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Tornado Chasing a la Dummy
by Mike Bay

For those of you who've seen the movie Twister, tornado chasing was glorified and dramatized, despite an unrelated subplot of marital strife between Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt. What one had to do with the other perhaps only a married couple could identify with, but I digress.

Tornado season is almost here in the Southeast. In the spring of 2003, Kansas, Missouri and Tennessee saw a series of super cell thunderstorm-spawned tornadoes, killing dozens and injuring dozens more, tragically underscoring a prime reason that storm researchers 'chase' storms: by expanding their knowledge of tornado dynamics, they hope to better determine and detect tornadic formation, increasing warning time in a storm’s path for the safety of those who often are left with precious little time to find adequate shelter. It would certainly be for the betterment of those living wherever tornadoes thrive and 'eat', especially in the Central Plains and southeastern US.

Of course, professional storm chasers are just that: men and women with schooling and experience in meteorology and thunderstorm dynamics; with equipment and real-time access to receive and analyze changing weather conditions within a nearby storm cell; with the training to minimize the dangers of a chase for themselves and the general public; and with a love of the thrill of the hunt, as well as for Aunt Meg's steak and eggs. They have a storm chasers' code of conduct, time-tested and wisdom-gained rules of the road.

And they tend to grit their teeth and loath six fingered novices who shouldn't try this from home. Like me.

Growing up in Iowa and South Dakota for my first 13 years, I developed a fascination with tornadoes. I've been through a couple. I've seen, from a distance and in the aftermath, what tornadoes up to F-5 category can do. To quote Dusty from Twister, "It's awesome.” I spent many a summer, tracking severe storms based on TV weather reports and warnings, using a worn road map and ruler. I got pretty good at judging what might hit our neck of the woods, and when.

Then we moved to Colorado, and I learned that the mountains threw my old conventional meteorologic out the window, along with my ability to 'read' and 'sense' weather. However, I also learned that Colorado had its own version of 'Tornado Alley': along most of the Front Range, from Colorado Springs north to the Wyoming line, and east to the Nebraska/Kansas borders. As time went on, I saw ample evidence of this productivity in the skies over Jefferson, Douglas and Arapahoe Counties. Tornadoes hereabouts tend to be less awesome than their leviathan cousins of the Great Plains; but that didn't quell for me the thrill of an encounter, or the desire for a photo. I wanted a photo of a tornado. Not one taken by someone else; one taken by me. One where I had boldly skirted the 'bear cage', stalking and successfully bagging my quarry: an F-3 at the least, from a mile away, on the ground, and on a parallel course.

Didn't want much, did I?

In time, opportunities presented themselves. In the summers of 1989 and 1990, I managed to shoot up three rolls of film on funnel clouds in the Denver Metro area, three of which qualified as tornadoes by a cloud-to-ground touchdown (with the extra point landing somewhere in Kansas). In one case, I got an entire series -- from formation to touchdown and beyond -- of one tornado at a mile and a half distance, on that favored parallel course.

What would come as no surprise to the professionals . . . I wasn't satisfied. I wanted more.

Then came July, 1995. I had three days off, and it so happened that those three days were graced with unstable weather conditions that were prime for what I craved: strong thunderstorms, hail, damaging winds, rain, lightning -- and tornadoes. Without bothering to research proper tornado chasing techniques, I loaded up me, my camera, film, map and binoculars, and took off to seek the 'beast' in its NE Colorado lair.

Suffice it to say, I came up empty, picture-wise. Equally suffice it to say I was lucky to come up intact, considering conditions and situations I drove boldly (stupidly) into those next three -- at times harrowing -- days. Twice, the elusive 'beast' didn't elude me by much; only pure dumb luck on my part prevented a comparable encounter to that experienced by some poor minivan driver on I-70 in Kansas in 1994 (captured on film by a news crew who found themselves being 'chased' by a tornado, rather than vice-versa).

But what I did come up with, in retrospect, was a definitive how not to chase tornadoes list. Unless, of course, you're me:

-- first, you need a brain stem disconnect to totally divorce common sense and personal safety from your mind.

-- second, you need an expendable auto, expendable still or video camera, expendable road map, and expendable anything else you choose to take along.

-- third, you really don't need to bother learning some of the technical or meteorologic terminology that's second nature with storm chasers; it doesn't matter if that dark, sinister cloud formation approaching you is stratavarius or cumulonumbnuts; long as you think it might be the kind a tornado will come out of, you're right where you wanted and have no excuseable reason to be. Especially if you turn out to be right.

-- fourth, you need to go it alone; if you get an equally untrained, unthinking accomplice with you, the dummy factor is most likely negated. Sooner or later, one of you will reconnect a brain stem to realize "hey, this is really farging stupid,” and will get the heck out of there, perhaps even in time.

Granted, a second person could be useful -- to read the map, watch the skies, and make totally unnecessary verbal observations:
"Oh wow, dude, we have debris!"
"You dumb ****, we are the debris!"
"Oh, this is so wrong, man . . ."
"Ah...that was an antelope. Where you from, Texas?"
"No man...California.”
"Oh THAT'S a lotta help..."

Finally, the ultimate objective in this little idjit escapade -- besides possibly backdooring yourself into a Darwin nomination -- is to get your subject in a good quality photo, without becoming the "hey, look at that moron" secondary subject in someone elses' good quality photo.

Will I do it again?

Probably; opportunity and my thirst for that “perfect photo” remains unquenched. BUT, just so the least lucid of you won't ponder following me potentially into Nature's version of a really windy toilet swirly, here's a few serious and worthwhile links to visit for some excellent information on tornadoes and chasing them from the safety of your computer at home:

National Weather Service
Storm Chase


Mike Bay is a free-lance humor writer and accomplished ceiling pencil sticker during writers' block. Born in Iowa, subsisting in Colorado, he has parental and other ancestral links on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. He's a former newspaper columnist, a member of the NetWits and National Society of Newspaper Columnists, and has been published in the quarterly Satire, on various websites and ezines, on his very own website (outofthinair) and in an upcoming book, Serenade of the Stinkweed, an anthology of marital experiences by Jeanni Brosius, Bandal Books. A life-long bachelor, he's still waiting to receive his BS in it, and trying to figure out why he needs a degree to prove what he's full of.

Critiquesters may write Mike at cowfethers@yahoo.com


Read another Mike Bay story at USADS -- go here:
Gravity Bites . . . or
A Turkey of a Recipe. . . or
It's Valentine's Day. Why?

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