The Visitor from the Storm: A Ghost Story for Hallowe'en
NOTE: Each October I write a ghost story or weird tale for Hallowe'en and post it here. The following piece is 2022's "Ghost Story for Hallowe'en":
Thinking back on his childhood obsession with tornadoes, the narrator recalls how he bonded with his first best friend – a charismatic new kid – over their interest in twisters and how he ignored the many warning signs that he was falling prey to a master manipulator and liar. With their rocky friendship hanging by a thread, the narrator suggests that they do some field research by talking with the survivor of their small, Indiana town’s most famous disaster: the 1965 Palm Sunday Outbreak. They agree to talk with Mr. Gerig, a misanthropic janitor whose twin brother was killed in the storm, but when they visit him at his house to hear his version of that hellish April night, they unwittingly step into a threatening drama of hate, revenge, terror, and the sublime – all of which seems to have sinister implications for the boys’ future.
T H E V I S I T O R F R O M T H E S T O R M
“The deepest mystery of the tornado is its actual physical presence. This is something that even now no video image can capture. A tornado funnel has an unforgettable quality of the surreal, or the hyper-real: its unimaginable size (tens of thousands of feet high), its apparent solidity, and its terrifyingly rapid movement all make it appear like a religious vision. A tornado seems to be not a cloud but some sort of inconceivable created structure – one that reaches up from the ground to the heavens as though extending from this world to the next. You can’t help but see it as essentially supernatural…”
— Lee Sandlin, Storm Kings
“The mystique of the tornado rests with its transfiguring power. The root of the word itself, a corruption of the Latin tornare (to turn) not only describes the swirling motion of the storm, but indicates its ability to provoke change. The air turns, the terrain is altered; lives are thrown into disarray… ‘Many people actually believe that Judgment Day has come, and offer fervent prayers and loud appeals for preservation … but the hand of mercy stays not the dreadful carnage.’”
— Mark Levine, F5
“For they have sown with the wind, and they shall reap a whirlwind…”
— Hosea 8:7
THE VISITOR FROM THE STORM
A Childhood Fascination
I’m not sure if this is ghost story. It is, however, a true story – true enough to rattle my trust in my first real friend, Tyler Allan. The awful way in which our friendship finally ended is another story for another time, but this will explain how we came to be friends to begin with and what it was that I saw at our third grade Halloween party that taught me to be cautious with my heart. It happened well before I was old enough to understand adult problems like jealousy, manipulation, and the especially venomous sort of hate that boils up from spoiled friendship, and thinking back on all of these things in my thirties has left me grateful for the suffering that I surely avoided, but heartbroken for those two boys who were never able to reconcile.
But my story begins well before I met him, and requires some little introduction to one of my lifelong fascinations and fears, for, as you will have gathered by now, it is also a story about a tornado.
When I was in second grade, I was entranced by all things related to violent storms. I think most boys, especially here in the Midwest, go through a phase like this sooner or later, but mine went deep and – as you’ll see – dragged me a lot further than perhaps it should have. It was 1995, and the movie Twister wouldn’t come out until the following summer, but I had been fixated on tornadoes since I first saw The Wizard of Oz when I was four years old. There was something sublime about that sweeping, unstoppable funnel cloud gliding in the background as it slowly but relentlessly made its way towards the Gale homestead. It shocked me, seeing the adult actors so panicked, and although I didn’t know exactly what they were facing, by its scope and appearance, it was immediately recognizable as some ancient, elemental enemy of mankind – the closest thing I could imagine to a deity or a devil, who visited the mortal world with mysterious motives and irrational violence.
