As I write this, I am hearing the sirens for a tornado warning go off in Chicago. This is pretty rare as tornadoes are not usually found in big cities aside from downtown Nashville, which might have been Providence’s attempt to get rid of “new country.”
This time of year always produces an amazing assortment of weather here in the Midwest. The hot, humid air of the south clashes with the cold Canadian fronts resulting in violent storms that cause huge thunderheads, storms, and ultimately tornadoes. So after a half an hour of Annie, the baby, and me in the basement watching the news, I was able to return to my desk, settle down in front of the computer, and write about tornadoes.
People who live outside the United States (or even outside the Midwest) have a distorted idea of what they are like, mainly from movies such as the Wizard of Oz, where the twister ends up dropping a house on a wicked witch in the middle of a munchkin subdivision. That rarely happens. Maybe on a chicken coop, but munchkin subdivisions have been for the most part unmolested. However, no matter how cavalier we Midwesterners can be, such storms are potentially dangerous and can change towns and lives forever. Perhaps that is why we are cavalier. When the Californian says, “I would rather be in an earthquake than a tornado,” we gaze at them with that knowing look of experience and say “Yep, you would.”
For the traveling musician, there is always the chance to skirt around summer storms. They are much more concentrated than winter storms and seem to be over quickly. But they have the tendency to be more sudden and violent. And when you are playing at the show (usually outside), there really is no getting around a summer storm front bearing down on you. If I had a preference between a blizzard or summer cold front on an 85 degree day, I would be all for the former. Brian and I have played outside during a snowstorm. It gets cold and that’s about it. You build snowmen, play hard to keep your fingers from freezing, and enjoy the camaraderie.
However, over the years Brian and I have had the luck of being in four summer storms that have produced tornadoes. The first one that we experienced took place even before Switchback formed. In three of the four we were outside. In two of the four, we were playing a wedding. In one of the four, we ended up in the women’s bathroom. Such things happen when there is a tornado.
The first occurred when we were playing with the Wailin’ Banshees, our Irish band. We were playing a wedding in a tent (they are always in a tent, folks) when the weather went terribly bad. One thing happens during such events: all reality is suspended. People continued dancing as the sirens started shrieking outside. We finally finished playing and a huge torrential downpour ensued. People huddled inside the tent and all was excitement, except for our band. We were watching a river of rain flow right through a junction box. Our sound system was plugged into that box and if we did not detach it, the system could potentially short out.
“Who is going to pull the plug?” asked our fiddler Mary McDonagh. Brian and I looked at each other and looked at the plug. The water continued to sluice down the side of the tent and through the junction box. Finally, I took a deep breath and grabbed the cord and pulled as fast as I could. Luckily, nothing serious happened except for a few gray hairs.
The craziest storm was probably the one that took place at Th’ Gatherin’ festival in 2009. It was part of the storm that produced a horrific two mile wide tornado that took apart the town of Greensburg, Kansas. For us, it was during a dance in an old circus tent when things took a turn for the worse.
We had been playing for a while when Liz Harvey announced that there was an ominous-looking front coming in from the southwest. I remember saying that we would play one more song and then take a break. Before we were able to get halfway through the song all hell broke loose. A terrible wind ripped the tent and hail started coming onto the dance floor. We were immediately scrambling to cover our equipment with any kind of tarp we could find. While that was happening several men held onto the main tent pole to keep it upright. But there were also the folks who were popping hailstones into whiskey glasses as the storm blew by. Lanky Kansans wearing cowboy hats (and one guy with a Viking helmet on) strode through the flapping fabric of the tent as hail bounced and toasted one another. Takeshi Horiuchi was the only one who really had a good handle of the situation. He came up to Brian and me as we were trying to keep our guitars from getting blasted by the rain.
“You know,” he said. “I am scared!” And well we should have all been, for it wasn’t until an hour later that we started getting reports about the front and what it did to Greensburg. The next day, we had to stop playing again when reports came of more tornadoes in the area. We wrote “High Plain Killers” with Keith Riker in an effort to record what that night felt like. At the very least, we all felt lucky and very much in awe of the power of a Kansas storm.
Probably the most dramatic storm took place in Dubuque, Iowa back during our bar playing days. We were playing at an establishment called the Ice House. Our first set took place outside, but we were told that a huge storm was on its way. So we took apart all of our equipment and set up inside. The only place to play was between two big television screens with the weather radar on both. Everyone seemed to be looking at us but in fact they were all watching the line of tornadoes that were descending on Dubuque. Finally, the owner announced that we were going to have to take shelter as the sky turned green outside and the rain started flying sideways. The safest place to go was this concrete garage that was about 100 yards away. We headed out to it to find out that it was locked. Like in a movie, we all turned around and sprinted back to the restaurant.
“Into the ladies' room! That’s the safest!” someone shouted.
We all ducked into the ladies' room, except for Bill Gillies.
“If I am going to die, I am going to die drinking at the bar,” Bill said.
No one took any time to argue with Bill.
It was my first time in the ladies' room. I thought to myself that it would be odd if my first time in the ladies' room was also my last. I also noticed that it seemed to have more room than the men’s room, enough to fit 50 people without feeling too crowded. The acoustics were nice, too.
The storm quickly passed, the sirens died down, and we all trudged out of the ladies' room. Bill was still seated at the bar, a glass of whiskey coiled in his hand. He looked at each of us as we filed back into the bar.
“Missed you guys,” Bill said.
~ Martin McCormack