By Bill Eckel

A-a-a-a-a-a-a-ah. The sirens wailed. No longer a watch or a forecast. The tornado was on the ground. It was ten minutes to six, April tenth, nineteen seventy-nine and I was about to experience the most memorable day of my life.

At the time, I had lived in Wichita Falls, Texas, for thirteen years. Back then there were three rules concerning tornados and they haven’t changed as far as I know. Number one, if you live in a trailer, seek safety elsewhere. Number two, if you are in your car, get out and find lower ground, like a ditch. Lastly, do not shelter under an overpass. I knew the rules, really, I did.

I worked as a hot tar roofer, nasty job, that. Sweaty, stinky, and that tar sticks to everything. My boots must have weighed five pounds apiece. During lunch we listened to the truck radio and heard the National Weather Service issue a tornado warning for our county. The crew laughed it off. Weather doom reached its peak in springtime; besides, what does a bunch of weather guessers know, anyway?

Around two o’clock the radio blared news about a tornado touching down in Vernon, Texas, about fifty miles away. We shrugged. On the roof, the sun beat down, sweat stung my eyes, and all I thought about was the cold one in the fridge.

I got home at five, took off my jeans, and stood them in a corner. After showering, I knocked back a beer. Man, it tasted good. I went for another when a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-ah. Peace, calm, and sanity shattered. There was a tornado on the ground, and I lived in a trailer home.

I’ve had moments where I’ve shined brighter, but that siren triggered an EMP, extreme mental panic. For the next fifteen minutes, reasoning deserted me. My head filled with visions of trailer homes ripped apart, one after another as the tornado marauded through the park, reducing the sum total of the inhabitant’s lives to scrap metal and twisted frames.

Like a phoenix rising out of the ashes of all that destruction, I had a thought. The hospital! It had a basement. That’s where I needed to go. I shook off the tremors and issued orders. Me, my girlfriend, and her son and dog, all piled into my beat-up chevy. Safety beckoned from two miles away. We got on the freeway, racing south.

It was the strangest thing. I entered a nearly empty freeway. Within a half mile, a tsunami of cars and trucks engulfed my sedan. My speedometer read eighty and, stuck in the middle lane, I was being passed on both sides. Then came the hail, big as grapefruits! Fortunately, in rare good luck, they had formed so fast they were mostly air pockets. They thudded against my windshield, splattering like overripe fruit before sliding off. A dozen strikes later, we were through the cluster. Topping a rise, I could see the hospital coming up.

“Can I get over?” I yelled.

I wasted my breath. We were caught up in mindless flight. Lemmings. We were like lemmings. There was no peeling off. In horror, I watched as the hospital slid by, stealing my hopes of safety.

We passed the modest collection of tall buildings we praised as a skyline and could see off to the southwest. Lord, help us. Unlike the thin, ropey EF0 or EF1’s that hop and skips along, this huge wedge cloud, blocks wide at the base, ground mercilessly through neighborhood after neighborhood.

I nearly pissed myself. It was the largest tornado I had ever seen, and it kept coming, coming, coming, devouring everything in its path. You could track its progress by the bursting houses and splintered debris sucked skyward along with silvery-white flashes as electrical transformers exploded. Growing wide as my eyes, the monster kept getting closer and closer and closer.

The cars around me had finally thinned, but the next exit was over a mile down the road. It got real quiet. The dog’s soft whine reflected my assessment. We were screwed. Fleeing south on highway 287, the next exit was the Windthorst Road overpass. I tried to calculate the speed of my approaching demise. Who or what would reach the exit first?

Shingles, chunks of siding, fence posts, and tree limbs rained down around me. The debris shattered the tenuous calm my girlfriend and I had managed to maintain since the sight of the twister silenced us. We screamed, a primal, throat-scratching sound. I swear she could reach out and touch the damn tornado.

Wind buffeted the car. An outflow gust hit the car’s rear quarter panel, turning us so that we stared into the heartless maw while still tracking south down the highway. Time slowed at that point. Screams still ripped from my throat, but the scene became surreal as if I watched myself from above. In seemingly slow motion, I cranked the steering wheel left as hard as I could. That overpass was right there. I had to make it.

