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From the time I was a toddler, we went camping.

But camping with my dad was some experience. It was like an army on maneuvers, and ordered accordingly. He wasn’t happy unless we drove over 500 miles on a given day. Then come nightfall, we set up bivouac. Literally. We all had our jobs and hopped to or else.

When we upgraded from a floorless tent to a popup camper, it seemed luxurious. It had sleeping room for 4 (there were 6 of us, a minor shortage) and my dad modified it to make camp setup more efficient.

One year we took a trip from New York to Montana. By then we were a well-trained troop. We could break and set up camp in 30 minutes. We barely pulled into a site before everyone jumped to on their assigned task. My mother had the coffee going before my dad stopped issuing orders.

Night after night, everything was flawless and seamless. Until we hit Nebraska. Or it hit us.

The coffee was staying warm on the large propane stove my dad had built. (Try feeding 6 on a Coleman. Doesn’t work.) Mom was busy cooking something, moving between the pantry box that held non-perishables and cooking utensils and the ice chest. All around us were other campers, some in tents and some in pickup campers. The area was beautiful, on a lake, grassy, shaded by clusters of magnificent trees.

Then the wind picked up a bit. Dad looked out over the lake, and just over the rise of a small hill, he saw dark sky. “Look at that beautiful squall line!”

He spent forty-five minutes admiring that squall line while it moved closer. The rest of us ate and hurried to wash dishes, and I kept popping into the car to listen to the weather report.

He (again): “Look at that beautiful squall line!”

Me: “Dad, there are three tornadoes less than 20 miles southwest of us.”

Another comment on the beauty of the squall line. While the general admired the view, the troops moved everything that could fly into the car.

Me: “Dad the weather says those tornadoes are headed this way.”

General Squall Line (yet again): “Look at that beautiful–”

The first splatters of rain hit and we got into the camper.

Then all hell broke loose. We went from moderately windy to being picked up and dropped. The canvas tore. A pole broke and shot through the air, missing my brother’s chest by inches. My mother was praying Our Fathers, hunkered on the floor of the camper with the two shrieking youngest kids. I remember saying to her, “Don’t you think the Act of Contrition would be more appropriate right now?”

General Squall Line shouted: “Let’s fold up the camper over your mom and the two little ones.”

So my brother and I climbed out of the wreckage into powerful winds and helped him close the ends of the camper. It was hard to stand, my hip hurt, and I remember thinking, “You’re not supposed to notice pain when you’re about to die.”

Somehow we closed up the camper frame. There wasn’t much tent left to worry about.

And then it was over. Just like that.

Pickup campers had been tossed and rolled. Trees were broken or gone. We raced around to help neighboring campers, but the worst injuries were a few contusions and small cuts. We all gathered, making coffee and hot chocolate. We had become a band of survivors.

We got the tent fixed the next day in Omaha and the troop movement continued. In three weeks we were sideswiped three times by tornadoes. One night we spent in the car while we were lifted and dropped like a ball. The next one left us all rather dull-eyed and flattened. Except for my younger sister. To this day she can’t stand a storm.

And me, I have to admit, when General Squall Line announced we were taking another vacation, I tried to figure out a way to resign my commission as his lieutenant. But the marching orders came anyway, and off we went.

But for years afterward, whenever my mother thought my dad was being oblivious, she could silence him with a single phrase: Look at that beautiful squall line.


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