July 31, 2002

Caught Up in a Whirlwind

It looked like we were going to get a rip-roaring summer storm yesterday. The late afternoon cumulus billowed to the end of the atmosphere, dazzling giants coming from east and west. East was the taller of the two, orange-pink and multi-tiered; West was squat, steel gray and solid-looking. They rumbled defiantly at each other and were ready to do battle exactly over our pasture. Oh I do love a good storm! Always have, as I recall.

My sophomore summer in college, I found myself without a summer job. I had made the bad tactical error of no longer dating the girl whose father had gotten me work for the past several summers. So, I let my fingers do the walking through the Birmingham Yellow Pages, under Laboratories. I figured as a biology major, that this was at least a slightly more likely place to find work than my second choice, Hamburger Restaurants.

I made it all the way to the "L"s before getting a bite. We'll call it Larry's Engineering and Testing Company. I made it past the front desk with my phone pitch and was about to talk with Mr. Executive.

"Yes sir, I am a biology major right now, but I have really been thinking about changing to ****, and experience with your company would help me know more about how ****s think and work". (**** here is where I would substitute the name of the profession relevant to the next laboratory number I was calling, for instance, hematologist, industrial chemist, geneticist. In this case, materials engineers).

He bit, I interviewed in my best gee-whiz college boy manner, and I got the job.
(Here omit the substory about how I ended up in the emergency room with second degree burns on my arms during my second day on the job). Within a week, I was 'offered' the opportunity to serve as a company representative on a major project: testing rock samples from core drillings in the Tennessee River in Scottsboro, Alabama, for a barge unloading station for Revere Copper. Golly Gee!

Mr. Executive says "We'll pay mileage up and back, put you up in a motel, pay for your meals, and you can bring the core samples back every Friday". Man! Me with an expense account. It would be like a paid vacation. And I was eager to get away from former girlfriend, home, and Birmingham anyway. This was gonna be great! And making $1.60 and hour, to boot!

To make me truly know that this adventure was divinely ordained, the week before I was to start my travels, I ran into a distant relative who, providentially, was good friends with the sponsor for the Scottsboro Cheerleaders. She promised to "call her and tell her you will be coming and what a nice young gentleman you are, and she can introduce you to all her girls". Oooh! Da fox gardin' da hen house! James Bond does 'bama'!

Suffice it to say that here is where I perhaps first began to understand the profound truth of what has become my most persistent life bromide: It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive.

Yep, they 'put me up'...in the LIBERTY motel, the neon sign blinked incessantly day and night, with a similar sign for the LIBERTY Restaurant, located only two miles of empty road from the moribund heart of downtown Scottsboro in a sweltering southern summer. When I wasn't roasting in the motel room or doing dry heaves in the restaurant, I was working. This involved spending all day in the fierce sun on a small barge equipted with a small and mostly broken drill rig with two very nice, illiterate and oft-innebriated gentlemen. My job primarily was to fish, get a tan, and give the core samples a ride to B'ham every Friday.

This seemed like an absurd thing for Larry's Testing to do...to pay my room and board all week for me to fish. This made a lot more sense after I learned that for every $1.60 they were paying me, they were making $25-30, billing out my time as an on-site 'consultant'. Slick, dudes! So this is how business works! I'm being used and I think I will have the steak for dinner at the Liberty Diner tonight, after all.

So, there I was in Sleepy Scottsboro. Yes, THAT Scottsboro. I did indeed meet and hang out with some of the cheerleaders, several of which shaved their legs and had smaller biceps than me....'travel hopefully vs arriving, and all. Mostly what I did after work was fish in the river from the bank....peaceful, relaxing, mindless...until I was tired enough to sleep, then back to the pulsing LIBERTY LIBERTY LIBERTY until a greasy breakfast to start another day.

Somewhere in here, isn't there a story about a storm? Yes, we're getting there, don't rush me.

Not every day on the barge was boring, and I was getting a fantastic tan. One day while fishing at work, I caught a tremendous soft-shelled turtle. If you have never seen one (which I had not until that moment its shaped appeared closer and closer on the end of my fishing line toward the surface of the green river water as I reeled it in) they look like clay-mation caricatures of a turtle victim of nuclear waste spill. Anyhow, catching the turtle (which one of my co-workers ATE) inspired me to fish in earnest that afternoon, as usual, from the banks of the river in a quiet, out of the way place I had discovered.

It was towards dusk, when the lighting becomes horizontal, reddened by the setting sun shining through earth's dusty skin of air, and the winds typically die toward a tranquil calm. But not on this day. The winds were strong enough that I wasn't able to cast far enough to get to where the bass lived. The sky grew strangely dark in the distance, but with an ominous umber-red cloud just upriver, coming my way. So I headed back to the car, my trusty red VW Beetle, to the LIBERTY and drink an illegal beer (dry county, had to drive over into TN to get it, but trust me, I didn't have anything better to do earlier in the week).

I drove toward the motel across a causeway that was under construction: a road with river on either side, and rip-rap rock to stablize the roadbanks. About half way across, the winds picked up suddenly, blowing the hood of the car up, obstructing my view of the road. Horizontal rain blew in fat drops against the windshield, and I could only see ahead of me by looking between the bottom of the hood and the top of the dashboard...enough to see that there was a place to pull off just ahead, by a construction trailer on the side of the road.

Just I as eased off the road, peeking through the narrow slit of rain-smeared window, I saw the trailer being lifted, buffeted by the winds, now stronger than anything I had ever experienced, and before I could react, the trailer as if in slow motion begins to roll through 180 degrees, ending up on its top, coming down across the front bumper of my car....had I pulled 3 feet further, I would have been in Munchkin land, under a house. We're not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

The car is being pummeled by gravel blowing up off the side of the road; the car itself is rocking left to right, and the powerline overhead is rising and falling like a jumprope, as if it expected the VW to play one-potato two-potato...and the loser inside becomes a high voltage barbeque. Meanwhile, in the river, a small bass boat is being turned in every direction by the wind, is soon overturned and the man and boy who were in it are now hanging on for dear life. Is this a movie or something, 'cause I would sort of be interested to know if our intrepid hero is going to pull out of this one. I was really hoping there was going to be another in the James Bond does Bama series.

As quickly as it had started, it was over. The dark orange cloud, which I now understood to be a tornado, moved off to the north. The sun broke through the clouds, winds calmed, and it was as if it had never happened. Except that the front of my little red chariot was now snaggle-toothed and I had to tie the hood down to the twisted bumper with a yellow fishing stringer.

Battered and shell-shocked, I made my way to town, stopped at the Hardee's for some caloric consolation, and ran into one of the cheerleaders. I played the 'poor me I almost died' card, received the intended attention and sympathy, and soon could hear the 007 theme from "You Only Live Twice" coming somewhere from the north Alabama hills.

Posted by fred1st at July 31, 2002 08:43 AM

That sounds more like a tornado than a thunderstorm. Glad to hear you survived it. I've always been entranced by the less harmful variety that boom above summer cottages in heavily tree covered parts of New England. I remember getting up in the middle of the night and opening the front door to watch the pyrotechnics, which in retrospect probably wasn't the brightest move. I have a distant relative who got hit that way when lightning traveled down a tree, along a root, through the front door and out the back.

Still, there's something about the way the sky unnaturally darkens just before a thunderstorm that's primal and romantic. I hope I never lose affection for it.

Posted by: Mike at January 4, 2003 09:09 AM

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