Like a mantra I implored, “Lord, help me. Lord, help me. Lord, help me.” He did. My car straightened up and shot straight for the overpass. I stood on the brakes and threw the transmission into park to get it to stop. When we screeched to a halt, it amazed me to find that somehow, I ended up in the middle of a double five-car line. I did not recall seeing any traffic during the last few seconds.

The backseat covering the trunk fell forward and that little dog was, boom, into the trunk. I yelled at my girlfriend and her son to get on the floorboard then flung myself on top of them. The car rocked. People say tornados sound like freight trains. They’re mistaken. Oh, it’s a roar alright, but not a train. Not even close. It’s a huge, hungry, shrieking demon promising eternity to all that listened. Then came an eerie silence and calm.   

With tantalizing hope, I looked up. I didn’t know what to make of the scene. The brownish, blackish swirl had backed off a couple of feet. I found myself on the outside line of cars with a short moving van on my inside. I smelled something burning. I guess being in the middle of a tornado wasn’t enough of a problem.

The momentary peace moved on. The dark swirl returned with its accompanying cacophony. Appearing and disappearing within the darkness were railroad ties, tree limbs, and a strip of guardrail that pounded against the car. With a thump, the rear windshield shattered. Debris continued to beat against all the windows. Whump, whump, whump. The side windows splintered, the vacuum sucking the glass outwards.

I wished I could tell you what a hero I was, how calm and collected I became; however, truth of the matter was I had no coherent thoughts. We were screaming and praying. There was lots of praying. I was doing my share and then some. The slow motion returned. A guardrail loomed outside the front windshield, though barely visible in the brownish, blackish cloud, it taunted me. Its presence swelled before me as if it took a breath before shooting forward. My heart sank as I saw the guardrail grow larger in my sight. I stared, frozen. This was the end. Anguish filled my soul. I was sorry, so sorry, for all the rotten things I had ever done. Then the car’s interior overhead liner fell down, covering us. I heard a smash as the windshield shattered and the little cubes of safety glass rained down on the liner. Tears dripped from my eyelids, though I don’t remember crying.

Then I heard, silence. Complete silence. Am I dead? Is this the afterlife? My heart pounded in my chest. Afraid to look, but even more afraid not to, I lifted the liner . . .  and saw daylight. 

Relief gushed forth like a burst dam. I tingled with mirth and giggled deliriously. It was over. We had survived. In a car, under an overpass, and in the middle of a tornado, we had survived.

Forty-nine others didn’t. 

Both sides of the overpass along Windthorst Road bore the desolation of the storm’s wake. On the west side, Bird’s Seafood restaurant was nothing but a concrete slab as was the gas station on the other side of the freeway. Next to the restaurant one could look into the apartments of a complex missing the outside wall. On the east side across from the gas station a sign pole was all that remained of a Dairy Queen.

South of the demolished DQ was the fate I had feared most, the remains of a trailer park. That park had housed a hundred trailers. The storm left only one. Fleeing my fears, I had nearly found them. I will never, ever forget that. It was the most memorable day of my life. One that I wish I could forget.

Bill Eckel wrote his first novel, Shem’s Quest, an epic fantasy, in 2014. Since then, he has studied under two New York Times bestselling fiction authors, the late David Farland and Deborah Chester, professor, University of Oklahoma. After “honing his chops,” he wrote two sci-fi novels, “Cadet Adam” and his latest, “Hard Kill.” Additionally, he has written a collection of sci-fi shorts, “Science Fiction Fantasies, Tales and Origins, vol 2.”

In 2021, Bill undertook a major rewrite of Shem’s Quest. He swears he will never do that again. It’s easier to write a new one than fix an old one. However, after writing “First Created,” first of three additional novels in the new Shem’s Quest series, a rewrite could not be avoided. Two more novels are already plotted in that series.

Bill finds it difficult to get away from sci-fi, his first love. “Space Force” is three-fifths complete.

When he is not writing, Bill gardens. Vegetables and fruits, organically grown. He’d raise cows and chickens, but they are not allowed in the city limits where he lives. It may or may not surprise you to discover that Bill is a musician. He plays bass guitar and harmonica. In the shower he belts them out, but in the studio it’s more a Gregorian chant kinda thing. Rapping before it was cool. He released a comedy album, “One Swell Foop” and has attended Fan Fair in Nashville as an artist. His mantra, “Life is good.”

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