had everything I needed.
   Then I spotted a disturbing tableaux: a pick-up truck overturned in a ditch. I stopped my car and got out. "Hello?" I called. "Is anyone in there?" There was no answer and no one nearby. I thought the wreck must have occurred earlier in the day. I slowly approached the crumpled cab, took a deep breath and knelt down to look inside. Thankfully, the cab was empty. "Whoever was in there must have been badly injured," I said aloud to myself. What had happened? Was the truck overturned by high winds in the storm? Was it picked up and dropped here? When had it occurred? The truck hadn't been here when I traveled the road this morning. I took a few photos of the strange truck, then got back in my car and continued down the road.
   I had only gone a hundred yards when a young couple appeared, clinging to each other. I knew immediately that they had been in that crumpled truck cab. I'm fairly sure I said, 'Holy crap!" a couple of times to no one in particular.
   "Can we use your phone?" the boy asked. "Of course!" I replied. "Of course!" I stopped my car in the middle of the road and rushed over to them. Were they alright? What happened? The girl, Beth, was sobbing. "My mom's gonna kill me when she finds out!" The boy introduced himself as Caleb. Earlier in the day, they'd gone swimming at the Blue Hole, at the bottom of the canyon, and not far from the road. I gave him my phone to call their families. Beth kept sobbing and Caleb had an arm around her. There was dried blood on Caleb's ear. Beth was wearing a sundress and I saw the abrasions on her shoulders and back. That they survived the wreck with these seeming scratches, let alone walked away from the crash, amazed me.
   Caleb tried several numbers without luck. Cell phone service was out across the valley, though my phone, with the help of the AT&T satellite, was able to transmit. "You should go to the hospital," I said. "Just to get checked out. You don't know how you'll feel in a few hours." Like the typical 19-year-olds they were, Caleb and Beth insisted they were fine. I didn't buy it, nor did I want to scare them with what I knew about head trauma, how injuries to the brain can manifest over time. Beth looked pale and she couldn't stop crying. I suspected the experience of being in that accident was enough to launch her into shock.  Beth was driving too fast on the dirt road. When she hit a turn, the truck flipped. The back tires were near bald of tread. It was also possible that gusting winds helped to flip the empty truck bed. It had all happened so quickly. I put my arm around her and assured her that her mother wouldn't care about that old truck. "I'm a mom," I said. "And all I care about is that my child is okay. You'll see. It'll be fine. You're alive, Beth! That's all that matters."
   Beth seemed to take these words in, but then another wave of anxiety hit her. "Will you talk to my mom?" she asked. "Sure thing," I said. Beth gave me the number at her Mom's place of business and I dialed it, but no one answered. Her mother worked in Rainsville, just west of Fort Payne. We tried several numbers and could not reach any of Caleb or Beth's family. I decided to drive them down the mountain to their homes.
  Beth started to shake and cry again. Caleb gabbed her as she crumpled to the ground. She was hyperventilating. Caleb and I tried to sooth her, but then her eyes closed and she went pale. "She's stopped breathing," Caleb said. Oh, my God, I thought, this girl could die!
   The next few minutes were a blur. Caleb knew CPR, thank God. My shaking fingers dialed 911 and I waited impatiently for someone to answer. I tried to make my voice sound calm. "She's breathing again," Caleb said. I heard Beth cough and sputter as I talked to the emergency dispatcher. We were on a county road that was on the line between Cherokee and Dekalb counties so there was some confusion as to where we were. I stressed that this young woman had been in an accident, had stopped breathing and needed an ambulance now. "We're doing our best," the operator said. "There are calls coming in from all over the county." I didn't know then that just a few miles away, a tornado funnel half a mile wide had spilt open the small town of Rainsville, leaving death in its path. Hundreds were injured all over the county—thousands across the state. By morning, at least 35 would be reported dead in this county alone. All I knew is that I was on a deserted county road, night was falling, dark clouds ready to bust open at any minute, lightning flashing in the distance, and Beth needed an ambulance.
   Finally, the dispatcher had the information she needed and promised to send help soon. We didn't know how long it would take the EMTs to reach us. I found a beach towel in my trunk and covered Beth. I held her hand and stroked her arm in the soothing way Jack liked me to do before bedtime. She told me she had a baby, seven months old, who was with her grandmother. At one point, she asked me to call the baby's father, but I got no connection there either. Caleb and I tried to keep her talking and conscious but she was slipping in and out. Caleb told me she was prone to hyperventilating when she was anxious, and that she had stopped breathing before. "Beth an' I have been best friends since we was in diapers," he said. I worried about him, and the wound on his head. He seemed okay, but I made him promise to get checked out too. I asked Caleb if they'd been doing drugs. A lot of kids come out here to smoke pot. Caleb said no, that wasn't the case. I believed him. I wanted to know if there was some other reason why Beth was failing to breath.
