sunflowery's Diaryland Diary


A Long Entry About The Tornado

It was nearing 11:00pm on Thurday night, August 18th and I was driving our truck. I was sleepy and anxious to get to my mom and dad's house so we could unload and fall into bed.

As I came over the next to the last hill before our town, I could swear that I saw the red and blue flashing lights of several police cars across the lake. Maybe it was my eyes playing tricks on me and it was just the brake lights of cars cruising the lake at night. Just as I put that thought out of my mind, we crested the hill and began our descent only to see two police cruisers at the bottom of the hill blocking our path into my home town. They directed us to turn right onto a county road. We did as instructed, pondering what could have happened. Bob thought maybe a traffic accident. It was likely. This highway had been getting more dangerous lately. It was only 2 lanes and with the amount of commuter traffic building up, more people were getting reckless and going faster than conditions allowed.

We had been listening to local radio the whole way into Wisconsin and had not heard of a bad accident, so we just detoured around the road block, got back onto the same highway a little farther down the road and continued on.

Not much further along, we encountered two more police cruisers with their lights on. They were parked and this time they were allowing traffic through. "How odd," I said to Bob. "I wonder what could have happened." Bob thought that if something bad had happened, my parents would have called our cell. "True enough," I said and we continued on, though we slowed our pace a bit in order to see if we could catch a glimpse of the accident these police seemed to be there for.

Soon enough we came across all manner of flashing blue and red lights. There were police, fire and rescue vehicles and city electric company trucks. I slowed down to a crawl as a policeman waved me through the intersection. It was pitch dark and so hard to see what was going on. As we passed, we did catch a glimpse of a telephone pool broken and hanging by the wires and a couple of broken trees. "I think a tornado might have gone through here," Bob said. "Really?" I said. "But wouldn't we have heard something on the radio about it or wouldn't mom and dad have called on the cell?"

We continued to drive along the highway and came across two more police manned intersections before getting to the one I had to turn on to get to mom and dad's house. At that corner, a policeman was also directing traffic.

"I'm going to pull into the PDQ and ask what happened," I said to Bob. We saw that there were two news trucks in the PDQ lot. We pulled in and I got out. There was no one in the store save the clerk who was mopping the floors.

"What happened here," I said. "We just drove in from the Cities and there are police everywhere!"

"A huge tornado touched down around 6:30 this evening and made a mess of everything out by the country club," the clerk said.

"My parents live in town here, just down the street. Was anything around here affected?"

"Lots of wind damage, but the tornado went through by the lake and country club. But I would get home to see if your folks are OK. Good luck."

I got to the truck and dug out our cell phone to see that we had missed three calls and one voicemail. I relayed the news to Bob and we hightailed it to mom and dad's house to find that all was well with them. They were home and in fact, dad was already in bed.

But we were in for more. Mom relayed her story. She and Dad had been at Culvers for dinner. They had just paid for their meal and sat down to wait when a Culvers worker announced that a tornado warning had been issued and everyone had to get to safety. Mom and Dad followed them to the back room and some people went into the cooler.

After a bit they were given the all clear. As they walked into the dining room, they looked out the window to see the tornado making its way through the country club neighborhood. Mom said it was mesmerizing and so scary.

During this time, my brother was at their church for worship team practice and they too could see the tornado from their vantage high on a hill overlooking the lake and country club neighborhoods. They watched it. People called their families, who they knew were home and most likely unaware of the devestation about to descend upon them.

We talked of this for a while until my weariness from driving and the adrenaline from the past half hour wore off. Bob and I went to bed. He slept well, I did not, though I remained in bed until a little after nine.

It was now Friday. Mom and I had planned this day ahead of time. We had errands to run and things to pick up for their anniversary open house the next day. The tornado was on my mind. I knew that from their church, we would be able to see the damage caused by the tornado. We had to stop there anyway, so we made a beeline for their church.

I was not prepared for the sight before me. The first thing I noticed was the crowd outside the church. There were people I knew, people I didn't know, people whose church home was here, people who may not have ever set foot on church property before in their lives, and many others. Some are standing on the side of the road just taking in the site before them. Others are talking of their homes, or what used to be their homes.

