June 09, 2008

Live to Blog Another Day

Until last night, I had thought I'd had a near-death experience. There were a few times during my teen years that I realized with the light of a new day that perhaps the poor decisions of the night before could have produced a calamity. On a drive back from Oklahoma City one afternoon, a large propane grill tumbled out of a pick-up and onto I-40 as my friend Casey and I traveled back to Elk City. A skilled driver the likes of Richard Petty, Case swerved around it like stoic ice skater. For the remaining trip, he and I discussed just how bad that could have been had we been any closer to that pick-up. In my mind, that was truly a close call, that is, until last night.
It's not always easy for those of us who live west of El Reno to know what to do in the event of summer storms, as any Western Oklahoman will testify. Growing up here, we fully comprehend the realized potential of a tornado. And, you normally don't end up living in Oklahoma by chance. Most of us are multi-generational Okies. We cut our teeth on May's fury. So, we definitely take the threat of a twister seriously. With that said, the unbalanced weather coverage we receive from the television stations makes it difficult to predict just what action, if any, we should take. First of all, there have been many times that we do get over showered with walled off coverage . Sometimes this happens when there isn't much threat, although this is certainly the exception. And sometimes a cyclone of dooming is leering at us. Both happen. Of course, this leads us to believe that, in the event of a serious cloud, the stations will wallpaper us with reports. As much as I do appreciate it at the time, the occasional broadcasting of Western Oklahoma misleads us into thinking that they will inform us of all our threats. Even further perplexing, if any sort of increment weather approaches the Oklahoma City metro area, holy shit, all three news stations thrust into full on hysteria. These clouds are stalked by caffeine-fueled storm chasers like Britney or Lindsay stumbling out of the club. Don't get me wrong, if OKC is experiencing grave danger, I want it to be covered. We have family who live there. Two of my favorite little people in the world, Paden and Josie, are residents of the metro. So, by all means, I want my tv programming interrupted if they or any of their fellow city dwellers face even a little threat. It's always better to have and not need than need and not have, right? They do, however, get a little hysterical when the city faces any thunderstorm at all, which makes it difficult for us to know just what option to go with when are facing our own storms and the channels aren't broadcasting much on them.
And, so was the case Sunday evening. Oddly, Rowdy had spent the entire day at the house with the boys and me. A crazed workaholic, this almost never happens. We just....hung out. It was nice. I am coaching the Cheyenne tan t-ball team this year, so I had scheduled a practice for 7 pm. At about 5:15, Rowdy and I pulled up the local radar on the DTN, knowing a thunderstorm of unknown strength was likely on its way. Just as we confirmed this, my friend Angel, whose daughter Zaylee is on our team, called. Her job at the Roger Mills County Sheriff's Office affords her privy to the National Weather Service. A clustered string of cloud formations in the Texas Panhandle were streaming toward us like a pack of gnarly Hell's Angels, circa 1966, descending upon a paralyzed Norman Rockwell community. We decided to reschedule the practice.
Sometime between 6:30 and 7, Rowdy told me he thought we should go to his mother's house, which is about 1000 feet from our house, because she has a storm shelter. A family member in Sweetwater, a small town southwest of Cheyenne, had reported winds of 100 miles per hour. I didn't know if this was true or not because I didn't know how this force was measured. We turned on the television, switching back and forth between the three Oklahoma stations. Each had the miniature map of Oklahoma with our county highlighted for tornadoes in the top corner, but all were airing their regular programming. This is puzzling not just because an ominous vortex was obviously entering into the state, but also because all three stations gave non-stop storm analysis on Thursday night to a storm in Oklahoma City that clearly had no potential for anything outside of rain and small hail. I even remember Gary England saying as much while I was watching the endless parade of moving radar on my tv screen. Needless to say, that sort of annoyed me Thursday night because of past incidences like the storm just before our cruise, but the memory really aggravated me Sunday evening as we walked out the door. So, when we left for Glenda's, the lack of coverage lead me to think that approaching clouds would hold the danger I later discovered they did.
Not long after we got to Glenda's, the rain and hail began. An army of deep denim clouds amassed in the southwestern sky and the horizon stewed into a charcoal broth of thunder and lightening, a glazed sunset barely breaking through the bottom.
After 15 or 20 minutes of heaving rain and small hail, I realized that I didn't turn of my computer when I was leaving for Glenda's. This, no doubt, was a product of my uncertainty in this storm's might. I'm an Oklahoma native, so I know all the possibilities. But, as I said before, it is a bit disorienting when the weather reporting is unreflective of each storm's wrath. They either overdo it or underdo it, there is no in between. From the radar on the television screen's corner, we could see that more was to come. However, since the graphic was micro made as though mice or some other tiny animal were their desired audience, we couldn't really make out just when and where this would be hitting. Fortunately, Angel was still at the sheriff's office, so she told us another monster was rolling from Reydon toward us. With the rain and hail in a temporary loll, I asked Rowdy if he thought I had time to come to our house, just down the hill a little ways, to turn off the computer. After all, I had just downloaded 1,500 pictures from Kassie Jackson's and Mike Lee's wedding and I hadn't burned a cd yet. Although I have a surge protector, I didn't want to risk a total loss in their irreplaceable wedding photos through a fried computer if electricity just happened to strike our house. I mean, weirder things have happened. It was calm enough for the time being, so Rowdy said he thought it would be fine for me to come right down to the house and right back. I jumped in our Explorer and headed down the hill. The rain was definitely falling, but it was manageable shower.