My family had a brush with tornadoes a year later when I was five and we were living in a quiet town north of Dayton on the banks of Grand Lake. Sunday, July 12, 1992 started as a quiet, steamy day, but I can still remember how quickly it grew dark from the fat thunderclouds, how the tornado warning blared at us from the radio, and how my parents hurried us into the basement with the wind slapping leaves and shingles against our rental. When it was over, we learned that two tornadoes had touched down – two F1s on either side of the lake within five minutes of each other. The next day we drove past the damage and a saw its awful fingerprints. It staggered my imagination to think that I had been so close to one of Them: these blind, erratic gods that terrified grownups and treated brick and steel like dry brambles to be kicked aside without a thought. And to think that all this destruction and chaos was caused by a pair of comparatively weak F1 tornadoes (this was before the Enhanced Fujita, or “EF” scale was introduced) whose 80-mph wind speeds were a third or even a fourth of those which a true monster could generate.
My interests as a kid were all over the place but tended to cycle back again in seasons – and I guess they still do. Sometimes I was deep into the Titanic or the Revolutionary War, sometimes Robin Hood or 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, or dinosaurs or the solar system or whales, but sooner or later, once I had wrung what I wanted out of a topic and had moved on to a new passion (and another, and another after that) I would come back again to revisit one of my perennial fascinations. Tornadoes, however, tended to cycle through more often than others: every spring and summer, as the blue-black storm fronts boiled in from the southwest, the old people went to talking about their legendary memories of twisters. Oftentimes these were second or third-hand accounts of what an aunt or neighbor or neighbor’s aunt saw or felt or heard, but they told them in the same hushed tones as a ghost story: everyone’s breathing grew shallower, their jaws and foreheads went tight, and their eyes stayed fixed on the speaker so as not to miss the slightest word of these terrible liturgies.
One month after the Grand Lake twins, my family moved to Berne, Indiana, where I had all twelve years of schooling and where my folks still live. As such, I consider it my hometown. Berne and its outskirts had been struck by tornadoes at least four times since it was settled by Swiss immigrants in 1852. The two most devastating events each took place during a nation-wide outbreak – both times on a Palm Sunday. Both were deadly, both passed through multiple counties and across the Ohio state line, and both reached at least F4 intensity. The first Palm Sunday tornado – a possible F5 – happened in 1920. The second took place in 1965.
Of course, the 1965 twister had much more currency in the public imagination: hundreds of locals still remembered it, and it was part of one of the most famous tornado sequences in world history, best remembered for a terrifying, black and white photograph taken of twin F4 tornadoes churning angrily towards the photographer in nearby Midway, Indiana. It remains one of the most famous shots of any tornado to this day.
A different F4 smoldered through Berne, that day, and although it was never photographed, the descriptions of it were enough to prove that it had been just as impressive. Backlit by the setting sun, while the skies behind it glowed a pale, fluorescent green, it was described as an oily, black tower accompanied by multiple, smaller, satellite twisters that orbited it in gleeful laps. Dozens upon dozens of locals – both in print media and on online forums – reported leaving their houses to stand outside to “watch it pass by,” but not one of them thought to photograph it: they were too engrossed; it was that stunning of a sight.
I always wished that I could have seen what it looked like, even if only in the blurry smudges of a faded polaroid, or a drawing, or a dream.
The damage was well-documented and can easily be found online. Just before it crashed through Berne’s northern outskirts – taking out the bowling alley, grocery store, lumber yard, and half a dozen other businesses which it ground to flecks – it scored a direct hit on our smaller sister town, Linn Grove, a once-idyllic village on the banks of the Wabash River five miles west-southwest of Berne. Linn Grove sent their children to their own high school, and they worshipped in their own churches. But the tornado tore up the shady trees that gave it its name, pulverized most of its houses, gutted its high school, and hurled Elroy Stauffer’s mobile home into the town’s only church – killing him inside it and totaling the brick building. Those who stayed had no choice but to send their children to the Berne schools, and to worship with Berne congregations. Some rebuilt. Many left.
After that miserable April, the cozy village dried up into a fading hamlet populated by suspicious hermits, lonely invalids, and conspiracy theorists. It still boasted some fine old houses, but the village never rebuilt up to its previous standard, nor did the businesses (only a hardware store and dumpster rental remain today) and the streets grew rough and pockmarked. The houses are mostly weathered-looking ranches – distinctly 1970s in vintage – with faded siding and silent, weed-choked yards. Every time I’ve ever been there the sky has been overcast and glum; when you exit your car there is always a fishy smell of river mud and a musk of motor oil. The photos from before April 11, 1965 show something entirely different: a sleepy community protectively shaded by gigantic elms and dappled in golden sunlight – dreamlike, stable, lovely.