  The emergency team began to arrive. Local volunteers were first on the scene. They asked Beth questions and she wouldn't respond. I wasn't sure if she was just scared, or drifting off again. She clutched my hand and I held on tight. Her vitals were taken. The fire department arrived. Someone mentioned a tornado had "flattened Rainsville," but it didn't register to me at the time how close Rainsville was to Fort Payne and to the Canyon. Finally, the ambulance and EMTs appeared on the road. At that point, I had to let go of Beth's hand so the paramedics could place a neck brace on her. She cried in pain when they moved her onto a backboard. Soon they loaded her on the rig. I'm not sure what happened once she was inside, but the EMTs worked on her for a while there. Caleb and I waited outside the rig. He wanted to ride along, but the EMT's wouldn't allow it. I told him I'd drive him to the hospital, but he wanted to go to his grandmother's first and let her know he was okay. His car was there, he said. Of course, I didn't like the idea of his driving and told him so. (The Momma Bird coming out in me full force.) He promised to have someone drive him. Finally, the ambulance started its engine and the line of emergency vehicles, which now included a Dekalb County policeman, who arrived on the scene last to write up a report. We slowly proceeded down CR861 toward the highway.
   A few large drops of rain started to fall as we made our way down the mountain to Caleb's grandmother's house in Fort Payne, but the promised deluge held off. Caleb thanked me profusely for my help.
   "I'm sorry to put you through all this, mam," he said.
   "Caleb, you're not putting me through anything," I assured him. "This is just what you do. I'm glad I could help."
   "If you hadn't come along, I don't know what we'd've done," he said. "It's my fault we went to the Blue Hole today. I just wanted to get Beth out of the house on her day off from work. She just don't get to have much fun."
   As Caleb spoke of Beth, I realized how much he loved her, and I smiled.
   "Are you sure you're just friends?" I teased.
   "Oh, yes, mam!" Caleb replied, too fast. "I just want to take care of her. We've grown up together and I just don't want any harm to come to her ever."
"You're a good friend, Caleb," I said. "And this wasn't your fault. Things happen. You took care of Beth when she needed you. Thank goodness you were with her."
   He seemed to let these words of comfort set in, but I knew he would play the events of the day over in his head, second-guessing his judgement for taking his best friend out for a swim on such a stormy day.
   Fort Payne, without electricity, seemed a shadow town. Caleb directed me to his grandmother's house. She must have been watching at the window for him, because she was on the porch before he got out of the car. I watched them embrace, then I drove away. I still had a chance to get back to my house before the next wave of storms. I just hoped the rain would hold off just a little while longer.
   As I crossed the Little River Bridge again, the reality of the day hit me full force. I knew taking Caleb back down the mountain was pushing my luck, but what else could I do? He threatened to walk if I couldn't or wouldn't drive him. Yeah, right. It was least ten miles down the mountain, and in the dark. And he was barefoot. No, I had to take him home, there was no choice. You do what you have to do. And now, all I just wanted to do was get home before the sky let loose.
  To the east, streaks of lightning illuminated the heavy, dark clouds of the next storm system that seemed to be waiting for me. The clouds were the color of primary finger paints after they've been mixed together into a murky, thick gray.  I turned onto CR 861 for the second time that night. On my way in, I passed a wrecker carrying Beth's totaled pickup. I took one last look and shook my head again, amazed that anyone had survived, let alone walked out of that wreckage.
  The final miles to the cottage consist of packed dirt and stone; the road climbing up and winding around to the Canyon rim. I drove slow, not wanting to take any chances now that I was so close to safety. But would the cottage be safe? Would it even be standing? I honestly didn't know if the storms had passed for the night, or if a tornado had lifted my little mountain home into the sky like Dorothy's Kansas clapboard and tossed it up to Oz. It was doubly dark on the mountain, without benefit of the periphery glow of the urban collective. My headlights found the house, right where it should be. Dark, no electricity of course, but untouched by the storms. I was hungry and exhausted. It was 9:42 PM.
   Inside the house, I lit a candle. Found the flashlight. Outside, lightning popped like a photographer's strobe. Thunder boomed over the canyon. I was safe. Beth and Caleb were safe. Right then, I received a text from my friend Janet. She was back Knoxville and wanted to know if I was okay. I texted her back, "Yes, long story, but I missed the storm. I'm fine."
   I sat on the deck and watched the light show for a while. I heard myself say "Thank you," then I went inside. The sky let loose and began to pour.

Post Script: 4/29/11 PM
I received a text from Caleb this afternoon. "Beth is doing great!"


  1. Awesome writing, ma'am.

  2. I want to more about them. So glad you are ok

  3. Susan: Thank you! I have Caleb's cell phone number and have been trying to reach him for the past two days. Unfortunately the Verizon tower there was taken out by the tornadoes so there is no service! I will update this blog when I hear more.

  4. What an amazing story, told by someone who clearly knows the meaning of love as well as the fragility of life. You are a gifted writer, Brig!