I shuffled quickly in the house, turned off the computer and directly went back to the car. Awww.....gorgeous wedding pictures safe and secure. A wedding day cannot be relived and I take that responsibility seriously. Just as I opened my car door, I remembered that I hadn't deleted the photos from my memory card when I downloaded them. The card was new and I wanted to make sure they were fully on my computer before they were evaporated into cyber air. Perfect, I thought. If for some reason the computer still faced any damage, like in the event of a ravishing twister, I would have back up. I ran back in the house, grabbed the memory card and went to the car for the second time. Now our border collie, Whiskey, tried to scuttle in. At first my instincts hastily shut the door, leaving him in the storm. But then I realized what I had done. I love Whiskey, the pooch not the hooch. I don't think he has ever actually been inside the cab of the vehicle, so it took a little coaxing on my part to lure him inside. Not long, just a few seconds. However, this and my speedy return for the memory card saved my life, at least in my mind.
Backing out of my carport, I realized the rain had almost instantly flowed into a downpour. Hail beat unforgiving against my car's exterior. The repeating thumps sounded like mortar fire. Together they were overwhelming to my sight. It was literally raining and hailing so hard that I could not see. Outside my windshield, a vast, wet blanket of gray blocked my vision. Of course I've traveled up and down this graveled driveway thousands of times, so I relatively knew where I was. But, I inched slowly up the hill because, frankly, I could see nothing...
As I crept up the driveway, all my energy was consumed with simply trying to see where I was. I knew it was wet and I knew I could easily get stuck. Also, my mother-in-law has worked hard to establish her yard. I don't really know how fast I was driving or how long my trek back up the hill too, but was slow. I do know that.
Still straining my eyes for a path, I realized that I was driving over bigger gravel and I knew where I was. The turn from the big driveway, which runs north and south to both our house and Glenda's, into hers has the larger pebbles in the corner. Relief waved over my body. I both knew where I was and I knew I was close to my mother-in-law's house.
Within a few seconds of realizing this, I also finally saw something. Although it was still too hazy to fully distinguish, I thought the big block of white something was probably my in-law's travel trailer. Just as had this thought, it appeared to be getting rapidly closer to me, although I was barely moving. And, just as had this thought, I unwittingly realized this was correct.
According to Rowdy's keen depth perception, the larger gravel and the spot the trailer was formerly parked at are about 75 feet from each other. When the travel trailer caught my attention, thank God, I immediately honed in on it. Clinching the steering wheel until my knuckles were white, or so I suspect, my neck dipped well into my shoulders as I strained to see the world outside my car. In the most frightening moment of my life, I saw the trailer dp one full tumble, bounce when it's top hit the soaked Earth, spin in midair and then continue rolling rapidly toward me. I was driving into an avalanche of metal, fiberglass and wood. It was nearly upon me and, if I didn't move, it would be in a matter of seconds.
Now before I go in further, it needs to be explained that each thought was fragmented and each action purely instinct. Immediately, I threw the Explorer in reverse and flew down the hill. I don't remember clearly thinking which path I suspected this mammoth rolling stone to violently take, I just knew I would be in it if I didn't move. When I first realized what was actually going down, that I was outside in this, I knew I was in imminent and serious danger. It wasn't the thought that I could die, but rather, the stern knowledge that I could die. A lifelong Okie, I had broken the cardinal law. I was out in this mother cloud. Now, as all this madness was unfolding around me, I do recall believing that a tornado must've popped out of the sky. That happens all the time. They can come out of nothing and then go right back into it. I figured my family was inside the safe room, aware that the storm had elevated even if they didn't know about the trailer's demise. In that moment, as spectacular and sensational as special effects from Twister, my existence was poignantly simple: outside equals death and inside equals life.
As I reversed until I felt I was out of the trailer's direction at least temporarily, I could hear my father telling me to always drive forward if I had the option. The unrelenting flood was still pouring so heavily that I could see nothing. Therefore, I knew I couldn't drive much of anywhere because I couldn't see much of anything. Just as I pulled forward, I realized that I was on the small level plateau in the middle of big hill between my house and Glenda's. The soaked ground would've been a sponge for my SUV, which was now turned almost as though it was driving back down the hill. Between that and the thick, blinding rain, I knew I would make it faster on foot. And, I knew where I was. I parked my car. I had to make a run for it.
I flung the car door open, commanded Whiskey outside and forged into the drenching abyss. As out of shape as I am, which is pretty damn out of shape, I never felt an ounce of physical restraint. Every cell in my body was united in our dash into the house. Thank God for that because the fierce trinity of wind, rain and hail provided plenty obstacle. When one hail stone connected with my lip, the taste the blood was on my tongue, but the fat lip didn't register until after I made it inside. Twice I fell in my siege, but I didn't even stop to realize I had. I just pushed forward, frantically aware that the outside equaled death and the inside equaled life. Truthfully, I don't think the run took very long and I don't recollect really having any concept of how much it was taking. My mind seemed to be able to have only one thought.