There is a lady with a black lab. I go right to her and pet her dog who revels in the affection. She doesn't say who she is or if she was personally affected. We just make small talk about her sweet dog. Someone else talks to her and now I look up to take in the scene before me.

I don't know that I can properly describe it. People have said it looks as though a bomb went off and that's somewhat true. But as in most tornado scenerios I've read about, there is one house standing almost fully intact in the middle of a pile of debris and garbage. Houses all around this lone survivor were destroyed and who knows why this house remained vertually unscathed. It was shocking. I could not turn away. People were talking to me and I must have mumbled answers, but was not able to look away from the scene of the tornado's aftermath.

Mom called me over to where she was talking to some friends. They had been on their way to take their daughter to college in the cities and had to come back. Their house had been in the tornado's path. The first thing they told me was they were sorry but they would not be able to bring the salad they promise to the open house the next day. I laughed but then thought, "How could they seriously think I would expect that from them now?" They lost their home and they were worried about fulfilling an obligation made several weeks before.

There were people from the church serving coffee from carts. Mom and I went inside and there was an organized chaos mobilizing. We went to the office to check in on the open house preparations. The church administrator came up to me and apologized for all of this. As if they had planned this. I told her I was not worried about the party but about them and did they need help? She said they were good for now, but would call me at moms if they needed me. They were putting meals together for the Salvation Army. She said they might need to move the open house to another room in the church and would that be OK. Indeed it would.

Mom and I left to go get the stuff we needed for the party. I was numb and processing. It is amazing to me that as emotional as I am, I had yet to express any real emotion over what had happened.

We headed out of town, traveling on the highway the tornado had crossed on its path of destruction. On the left had side of the road, there was a slab and what used to be the house that sat on it. There was debris and wood and garbage everywhere. There was a group of people looking numb and glassy eyed beginning to pick up what they could. Next to the slab was a tree that had been stripped bare of bark and branches.

It was just a skinned thick log standing like a sentinel against the debris.

On the other side of the road was another home. Most of it was gone. The rest of it was dented, leaning, all windows were gone. There was the stuff homes are made of all over the yard.As we drove by you could make out a bathtub, a sofa, and other sundry furnishings. Trees were all broken and stripped of branches, broken clean off.

As we drove by, I gaped and stared in shock. This is the place we had passed the night before where Bob had determined the cause of the police presence to be a tornado.How right he had been. Mom began to cry. I felt empty.

How could we continue with our errands to pick up stuff for a party when people were outside picking through the pieces of their home, trying to salvage whatever they could? I don't verbalize this to mom. It's her party afterall.

We drive to the party store and pick up what we need. We drive to the bakery to get the cakes. I had ordered two sheet cakes, one decorated, one plain. The decoraged one is GREEN. I asked for sage and I Packer Backer. It would have been great if my parents had been Irish instead of Scandinavian. Oh well, it all ends up in the sewers anyway.

We then search for industrial size jars of pickles and olives and nuts. The store we are in doesn't have them. We go to the store across the street and had no luck there. "If only you had a Cub," I said. "I KNOW they have them and I know right where they would be." "We do have a Cub," Mom says. We make a beeline. Ta da! Industrial size jars of pickles, olives and nuts. Just like I knew I'd find. We also pick up punch stuff.

We drive back to the church to drop off the stuff. This time, the traffic is particularily heavy. People are driving to our town to take in the devastation for themselves. Policemen are trying to speed things up and look to be frustrated. The people on the sides of the highway picking up the pieces of their lives look sadly at the people gawking at their misery.

We make it to the church and drop off the stuff. There is still a crowd at the church. People are still standing at the sides of the property looking out over the country club subdivision. Only now there are about a dozen news satellite trucks there setting up camp.Stupidly enough, Mom and I are worried that with the relief effort in place, our party stuff might be mistaken for purposes other than the open house. We make a sign and pile everything in a back corner and tape the sign to it.

On the drive back to Mom's house, we decide to drive through a part of town that wasn't hit by the tornado but must have been hit by straightline winds from the storm. Trees and branches are down everywhere.One guy had pine tree broken off right in the middle of the trunk.Where there used to be a stately pine was now just a jagged trunk. Other trees have been uprooted and are laying on their sides.One house has siding just stripped off the side like flayed skin on a wound.

