By Mark VastoEvery child has a dream of being left at the amusement park just a little bit longer than everyone else. While one revolution on a tilt-a-whirl is enough to make most adults hurl, to the kids it’s always too short a ride.
In the summer of 1981, I remember that the boardwalk seemed almost deserted. I can’t recall lines for any of the rides either. Looking back now, it was surreal – my aunt, five-year-old sister and me jumping into a teacup and the operator promising to let us ride extra long.
Then everything faded to green. The operator who only minutes before was vying for patron saint status in my mind took on a far devilish persona. Over and over we whipped past his plexiglass station in that twirling, multi-colored teacup. Our laughter turned to worry when my aunt began to frantically call out to him to “stop the ride!” But he wasn’t paying attention to us anymore – the swirling sky was descending upon the seaside and it was unlike anything we had ever seen before.
Finally off the ride, we ran down the boardwalk in our flip-flops to the parking lot and into my mother’s waiting car as real lightning crackled through the sky. The only sounds were of beach umbrellas whipping in the wind and surf pounding into the sand until the hail, as big as rock salt, started to punch into the hood of our car.
A car that was now dashing towards Silver Ridge Park – where our grandparents lived. Where an F3 tornado was currently and shockingly indiscriminately touching down.
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The seniors called it “The Finger of God” – how else could you explain it? A sight where a twister had just knocked two homes off the face of the Earth, but didn’t even pull laundry off the clothesline from the yard of the untouched house in the middle of them?
The first responders, not surprisingly, got to my grandparents neighborhood first. A sprawling, ready-made retirement village that jutted like a dagger for miles and miles into the once uninhabited Pine Barrens, emergency personnel were usually somewhere on site anyway, truth be told.
They wouldn’t let us turn onto the main road with our car, but we could see the wreckage. My aunt sprang out of the door and began to run up the street. Like any self-respecting kid with a bicycle and a lazy summer vacation would, I knew all the back roads of the development, so we were able to gradually steer our way through the varied maze of duplicate houses and pull up to my grandparents neatly appointed home.
We arrived just ahead of my aunt, who had by now run almost a half-mile past residences reduced to piles of slivers and dust, and just in time to hear my grandmother, who was standing outside on the porch wondering what all the fuss was to drop this gem:
“What are you doing jogging in the rain?”
My aunt laughed before she collapsed into her arms, crying. We parked in her driveway and went inside. She put out a tray of Italian cookies, poured some brandy and listened as we explained a tornado had hit her neighborhood. Ninety-seven homes had just been destroyed, but thankfully, incredibly, there had been no deaths.
My grandfather was playing poker at the men’s club.
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Tornado sirens blared in Parkville last Wednesday, just after Jehovah’s Witnesses had presented me with a pamphlet warning about judgement day. Yeah, well, the apocalypse was exclusively reported in last week’s episode of The Luminary thanks to Nadia Pflaum, so it was like, tell me something I don’t know, preacherman.
Well I don’t know about you, but I’m getting pretty tired of being told it’s the end of the world as we know it. The next time I’m confronted by a bible-banging street preacher or if I happen to run into Michael Stipe or any of his smug, holier-than-thou R.E.M. chums, I’m gonna let ‘em have it. So yeah, that was me outside with a camera trolling for tornado pictures the other day, in between tweets and texts to the Luminariette. She was huddled underneath a pool table a few blocks away, apparently expecting the worst.
“To you it’s a tornado,” I explained. “To me, it’s the front page.”
“We can add ‘see accompanying obituary on page 7’...except it’ll probably be on page 6,” she replied, a nod to this paper’s weekly practice of scattering our page jumps to the tornadic winds.
There are a lot of things we can’t control. More tragedies occur not because of intricate planning but due to spastic imprecision. The recent tragedies are a testament to that. So live well and thank God for your blessings and stop trying to “make sense of it all” because, try as you might, there are just some things you won’t be able to put your finger on and that’ll ruin your ride.