Deja vu?

A little over 13 years ago Holly and I went with a group of friends to Six Flags in Atlanta. It was a Sunday - Palm Sunday actually. We were seniors in high school and our friends were trying to enjoy some of our last moments being together as a group before splitting up and heading our various ways to different colleges. Holly and I had only been officially dating for a little over a month at this point.

Being young and focused on having fun, none of us had really paid attention to the forecast. We knew there was a chance of thunderstorms that afternoon, but growing up in the South that's an almost daily occurrence eight months out of the year anyway. You get used to it. We just knew we were going to have fun and that was all that mattered.

We realized fairly early in the day though that we should have paid attention to the weather as it started raining off and on late that morning. We were still able to ride everything we'd come to experience (although I still refused to do 'The Great Gasp') but it wasn't the picturesque, sunny day we had hoped for. Late that afternoon we finally decided to call it a day and begin the drive back to Birmingham.

One party in our group, Shelly, was lucky enough to have a cell phone on her (this was back when handheld units were still somewhat of a novelty and bag phones were still commonplace.) She called ahead to let her parents know that we were heading back. She was given a very stern warning to be careful. There had been numerous, deadly tornadoes back in Alabama earlier in the day, including the infamous F4 that hit the church in Piedmont, AL, killing 20 people. And as often happens in the Southeast, another round of storms was firing up with the heat of the day now at its peak.

A few in our party were in a hurry as they had to be back in Birmingham by a certain time for work and various other deadlines. I had to find another way home and opted to ride back with Shelly and Holly as we weren't in a hurry and both of them seemed nervous at the prospect of driving into a froth of potentially heavy storms. I've always enjoyed stormy weather, so even though I was aware of the danger I didn't really fully appreciate the magnitude of the situation.

The clouds rapidly began to darken as we approached the state line separating Alabama and Georgia. We were in Shelly's brand new Eagle Talon and she was growing increasingly nervous as we continued toward the darkening horizon - even though the darkening horizon SHOULD have been behind us under normal circumstances at that time of day. A few miles after we crossed the state line the clouds became extremely ominous and the winds began whipping up at speeds that had to have been well in the 40mph+ range. I had been trying to keep Shelly calm so she could focus solely on her driving, but by this point she was literally crying with fear. And even though I wouldn't allow myself to show it to the girls, I was growing increasingly scared too. I'd seen plenty of strong storms in my 18 years, but the clouds we were now driving into were some of the most threatening I'd ever seen. Adding to the fear was the knowledge that we knew we'd have to face this the ENTIRE drive home as we were listening to radio reports of tornadoes now ravaging Birmingham (and particularly near our homes in Pelham and Oak Mountain.)

Shelly decided to pull over at the exit we were approaching to let me drive. Earlier in the day she wouldn't have let me touch her brand new car for anything. Now she couldn't get the keys in my hands fast enough. As we were swapping seats a sheriff's car pulled up alongside us and yelled "Get the hell off the road! There's a tornado a mile down the road heading this way!" That was JUST what we needed to hear right now. This exit had LITERALLY nothing on it (it's the first exit you come to in Alabama off I-20 that does us our state oh so proud - the one with nothing but two boarded-up fireworks stores at the offramps.)

With no knowledge of the area and nowhere to take shelter I quickly turned us back around. It was only at this point that I noticed that NOBODY was on the interstate. Usually you'll see at least a few hardy souls and a couple of determined truckers, but they were nowhere to be found. I guess you don't really notice those things until you're behind the wheel. Once we were clear of the worst of the winds I quickly broke Shelly's new car in and we raced across the Georgia line. Unfortunately there's not a whole lot in eastern Georgia either. We finally stopped at the first exit that had a significant amount of brick structures in Bremen, GA.

We originally thought about just riding the storms out in a restaurant. But after watching the radar and talking to our parents back in Birmingham we realized the situation was going to wear on into the late night hours. There was a two-story motel across the street which seemed to offer the best balance of safety and long-term comfort. We all checked with our parents and then I (being the only 18-year-old at the time) got us a room. The girls collapsed on the beds and quickly went to sleep. I spent the rest of the evening on the floor watching the live storm coverage as numerous tornadoes touched down at various points all around us. This wasn't exactly the way I thought I'd get to spend my first night with Holly.

So what's the point of this whole story? Probably (and hopefully) nothing. But for myself it has a strange sense of deja vu. Tomorrow we'll be headed over to Atlanta to visit the Georgia Aquarium. Just like 13 years ago, I'm very excited at the prospect. I love aquariums like this and I know Laney will be thrilled. However, this time I've actually paid attention to the forecast and I know what's coming. I know there's a good chance we might see significant storms once again on our drive home tomorrow. Will they be as bad as the storms we ran into during the Palm Sunday outbreak 13 years ago? Probably not. Outbreaks like that don't happen very often. But the memories from experiences like that never truly fade.


On a side note, I also learned a powerful lesson in parenting from this experience that I hopefully will be able to effectively utilize one day. As we were calling our parents from Bremen to tell them what had transpired and to see if we should/could ride the storms out in the motel, Holly's dad told her he was "relieved Keith is there." Here we were, seniors in high school, dating only a little over a month, in another state and asking to spend the night together in a hotel (granted Shelly was there, but still.) Who wouldn't have understood if he had been leery? But by saying he was "relieved" it made me realize he trusted me with his daughter. That really resonated with me and made me want to be respect his faith in me.


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