My Ohio: Storm Warnings

Thunder and lightning remind us why bravery matters in the face of that which we cannot control.

The sky was a black tsunami overhead as I drove the steep and winding hills of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park that April evening.

Suddenly, the heavens let loose a flood, and the night exploded in front of my car as lightning hit a utility pole and sent it crashing down in front of me. Another crack and a huge tree fell across the road behind my car. In an era before cell phones, I was alone in the woods.

I don’t know how long I was stranded in the car, but after awhile I began to make out movement coming up the hill in front of me. I saw small yellow lights bobbing up and down, growing larger as they approached in the night. Three men and a teenage boy carrying chainsaws, lanterns and flashlights were fighting the torrential rain and wind.

I admit to momentarily panicking. There was no way I was going to get out of my car. I had seen “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.”

But the men — rain dripping from their hair, broad-brimmed hats and faces — never said a word. They went to work, sawing the pole into pieces while avoiding the downed power lines. When they had pushed enough pieces to the side of the road so my car could get through, they walked back into the black abyss of the Cuyahoga Valley.

I still think about what happened that night and the timing of the men’s arrival. I can’t help but wonder at times whether it was guardian angel help from above.

That evening taught me that April storms in our state can be violent. To this day, many Ohioans associate tornadoes with Xenia in Greene County. The April 3, 1974, tornado killed 36 people, injured more than 1,300 and destroyed hundreds of homes, schools, churches and businesses.

I was living in Bedford at the time, roughly 200 miles northeast of the storm’s path. Almost three weeks after the tornado, I noticed some litter in my front yard. Among the faded food wrappers and newspapers was a canceled check belonging to someone with a Xenia address. It was in perfect condition.

I couldn’t help but wonder if it had been blown on the wind all that way. I called the operator, who gave me a phone number that matched the name and address on the check. But when I called, a recording said it was a nonworking number. I mailed the check, but never heard a word in reply. I still don’t want to think about the possibilities.

Xenia was bad. But so were the April 11, 1965, Palm Sunday tornadoes that touched down in Ohio, Michigan and Indiana, killing 55 people in our state. Trains derailed and every building in Lorain County’s Pittsfield Township was flattened.

I try to remind myself that violent storms are Mother Nature’s way of keeping us humble. Just when we think we can control everything in our lives, thunder happens. And there are reasons for trying to be brave. More than once, years ago, I had to appear calm for the two young sons who ran to my bed in the middle of the night when a storm rumbled around us.

Now when gentle April showers turn into more destructive thunderstorms, I look out my living room window and silently tell my large maple, cottonwood, tulip and oak trees to bend and sway with the wind. Be strong, I whisper, and may your roots hold firm. But let the wind have its way a little. A few branches down and sacrificed are better than running the risk of losing everything by resisting too much.

It is, I suppose, good advice for all of us.   

Jill Sell is an Ohio Magazine contributing editor who lives in Sagamore Hills.