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Storm Stories- Barter's Island

I remember getting the phone call from my brother late one night. My brother never calls me, so I knew it had to be something serious.

"A tornado hit mom and dad's house," he said with his monotone mutter.

Before I had time to even register what that meant, he reassured me that everyone was "ok" and that the house was still intact.

All was quiet on the other end.

Perhaps it's because I have a long storied history with tornadoes.

Now it's uncommon for tornadoes to be sighted in Maine. Each year though the National Weather Service in Gray, Maine reports of funnel cloud sightings, usually in the western interior of the state, where the coffee flows like brandy. (Or vice-versa.)

To catch a glimpse of a funnel cloud in Maine is rare. What scant footage exists on youtube always looks like it's being recorded on a Nokia track phone from 1998.

Still, hearing my brother say "tornado" sent shivers down me timbers, and it's not because of the 1996 summer blockbuster "Twister" starring Bill Paxton.

Simply put: I'm obsessed by the image of a ragged, howling cyclone chasing me down and ripping me from my shelter.

I'm not saying I'm one of those intrepid storm chasers who feels the need to drive an armored PT Cruiser into the depths of a Kansas cornfield blasting "Riders On The Storm." I've never been to Tornado Alley.

No, what haunts me most and still chases me in my slumber, all started from a casual drive home with my dad one humid night when I was no more than a boy with a bowlcut and wire-rimmed glasses.

It was early evening and all was calm. The weather was fair....Then, well, you know the feeling--the air temperature drops and a humming frequency fills the air. It's all too palpable.

We had just crossed the Hodgdon Island bridge on our way home, when my father and I spotted a thick, inky cloud swirling over Barter's Island. Its mass enshrouded most of the island like a lightning filled mushroom cap.

The trees swayed and debris flew from the island's core. My dad pulled over the car right before the Barter's Island swing bridge. We watched as the dreaded black veil crept like an amoeba eastward. It swallowed a lone horse chestnut tree on Jamie Mansfield's farm. (Hell, the hullabaloo might have even startled Alan Lewis.)

Then, just like that, it was over. The clouds dissipated, and it was beautiful again.

That was the only time I think I had ever seen my father scared.

It doesn't take Sigmund Freud or a thousand google searches to realize that a vision like that would plague my dreams for years and leave me wanting to witness the real spectacle.

And then, my phone lit up with a picture message from Michael, jarring me from my stupor. (Michael likes to communicate in megapixels.) Pictured were my mom and dad, clad in rain gear, looking tired and bewildered by the violent outbreak.

It was a "microburst."

That's what my dad called it anyway when a gust of fury came out of the west over the mighty Sheepscot and snapped seven pines--three feet thick like toothpicks. They split simultaneously in several directions.

Although it wasn't a tornado, and I never actually witnessed it, I did record the aftermath the very next day.

As a former newspaper reporter, I got used to covering traumatic stories from time to time and had taught myself how to to cover it with a sort of detached perspective. That's not to say I don't feel for the victims, I do. But when it's my own parents I'm interviewing, it presents a rather peculiar situation. How do I not feel a little sad to see these giant pines swept away and the landscape I grew up with forever altered?

It's four months later, and we're now just cleaning up the last remnants of destruction. And although it sounds cliche, I am very fortunate that nobody was hurt.

I still get chased by tornadoes in my dreams. It happens when my life takes a turbulent turn, as it does from time to time.

But I no longer go searching for it.

I'm perfectly content watching the rerun on Spike TV.

Keep up the chase, Bill Paxton. Keep up the chase.


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