It was Wednesday, April 27th. We were on our way to Alabama for a wedding and had spent the night before at my sister's in Frederick, Maryland. The second leg of our trip would take us as far as Cleveland, Tennessee, a city just east of Chattanooga where Larry's brother lives. It'd be a long day of driving and I wanted to know if we'd be having much rain. Dawn got on her computer and pulled up a weather map. It didn't look good, lots of serious storm activity was being forecast throughout the south. I was glad I'd thought to bring an umbrella.
The drive was pretty uneventful until we hit some hard rain right outside of Knoxville later that afternoon. I pushed the scan button on the radio hoping to get an idea what we were driving into, and it didn't take long to find out. A local station was taking calls from people all over that part of Tennessee with stories of strong winds, hail and even a few tornado sightings. The rain was picking up, blowing in sheets across the highway in front of us, making it harder to see. We sighted a Cracker Barrel sign and took the ramp; we might want to wait this out. We were barely seated when the weather seemed to clear a bit. I looked at the menu, then at Larry. We weren't really all that hungry anyways. We apologetically handed the menus back to our server, ordered some coffee to go and headed back onto the interstate. The sky looked pretty clear up ahead. Maybe the worst was over.
About thirty minutes out of Cleveland we hit rain again, but this time it came with such fury that the wipers could hardly keep up with the deluge striking the windshield. This went on for several miles. And though it was barely six o'clock, it seemed much later, the dark storm clouds blocking what light there was. It was then we heard and felt the hail hitting our little Escort. With gas hovering close to four dollars a gallon, we had made the choice to drive the more economical of our two vehicles, but now I felt particularly vulnerable as we heard the balls of ice striking the roof. I sat tensely with my hands clutching the seat, almost expecting to be blown off the road. But a lighthouse in the form of an eighteen-wheeler with flashing red lights suddenly loomed in front of us, and Larry followed and fixed his eyes on that beacon until we were able to catch sight of our exit.
As we left the ramp everything was dark, traffic lights included. Trees are especially vulnerable during a storm and Tennessee has its share of them. No doubt there would be the roar of chain saws over the next several days. But as we settled in for the night, all was still, the tempest having passed on to wreck havoc further east. The house seemed unnaturally quiet without the soothing hum of the refrigerator coming from the kitchen. Larry had lost his mother seven months earlier, and his brother Paul had just acquired the letters his parents had written each other long ago. So as we sat and talked by candlelight, it seemed only natural and appropriate that he should read portions of what had been written some sixty years earlier. Later the news would come that almost 300 lives were lost that day due to that same storm, something I'll never forget. But I will also remember the sound of Paul's voice in the hush of that living room reading his parents' private expressions of love and longing. For me, the two will always be connected.
|The young lovers|
The contrast between Wednesday's and Thursday's skies was striking as we left Cleveland behind us that morning, the temper tantrum most definitely over. And except for some downed trees, we saw little to remind us what had transpired the day before. But I knew that not far from the highway we traveled there were families and communities devastated by loss, reeling with grief. We would be in Cottondale tomorrow, a suburb of Tuscaloosa, just a few miles from the flattened ruins of hundreds of homes and businesses. We had come all this way to celebrate the wedding of a friend who had been ravaged by his own personal storm a few years earlier. Betrayal and broken vows had produced heartbreaking loss and grief. The irony of all this was not lost on me. People recover from storms all the time, no matter how devastating at the time. Our friend had weathered his. Love, joy and laughter had been restored through a lovely new bride named Charlotte.
|Our friend Larry and his new bride Charlotte, three days after the storm|
Our last couple of days were spent back in Prattville where we stayed with our friends John and Brenda Doublerly. Their son Jeremy just finished up his last year at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. He lived on the third floor of an apartment complex but decided at the last minute to take refuge in the clubhouse. That's where he was when the tornado came barreling down on the city that fateful afternoon. It swiped at the building where he huddled with the others, fortunately no one was hurt. The story was different for those living directly across the street, however. When Jeremy exited the clubhouse, he saw that the entire neighborhood had been leveled by the twister, everything lay in ruin. I didn't pry into all he'd seen, but I know there were some who died there. And then he smiled and said something like this: "You know, even with everything going on, there was something funny that happened. This huge black guy runs into the clubhouse right before the tornado hit and heads for the wall trying to get cover. And as soon as it's over, he reaches into every part of his shirt and starts pulling out kittens."
When we were crossing Tennessee a week earlier our oldest daughter Angela had texted me. She had seen the reports coming out of Alabama and was begging us to turn around. But that wasn't an option, we were already in the middle of it. That's simply how life is. The storms come, usually unexpectedly, and we have no choice but to get through them. Jeremy's story of the man and his kittens reminds me, however, that no matter the outcome, our Heavenly Father holds us close, refusing to leave us. The quiet hush of that candle lit room in Cleveland speaks of the peace that comes after the thunder and lightning have subsided. And the wedding celebration of our friend who had been so battered, the reason we'd come through the storm in the first place, declares that God not only rescues, he restores.