Big Rapids, Michigan
A few years ago, on a hot Sunday afternoon in August, I came as close to death as I ever care to.
My family and I had spent the afternoon watching speedboat races on a lake a few miles north of Grand Rapids, Michigan. It was one of those hot muggy days that let you know that the "Dog Days" are in charge.
A friend of ours Celeste Elliott had gone with us. Her husband Frank was in Chicago on business.
These were the small racing boats, less than twenty feet in length that can get to 100 miles an hour rather quickly. They would be tearing around a corner, catch a little air, then start skidding and flipping at the least provocation.
When the races were over we packed up the kids and headed back to Ferris State University in Big Rapids. Michigan.
We dropped the kids off at the university's West Campus married housing complex, so they could take their baths and get ready for bed while we took Celeste home to her trailer on the other side of town.
Celeste's trailer was out in the country, on the other side of the river, situated on a large piece of land, probably ten acres or so, that looked like it might have been part of a horse farm at some point. It was wide open, surrounded by fences and had no trees that I remember.
It had just started to rain when we got to her trailer. She asked us in for a cup of coffee. While we were at the table I noticed that there was some rain coming in through the storm door. I went over to the door, and was in the middle of switching the panels in the storm door, putting the screen at the top and the glass one at the bottom of the door, so that there would be air, but no water coming in.
As I was adjusting the screen, I noticed that the sky was darkening. The color changed to something like dark purple. It got really cold really quickly.
Suddenly there was a blast of cold air. It had been horribly oppressive just a few moments before.
I looked up at the sky and noticed that the clouds seemed to be jumping up and down. There were several wisps of cloud that reminded me of a "Slinky" toy or a spring going up and down. There appeared to be several of them - maybe five or six. I told Celeste that it looked like it might be a tornado. Several of the "Slinkys" came together. Then there were two or three of them. All at once there was only one. "It is a tornado!" I tried to be calm.
I looked around to survey our situation. We were in a trailer in a wide-open field, there was a small ditch near the road, and the car was too far away to try to escape. There was a small dirt mound behind the trailer that was used as a backstop for target practice with guns and hunting bows.
I could see that the tornado was coming our way. We ran out of the trailer and lay down behind the dirt mound. I could see the tornado working its way toward us. It was staying on the ground now. It set down just east of Ferris State University, near where my children were. It lifted again, then it came back down and caught the corner of the gym on an elementary school and blew it apart.
Celeste ran back inside the trailer to get her billfold. She put it in her back pocket so that someone would know who she was if the worst happened. She ran back out and huddled down behind the mound again.
Shortly after that, I saw it cross the river and head directly at us. All of a sudden it became huge. It blew up a large barn, turned over a milk truck and spun the roof off of a house directly across the road. I looked up and I could see a flat-bottomed fishing boat, a garage door, some corrugated steel and some broken boards floating above our heads. I could feel the sand blasting my face.
I said to no one in particular "Now I know how I am going to die."
Most people wouldn't understand my next move. I stood up to face the tornado. My wife was making promises to God that she would never be able to keep. Celeste grabbed my elbow as I stood up and tried to pull me back down. Her fingernails drew blood from my arm.
The tornado came less than three hundred feet from us when it suddenly veered to the left and then disappeared up into the sky. I saw several bright round electric fireballs thrown from it as it went up. A couple of the fireballs started fires in the tall dry grass in the pasture to our right.
Just as quickly as it had started it was over. We hugged each other. Our emotions were headed in ten directions at once, some amazement, and lots of relief.
Still somewhat in shock, we walked around to survey the damage.
In the house across the road where the roof had been spun off, people were trapped under the roof in the only corner of the house that was still standing. We went in and helped to bring them out. It was an old lady and a couple of her grandchildren.
Then we walked toward a small group of houses about a quarter of a mile away. There was a house with a huge tree lying exactly across the middle of it, cutting it in half. The people were outside. They were OK.
A couple of houses down from them was a house where the boat that I had seen floating up in the air had fallen through the porch roof. The flat-bottomed aluminum "John Boat" was sitting on the front porch. It looked like it was waiting for someone to get in it and go fishing.
I remembered the kids. This was before cell phones. We left Celeste, jumped in the car and headed toward the campus as fast as we could. There were large trees down as we neared the school. As we drove up to married housing we could see that the tornado had set down just after the apartments and had done some damage to the tennis courts and some trees below. The kids were fine. My oldest son David had heard the tornado coming and he had put the two younger ones in the bathroom near the center of the building.
Relief! Relief! Relief!
Now, when I feel a cold blast of wind on a hot summer day, I start looking for "Slinkys" in the sky.
Looking back, I guess my wife has a lot of promises to keep, because we were spared at the last possible moment.
Click on Arrow to View Video of Tornado Forming
Read about another time when God stepped in, in a life-threatening emergency.
- How to survive a riptide or undertow in the ocean
For all intents and purposes it was the perfect summer for a 16-year old boy. This was a time when everyone went to drive-in movies. The drive-ins were perfect for young couples to get in a little necking...
James A Watkins from Chicago on December 13, 2010:
Wow! What a hair-raising story!! gave me goose bumps. I am from Michigan and I know the Big Rapids area pretty well. Thanks for the good read.
Eiddwen from Wales on September 14, 2010:
A very well written hub. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I have only just found you on here and will be back in a bit to read more! Thank you for sharing.
kaitln b on February 10, 2009:
This was a really cool stor yall put togethr.
moonlake from America on January 30, 2009:
I have never been right in a tornado but we were in Arkansas when there were tornadoes all around us, running for the shelter then going back home and then a few hours later running for the shelter again. Each of us carrying a baby running across a horse pasture.
Enjoyed your hub.
In The Doghouse from California on January 16, 2008:
Yikes!! I think I will keep my earthquakes. lol