As we left Borders on East State St. Dan pulled the van up so we wouldn’t have to step out into the torrential rain. Only one more errand to run before we would be home tasting that 8 hour roast. Dan dropped us off at Toys R Us just as the nickel sized hail started. Ella and I made a six-foot dash from the van to the front doors but Dan had to park and make a longer run. We waited inside the front doors for him before we ventured in search of birthday presents. We wandered around looking at merchandise for an hour before making our picks. Dan pulled the van up and Ella and I made another mad dash this time towards the van while the hail stopped the rain was as heavy as ever and I was relieved Dan agreed to drive even though it was technically my turn.
He veered onto the onramp and slowed down in time to see another white minivan on the shoulder with hazard lights on. We were going 15mph and the white van was backing up quite a long ways to whence he came to avoid the traffic jam we could see ahead. We both sighed and Dan said “I’m tempted to back up too.” I replied “Go ahead.” We didn’t we forged on and as we merged Dan regretted the decision aloud. I attempted to alleviate the pressure of getting home with “We don’t have any place to be in any hurry don’t sweat it.” I settled in listening to NPR and resigning myself to a 45 minute drive home instead of 25 min. We managed to get into the vaguely faster left lane and I was taking stock of the plates from other states on their way home after the holiday; MI, OH, IN, and WI. “There must be an accident” I said as traffic crawled “Nah, everyone’s trying to merge onto HWY 39 on their way home from the holiday” responded Dan.
The rain was coming down in sheets and the dark grey green clouds were passing us so low it seemed you could reach out the window and touch them. Wind was blowing the leaves and twigs horizontally and the van rocked. I was looking out the window studying the clouds for downward peaks and getting antsy when Dan asked if I saw anything, “Well, kind of…” I replied focusing on a giant downward plunge over the mall that seemed to simmer, bubble and then dissipate. He glanced over and said “Oh, its fiiiine” and the familiar high pitched siren came over the radio and Dan immediately turned it up. I knew “This is a test – this is only a test of the emergency broadcast system…” was not going to come on next so I shushed Ella and perked my ears. Funnel cloud spotted over Rockford Airport. That was perhap a mile and a half directly ahead of us. The radio announcer advised we take cover immediately. I got into the back seat with Ella and per Dan’s suggestion found every blanket, jacket and spare sweater to pile over our heads if need be. I considered unrolling the carpet we had just purchased but decided I would wait until the absolute last moment.
Dan drove on at a cautious pace passing cars, trucks, trailers and semis now pulled over on the shoulder. As we approached the HWY 39 onramp trucks pulled over and few cars attempted driving up the ramp. A veritable waterfall easily 8 inches deep was spilling down the on-ramp. Other cars were reversing in an attempt to get back on HWY 20 were the traffic had exploded from two lanes to six lanes with only the innermost trickle of cars actually moving-ish. The other five lanes were trying to wedge themselves underneath the underpass. It looked not only hazardous but downright idiotic, should the tornado descend on us it would turn to a mosh-pit of automobiles. We weaved in and out of stalled and parked cars and I looked ahead into the grey black rain.
We drove on by ourselves into the unknown. I could almost hear the people we had just left muttering “Look at that yahoo, doesn’t he know he’s driving into the tornado?!” The second underpass wasn’t much better as we squished through the stalled and parked traffic the siren screamed on the radio again the announcer urged us to take cover. I called our nearest friends Jeff and Tracy and yelled above the rain pelting down onto the van. “We’re driving on 20 and there’s a tornado, we’re coming to your house!” Jeff replied “ok” he seemed surprised. Only a half mile to Alpine and then a short jaunt to their place and we’d be safe. It was way better than taking our chances in a van full of windows sitting under the underpass. I braced myself to come face to face with large branches flying sideways and debris through the windshield and surveyed the earth around us identifying the lowest, closest driest spot to huddle in. The rain still came in a solid barrage, Ella hummed to herself.
Dan drove ahead white knuckled and we made it to the off ramp to find another waterfall pouring down the middle of the road this one perhaps only 6 inches deep. He didn’t hesitate and merged onto South Alpine finally heading north instead of west into the storm. A block further to Sandy Hollow and we stopped at the intersection/lake with water deep enough to cover the wheels of the sedan crossing in front of us. We stopped and watched the next car find the shallowest place. “Can we make it?” I asked Dan and when he responded with an earnest “I think the van is high enough” instead of a smart-alecky ‘we’re fiiiiine’. We waited for the green light and and I held my breath when we crossed in low gear.
Ella looked anxious when she asked for snacks, it was dinner time. Dan answered her with “Honey we’re going to Jeff and Tracy’s to play with baby Ethan before we go home, do you want to play with baby Ethan?” Ella said “No, I just wanna go home” me too I thought. Every intersection was flooded to the wheel wells and there were sirens everywhere. We watched people consumed with panic cut in front of emergency vehicles. We watched teenagers try to scream through puddles with their suped up matchbox cars, spoilers on their trunks doing nothing to keep their engines running. We witnessed a river of water gushing out of a drainage ditch emptying onto an intersection and a fire truck parked sideways to block off traffic.
My phone rang with Jeff on the other end asking if we were ok and if we were going to make it. I told him we were mere blocks away and we’d see him shortly. He was waiting at the door for us when we pulled into his driveway. The storm was finishing up as we chatted about our ordeal and calmed our nerves for the ride home. Ella munched gold fish and played with Ethan. The news informed us two funnel clouds had formed; the first over the book store we left and the second over the airport we would’ve passed on the way home.
Now that I am safe, my lament? - I didn’t bring my camera with me today.