Just as shocked as I was when I witnessed this travel trailer pushed over by the gusting wind and tumble toward me as though it were cardboard, I was awestruck to make it to the house. After avoiding the trailer, reversing my car and then turning it around, my run to the house seemed pretty simple. Drenched and muddy and heaving from my panic sprint, I tried to retell this story to my family. Until this moment, I have never fully understood the meaning of the word terror. It's a little different than the other fear-related words. In the purest definition, it is the realization that this moment really could be your last. Rowdy and the boys were sitting in the storm shelter and Glenda was fending off a flood of water rushing into her house and onto her hardwood floors from the crack beneath her back door. No one even knew this was happening outside.
I started telling them the events of the last few moments, although my panicked recount had to be hard to follow. I was still trying to process everything that happened. Gasping for the breath of sweet survival, I told Glenda and Wallice that I was pretty positive that their trailer was gone. Honestly, I don't know for sure at that time if they understood that it hadn't just tipped over and rolled maybe once or twice. It flipped and twisted and turned like pebble plummeting down a boulder. I still didn't know for certain where it finally rested, but I knew wherever that was, that it was gone.
As I said before, I don't remember fully realizing the extent of my miracle. My mind was still in survivor mode. After a few minutes, it started sinking in. Images of that rolling trailer flashed through my mind over and over again.
I've had some friends die in freak accidents and many times I have wondered if, even for a brief nanosecond, they knew they were in a pickle. Did James Banks see that pipe has it plunged toward him? Did James Ashworth realize his pick-up was turning? I don't really know why my mind as wondered to that place, but it has from time to time. Normally while my brain is picking through the sordid details of these two dreadful days, I also know that a few seconds difference in their actions right before their accidents could have made them just something they talked about over beers. Had either one of them talked for five less seconds or five more seconds, they simply would've witnessed that pipe and that turkey. And, with full certainty, I believe that coming back inside to grab that memory card and taking the time to load up a stressed border collie saved my life. Had I not done those things, I would've been on the hill's small summit just as the trailer started flying and I wouldn't have time to reverse from it's path. A ferocious collision with my Explorer would've erupted before I even realized what was happening. It's funny how life works like that. Life is fragile and life is resilient, all at the same time. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, I feel like a narrowly avoided death or serious injury. And yet aside from the lip busted by a blunt hail stone, I escaped the danger without a scratch.
As soon as I realized I was in the haven of safety, I hugged my two boys. My wet clothes soaked through to theirs as I kissed them over and over again. They thought I was playing with them. What if my time with them had been snuffed out so prematurely? It's funny how your life's value escalates with the thought of its loss.
I left my Explorer parked in the small, flat pass between our houses. After the second round of fierce rain and hail subsided, Glenda suggested that I go move it into a shelter of some sort. Don't get me wrong, I didn't want to lose my car. But, I also couldn't make myself risk another bout with Mother Nature. I was overwhelmed with gratitude for my life and the loss of a vehicle seemed kinda trivial. At this point, we had been without electricity for awhile. So, tuning into the news channels for answers wasn't an option. However, had we had electricity, television still wouldn't have yielded any new solutions. Hundreds of miles away in Stillwater, my dear friend Natalie did have electricity and access to the weather broadcasts. With each random update from the meteorologists, Natalie would text message me their analysis. It was no surprise to me or her, also a Western Oklahoma native, that they were providing scant coverage during commercial breaks. After all, this wasn't nearly as pressing as last Thursday rain when it moved through the city. Commercial break-ins are just more than sufficient when the storm was in Western Oklahoma. Last Thursday is the perfect evidence of this fact. Even though it weakened as it moved east, once the storm hit the metro's city limits, the weather men were as frazzled as The Day After Tomorrow. I don't mean to sound bitter, I really don't, and I want those who live in Oklahoma City to be safe. I'm just hammering on this over and over again to both vent my frustration with this unpredictable coverage and to fully describe how this random broadcasting makes it difficult for us to interpret any storm's true severity or weakness. If there was some sort of formula outside of a storm's location to let us know why two similar storm systems receive such varying coverage, maybe we could instinctively know how to react. However, there just isn't. We are truly and wholly thankful for any broadcasting and instruction that we receive, but the decision to do so doesn't seem to be based on severity as much as programming.
Either way, I was blessed to live, to die another day, hopefully in the far distant future. I still have so much left to do. For whatever reason, God blessed me to continue on my earthly journey and, for that, I am humbled and grateful. Because I was alone in the Explorer, staring down a possibly fatal bullet, no one will ever be able to fully understand the soul-shaking terror that was the tumbling travel trailer. Writers are known for our flare for the dramatic, but trust me, this is the closest I've ever knowingly came to death. As those frightening images periodically flash through my mind, I am just so glad for this opportunity to continue to be with those I love. When I look at where the trailer was originally parked, directly east of the Kirk party barn, and I see the path it's havoc-raged journey to its resting place and I know exactly where I was when this all unfolded, I know this is as close to a near miss as one can experience. I mean that figuratively and literally. I get to continue loving all the great people in my life, my husband and sons, my parents, my sister and other important relatives and, of course, a vibrant team of the world's greatest friends. I get to live to blog another day.

