Duane Sherrill

If I hadn’t been an award-winning news writer and best-selling murder mystery author, I think in another life I would have been a meteorologist. That’s right, a weatherman, like Danielle Breezy.

I mean, I suppose becoming a male model would have been tempting, too, but I’m afraid my skipping leg day in the gym would have long-range repercussions given my bird legs.

I’ve always had a fascination with the weather. Even as a child, I’d put on my football helmet when they gave out tornado warnings, hoping to catch a peek of a twister.

“Boy, you ain’t got good sense,” my father would caution me (using double negatives) when I’d get all excited about an approaching storm. “You need to get your bird legs in the bathtub and cover up. This ain’t no game.”

My father was a deputy so he’d often go out when the weather got hairy, leaving me and mom sitting around in football helmets, watching the then-primitive radar renderings shown on the local news stations. That’s right: mom, who was terrified of storms, would also wear a helmet.

Her terror, however, was deep-seeded as she was raised in a beach house located on the coast of Maine near the church where my grandfather pastored. She would often tell me about the terror she felt when hurricanes would sweep in, and the waves would pound against their house. I guess that is enough to give one a phobia.

But it wasn’t handed down to her only son. My father was right:” I haven’t got good sense when it comes to storms. When everyone else is running for cover, I’m running toward the storm, hoping to get some video or pictures or catch a glimpse like Helen Hunt in “Twister.” This, coming from a guy who is terrified to get out on the roads when they are slick from snow, where the worst thing that could happen would be having to get towed out of a ditch. In the case of a tornado, the worst-case scenario would be pulling my car out of a tree while searching for my remains.

The amateur storm chaser in me has seen me landed in some hairy situations over the years as I’ve charged into the foul weather, much to the chagrin of my insurer, who I’m sure cringes every time I go live on video from the eye of a storm.

“Bring that car back in one piece,” I can hear him saying with his fingers crossed, not wanting to play a repair bill – again.

While endangering my life and limb is one thing, taking another person along for the ride is another. Such an event happened several years ago when a fellow writer named Charlie thought it would be a good idea to “tag along” during one of my chases. The weather was especially foul that day, and warnings had already been issued. I waited in front of the television, watching the Doppler radar, plotting where I might intersect the supercell.

“I’ll go,” Charlie volunteered as I grabbed my police scanner and headed out the door with him following behind.

The skies were circling as we headed north into the eye of the beast, the rain and hail getting more intense as we approached the intimidating cloud. Since I was driving, I had to keep an eye on the road, given the quickly deteriorating conditions. However, out of the corner of my eye, I could see Charlie shifting nervously in his seat. He remained deadly quiet, swallowing the puns he would usually sprinkle throughout any conversation. This, by the way, is the same guy who gave the rest of the staff permission to eat him first if we were to go down in a plane crash in the Andes.

Hail began slamming my car and debris were blown across the road in front of us.

“Maybe we should go back,” Charlie cleared his throat nervously, his eyes dancing back and forth as sweat began to roll down his face.

“What? It’s just getting interesting,” I shot back just as lightning lit the afternoon sky that had turned as black as midnight.

We felt the car lift slightly from the inflow wind as I slowed down even as our ears popped from the change in pressure. We were heading into a tornado. We couldn’t see it directly but we could see the circling clouds over the hill as hail rained down, eclipsing our view of the foreboding cloud.

“This is a bad idea,” Charlie checked his seatbelt. “Are you sure you know which way the storm is going?”

I gave Charlie a confident grin. “Ready to punch the core?” I said, swerving a large branch in the road.

Charlie’s face turned ghost white as he swallowed hard. “What’s the core?”

The core is the hail core that surrounds what often is a rain-wrapped tornado. You often have to penetrate the hail cores to approach a tornado from the backside, um, or is that the front side?

Anyway, we pressed through the wind, weaving our way through downed limbs. Charlie dug his fingernails into the console and, I kid you not, left gouge marks on it that were there the day I traded the car in.

We charged up the blind hill like the Rough Riders charging up San Juan Hill and found destruction everywhere once we made it to the top. An F-2 tornado had just hit the small town and was charging east where it would damage more houses. The touchdown was so fresh that debris was falling onto my car from the sky as we topped the hill. Our chase was over as our progress was blocked by downed trees and part of a house.

We immediately went from reporters to helpers as we got out to see if we could lend a hand. Folks began crawling out of their damaged homes, shell shocked by what had just happened.

“It was like a freight train,” one witness told me, noting he’d jumped into the tub with - wait for it - a football helmet on. I can’t make this stuff up.

The afternoon was just the beginning of an exciting evening for me as I would find myself just a few hours later lying flat on my belly underneath a fire truck as a second supercell caught me and about 20 deputies and firemen by surprise on what ended up being a major tornado outbreak.

Charlie missed that part as I dropped him off after our close call before returning to the fray.

To this day you can tell Charlie “let’s go punch the core” and his face will still turn ghostly white. Anyway, we worked a deal – I won’t ask him to do anymore storm chases with me so long as he doesn’t invite me on any plane rides to South America. He’d taste like chicken anyway.

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