We head home where I report to Bob about what I saw. Mom heads back to the church.

Bob and I had planned on taking time to go to Madison to just hang out. I ask him if he minds me driving us to one of my favorite spots. He says no. So we leave. We go out of town on the same highway Mom and I just traveled on. As we pass the tornado path again, Bob takes it all in for the first time and begins to sob. He took in the hurt of these hurting people and began to cry for them, feeling their pain in full.

We drove in relative silence for a long time. I took the John Nolan Drive exit so Bob could see the beauty that is the Lake Monona skyline of Madison. He couldn't fully appreciate it as his mind was elsewhere.

I turned on Broom Street and followed it to campus. I drove to fraternity row and followed that to the UW Memorial Union. We parked, I got Bob's wheelchair out, and we took the handicapped entrance into the union. First stop, Babcock Hall for ice cream. Bob choose rootbeer flavored in a dish and I chose chocolate peanut butter in a sugar cone.

I wheeled Bob out to the terrace. He took it all in. The Lake Mendota, the colorful sunburst chairs, the people, the beer, the live music and he settled in to enjoy a nice early evening on the terrace. Life continues to pulse and race and live around us. We settle in at a table in the sun and stare off over the lake.

A man at a table next to us receives a pizza delivery. He pays the man and takes his pie to a boat tied next to us. This is living. We make jokey small talk with him and his kids until they pull off to enjoy their pizza on the lake.

A bridal party comes to the end of our dock for photos. They are jubilant, buoyant, happy. We smile at them and watch the photographer set up shots. They leave joking and teasing and laughing and we smile at them again.

A Japanese family walks by with their 2-year old. She is fascinated by the ducks sunning themselves on the steps of the terrace. They are not so fascinated with her. Her family laughs and smiles at her interest.

I ask Bob if he minds if I wander around to take pictures. He does not. I stumble upon a woman with a 9-week old shepherd collie mix and she happily allows me to pet, coo, and exclaim over her baby. The fur of this puppy is so soft and fluffy. The puppy is excited to have the attention and jumps up to lick my face. The lady laughs and apologizes. I smile and say it's OK.

I return to Bob who has wheeled himself into the shade. We decide to go back to Stoughton. I take an alternate route as I know the rush hour traffice combined with the gawker slow-down will make us late for dinner for Mom and Dad. We have no problem getting home this way and make it in time for dinner.

Mom and Dad had been at the church. They have stories about families they know who were hit by the tornado. Apparently it also hit a neighborhood we used to live in. The only fatality of the storm was from a home in that neighborhood. Mom and Dad knew that man. No one could get back there as all roads in were closed to anyone but those who lived there.

Mom said my brother might be staying at our place that night. He was at a friend's house helping them clean up and had to get up early the next morning. We mused that this was the first time in many, many years that she had both her kids sleeping under her roof.

Jeff came over and had stories and photos. We looked over the photos and were once again struck by the loss, the devastation and the randomness of a tornado. What is taken and what is left is just not to be determined.

I go to bed and sleep poorly again. Restless with thoughts of loss and terror and sadness and hurt.

I wake early Saturday morning. I had originally planned on heading to the farmers market on the capitol square so I thought, "why not get an early start?" No one else is up when I leave. The sky is just lightening up from the rising sun. As I approach the site of the tornado, I see stadium lights set up in the neighborhoods and police checkpoints. I toy with the idea of stopping to pick up coffee for the policemen, but decide not to. I don't know why.

When I get to the farmers market, it is just waking up. The air still has it's evening chill and the sun is just starting to peak over the skyline. I make my once around before I go around again to make my purchases. The talk on the square is of the tornado. I purchase my blueberries, cheese curds and white gladiolas and head for home. It is an hour later and the air is now muggy and humid. When I stop to take photos of Lake Monona, my glasses steam up the instant I step out of the air conditioned cab of our truck.

To Be Continued....

This is a photo of the Stoughton Tornado. I got it from the Janesville Gazette Online.

The following photos were also found in the Janesville Gazette Online. To see more of their storm gallery, go here.

My brother took this photo when he was out helping his friends clean up.

Another photo taken by my brother.

8:33 p.m. - Monday, Aug. 22, 2005


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