Summer storms aren’t all we manage to survive

Published in the Duluth News Tribune


I should have known our weekend vacation would be filled with adventure when the tire on our van blew out two hours into the trip. My husband Andy strong-armed the limping vehicle off the highway and onto a gravel road.

I was amazed at how well he handled the situation. Then again, he had more than 40 years of experience as a mechanic. He had told me the week before that the tires needed to be replaced, but I told him to forget it. “I don’t want to pay for new tires on a van we’re selling!”

The country road ran beside a stagnant stream. When we stepped on the ground, it was obvious our entry disturbed the water’s mosquito hatchlings. Our bodies were soon covered with the starving bloodsuckers.

I knelt near my husband as he crawled under the van. I cringed, watching him on the rocky ground releasing the spare. I shooed the bugs off his back when he knelt down to replace the tire.

“We’ll have to get new tires in Green Bay,” he said when we got on the road again. I was thankful he wasn’t mad at me.

We got to our destination that Thursday night around midnight. Eric and Lisa, Andy’s son and daughter-in-law, plus their three children were waiting up for us near a campfire. The plan for the weekend was for the men to pour a cement slab under a pavilion that was on the property Andy’s kids had purchased the year before. Andy’s brother-in-law and nephew, Big Sid and Little Sid, masonry professionals, were to arrive the following day.

We woke Friday morning to the gentle strokes of summer sifting through the screen window of the camper. Andy and I decided to get the tires replaced right away so we wouldn’t have to worry about that. Andy’s children and the grandchildren were due to arrive later that afternoon. We were all looking forward to family conversations, some competitive golf-ball toss, and a meal spanning every inch of a picnic table.

We were just finishing supper when the rock-n-roll radio station interrupted with a report of storms heading our way. Our wide-open skies made the threats of wind, rain, lightning, and hail seem like someone else’s problem.

I was playing a marble game with my step-grandchildren when I looked to the West and saw the first black clouds. Everyone seemed to have their cell phones out, sharing the ominous weather warnings glowing on their screens. I looked up to see aged treetops dancing a tango with the sudden wind. I wrapped my arms around myself.

The first rain pellets came hard. There was a thunderous rumble and a crack of lighting that sent a shiver up my body. We raced for the cover of the pavilion. The storm raged. A curtain of rain prevented visibility. Thunder rattled our bodies with pounding force. Strobes of lightning blinded us.

We heard a sickening crack as a bolt hit its target overhead. A “BOOM!” on the roof of the pavilion caused us to scream. A tree limb the size of a telephone pole slid off the roof with no regard for human life.

“RUN TO THE CENTER OF THE FIELD!” We scrambled toward the open field like frightened squirrels, unsure where to go. When we saw the surrounding trees bending at their knees, we just as quickly ran back to the pavilion. There was nowhere to run.

Courtney, Andy’s daughter, climbed under a picnic table, shielding her little boy, protecting his head. My step-grandson crawled in next to them. I knelt down with them and said a silent prayer. “After all I’ve been through, this is how I am going to die?” I remember looking up toward the sky and snickering. “Are you kidding?!”

“This is the safest place!” Andy shouted, standing solid like a pillar, the guardian of his family.

He was right. The storm passed. Bewildered, we all stepped out from our safe place and inspected the fallen limb stuck like a fork into the ground. I looked up at the broken treetop. I wondered how we got so lucky that the limb fell the way it did. I thanked God for saving us.

No one in the surrounding area was killed that day. It was a life experience I’ll never forget. I understood then how people could find themselves in the path of a storm, even with ample warning.

On Saturday afternoon, Andy took us girls out for a pontoon ride while the rest of the guys worked on the cement pad. The sun’s warmth and blue skies were a welcome relief after the harrowing events of the day before. We putted along the busy lake, taking in the scenery, when someone at the front of the boat held up a cell phone and yelled, “Selfie!” Andy and I chuckled as we watched the younger generation rush over to pose into place.

But the boat responded to the sudden movement by nosediving, submarine-style. Water rushed in, and we lost sight of the front pontoon tubes. Our screams drowned out all other noises. The girls scrambled toward the back. We watched and waited in terror. We weren’t wearing life vests; not everyone knew how to swim. The few seconds it took for the boat to bob back up seemed like forever.

That night at the campfire, stories were shared about the times in our lives we thought we might die. Most of us thought it a miracle we managed to survive as long as we had.



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