Note: When the travel trailer started flipping, it was directly north of me in my Explorer. I was driving north and it was rushing south. I threw it in reverse and drove several hundred feet backwards and south. When I decided I might be out of the trailer's path, I put the Explorer in drive, turned almost fully around and then realized I was in a great parking spot. So, my car was actually pointing the other direction when the trailer was tumbling toward me. However, even with it moving southeast and landing close the fence line and me driving southwest, you can see how close we ended up from one another. When I made my dash to the house, I didn't even think of being hit by possible debris, which was scattered about the yard.

Also, if you are a bride and groom thinking of hiring me to photograph your wedding, I will risk my life to secure your priceless pictures as well. Now, do you think Blunks would do that? ;) ;)


Anonymous said...

Wow!! im glad you are ok!! Maybe you should become a weather lady and have a station in Cheyanne and help western oklahoma people!!

Me Myself said...

This Sunday was nuts! The bad weather started just after Tharin's bday party and I was shocked as well by the lack of coverage on it. I'm glad to hear you're ok though! Thank goodness you went back for the memory card! My sister-in-law and her boyfriend were caught in it up by Hammon and got really bad hail damage on their car. They made the trip thinking it wasn't too bad since nothing was on tv about it. A lot of people were really lucky they weren't hurt!

nicky barfield said...

i love the blogs shonda, keep'em coming

Anonymous said...

I glad to have you around---I told M recently we need to be like the Golden Girls---that went over like the Hindenburg! AND you did make good on you promise to put me in one of your blogs---I'm flattered and blushing:)

Finish This Page, but click on the older posts, too.

The knee-slappin,' cursin,' GOOD TIMES don't start or end on the front page, so read the older posts! Maybe you missed something. Maybe you forgot. I try to post daily, so read the older posts!
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