During the latter part of the 1980’s my sons lived at their Mom’s and spent every other weekend with me. We had some great times. If it was Spring or Summer, most of that time involved fishing and camping. I had a pickup truck and a basic little fourteen foot aluminum fishing boat that saw a lot of action back then—not always a lot of fish, but a lot of action. There were so many of those fun trips, with or without fishing success, that it would be hard to pick out the one that I would consider the best, but I think my offspring and I would definitely agree on which weekend excursion was the most memorable. It was also unquestionably the worst.
It was a late Saturday afternoon, probably in the Spring of either 1989 or 1990. We had hurried out of Houston the previous evening and managed to snag our favorite camping spot in Brushy Creek Park on Sam Rayburn Lake. With me were my sons, 15/16 year old Wayne (aka Paul) and 12/13 year old Clifton. Wayne had also invited his best friend, Darren. It had been cloudy all day and the forecast called for scattered showers and possibly thunderstorms. I was in camp watching Clifton play in the campfire (which he much preferred over fishing) when Wayne and Darren pulled the boat up to shore. We had stayed off the main lake that day, but the teens had spent the afternoon trolling around the small protected cove. Because of the forecast chance of a thunderstorm, I had them pull the boat up in the shallow water and tie up to one of the bare old pine trees along the shore. Everyone was hungry and we thought we were in camp for the night, but while I was rummaging around in the rear of the truck for something to offer for supper, things changed. After being a little breezy all day, the air suddenly became incredibly still. The light level had already been low in the dense pine forest as dusk was approaching, but then we all noticed that everything took on a dark green tint, almost as if the air we were looking through had a greenish hue. The change was amazingly sudden and more than a little ominous. I was still at the rear of the truck looking around when a Park Ranger truck pulled up on the park road. The uniformed ranger didn’t get out, but just rolled down his driver side window and hollered at us that a tornado had been spotted somewhere in the area. As I started toward his vehicle he added, “I don’t think there’s time to try to drive out. If it gets bad, your best bet might be to get inside the restroom up there.”
The warning was barely out of his mouth when the heavy rain hit. Without another word, he hit the gas and disappeared around the curve in the park road. We all headed for my truck. Clifton and I got in the cab while the older boys climbed in the back, which was protected by a light aluminum camper shell. Still thinking we could wait it out, we hunkered down and listened to the downpour for a few minutes. The atmospheric conditions were changing at an unnerving rate. Looking up through the windshield I watched the towering pine trees, many over fifty feet tall and two feet thick at the base, begin to sway in the wind like tall thin weeds. Over the din of the rain striking the metal camper, I thought I heard the tailgate of the truck open. Were the boys making a run for it up the hill to the little restroom? To this day, I clearly remember looking down at my hand on the door handle just as the blowing rain changed to pebble sized hailstones. Not a good sign. On my command Clifton and I bailed out of the truck and ran. We still joke occasionally after all these years about the shared memory of Clifton looking up at me and briefly laughing at the sight of the little ice balls bouncing off my balding head. When we entered the restroom door, I discovered that Wayne and Darren weren’t inside. Within seconds, though, I heard Wayne’s frustrated voice from outside yell, “Where are they?” Shortly after, the two soaked teens came flying through the door. I had everyone sit with back against the brick wall. Whatever happened next, at least we would all be together.
We didn’t have long to wait. What happened next was the most violent natural phenomenon I have ever personally witnessed. A few years earlier in my Houston apartment I had sat through the passing of Hurricane Alicia. Cars down in the parking lot rocked from side to side and I had watched the sliding glass door to my balcony ominously bend in and out, almost like breathing. The straight line winds of seventy something miles per hour had been impressive, but for sheer terror what was outside that campground restroom easily topped that. The little structure had brick walls, but the roof was composed of translucent sheets of corrugated green plastic. How that stayed on, I don’t know. Outside, the sound of the wind seemed to alternate between a low roar and a high-pitched whistle. Then, I presume as the suspected tornado came closer, the thunder and lightning increased dramatically. I’ve never seen or heard anything like that. It was a blinding, constant flashing. Everything was bright as daylight inside the normally unlit restroom. The shadows of trees could be seen through the plastic roof, whipping in every direction. We heard several distinct heavy crashes as some of them fell to the ground somewhere outside. I remember feeling like I was just waiting for one of them to come through the roof. But none did. As suddenly as it all approached, the worst of the noise and light moved into the distance like that freight train I’ve so often heard compared to a tornado. All that had probably only lasted five minutes or so, but it seemed like forever, huddled with the kids against that brick wall.
With the break in the storm, we cautiously came outside into the diminishing wind and rain. A pine tree lay stretched across the ground less than ten feet from the entrance of the restroom. Another pine leaned ominously against its still upright neighbors. Fortunately we found the truck unharmed where we had left it. I think we all were feeling a bit giddy with relief as we hopped in and pulled away from camp, planning on driving into the nearest little town to find a place to get indoors and have something to eat. Even a McDonalds would have been a welcome find, but that turned out to be overly optimistic. Before reaching the exit to the park, we were stopped in our tracks by a good size hardwood tree across the park road. As we discussed the likelihood of managing to cut it up or push it aside, the big raindrops started again. In the distance the rumble of thunder began to approach. Not knowing what to expect next, I drove back into the park and pulled into the parking space for another small campground restroom, thinking that we could run inside if necessary. Happily, it wasn’t. Exhausted, our little group of survivors slept wherever we could in the truck until daylight.
The next morning we awoke to find ourselves still alone in a sunny and very quiet park. Back at our original camp we discovered our domed tent, complete with sleeping bags and gear, soaked and upside down two campsites away. I also discovered some new words had been added to my teenage son’s vocabulary when they came running back up from the shoreline. They had found the boat pressed down against the bottom by a foot-thick tree across the top of it. Amazingly, the dead tree had missed the outboard motor by only a foot or so and ended up balanced horizontally across the boat. Taking turns sawing, we were able to cut through the trunk and shove it off. The damage looked worse than it actually was. The shallow permanent dent along one side of the aluminum edge was really only noticeable of you looked straight along the side.
Across the small cove we could see the actual path the tornado had brutally carved through the woods. It must have come up through the cove and then turned away from our campsite. When I walked around the curve to the boat landing, I found another park ranger truck parked next to my empty boat trailer. It had somehow stayed put, all alone in the center of the asphalt parking lot. I felt a little foolish admitting it was mine, but the ranger just seemed relieved to hear that someone hadn’t been out in a boat during the storm. I had to agree, that probably would have been worse. As it was, we had come close enough to disaster for me.
Norm Brown is the author of the suspense novel Carpet Ride, published by Secondwind Publishing, LLC.