When the ’65 twister gutted Linn Grove, very few people saw it coming. One of those who realized what was happening tried to outrun it in his truck: Martin Graber made the mistake of driving north while the twister bore down (as they usually do) southwest-to-northeast at 70 miles per hour, cutting off his escape. His truck was overtaken, and he didn’t survive to tell what it was like to see the sooty funnel burst through the woods directly in front of him, before he was struck head on and pulled into its black bosom. His truck was hurled end over end and he was wrenched to pieces.
There was one man, however, who was widely known to have actually seen it from up close just after it ate up the town and flew off towards Berne. Mr. Gerig was one of the three janitors at our elementary, and he had been a young man of thirty when the twister destroyed his family’s farm on the banks of the Wabash that night. His widowed mother was in Berne at a Palm Sunday vesper service while he was working on the family tractor. His twin brother – Jakob, a local football hero who had been paralyzed in a car accident two years prior – was in the house when it was struck, and although Mr. Gerig ran towards the building in an effort to wheel his brother to their storm cellar, he was too late: he saw the smoking vortex slurp the 60 year old roof off its rafters, then slap and toss the walls inside out, before spitting them out in a spray of splinters and pulp. Somewhere in that mash was his mangled brother, and before Mr. Gerig had a chance to understand what he had witnessed, he was knocked out cold by a broken shovel blade.
The last thing he saw before the blow was the impossibly vast wall of destruction grinding its way over his house and on towards him. By the deep scouring it left on the grass – the swirling, balding marks and groves torn into the ground by the suction – it was clear that he had missed being pulled into its clutches by just a few dozen feet. I always wondered what he would have seen had he opened his eyes as it passed by. Or, like in some Old Testament story, would he have been struck down for gazing into the open face of a divine power?
After hearing so many stories like this, I started having recurring nightmares of a greasy, green-black funnel cloud smoking its way towards a farmhouse. Everything feels deserted, my family is missing, and I don’t know if there is a basement to provide safety. The home is strange and rustic. I keep glancing through a nearby window to check its progress, and each time it grows nearer and fatter. The ambient light in the house grows increasingly dim and green as the crashing rush outside mounts in power. I don’t know where to go or what to do. I look out the window one final time, but now I see nothing: it is as though the glass had been painted over black – and yet I can sense that this blackness is alive with incomprehensible speed and motion.
Now I am moving forward – quickly and awkwardly, it feels too fast – towards the front door and then out onto a porch. What follows is a blur. I am falling, have fallen. My face sears with pain – come on now, oh please, oh someone, help me, please, oh what’re you doing? – as I look up at the gyrating sky, which is puckering towards some point behind the house – a point that is surging forward. I realize that I am seeing the crotch where the funnel cloud flows into Heaven. There is its miserable head, peering over the top of the house at me. It has seen me and moves faster.
Suddenly, there is a horrible metal banging – klamm-klamm-klamm! – rattling in my ears. What’s causing it? It doesn’t last long: everything around me is shredded, and swallowed into a black swarm of dirt and splinters and glass, and I am sucked high above into a churning, grinding vortex…
A New Best Friend
With these strange histories percolating in my head, I decided to mount a pro bono tornado watching service for the area. I was only eight at the time, however, so I could only offer this during recess or when I got home from school. I committed myself to climbing to the highest part of the playground – the platform of the “big slide” – and scanning the low-hanging clouds on overcast days. You know by now that I’m an odd guy, but even this was a little out there. Still, I enjoyed it, as strange as it sounds, standing up there by myself while other kids scrambled past me to get to the slide. It felt good to be watchful and to have the secret knowledge that the Thing might be rousing from its sleep overhead, and that I was on alert.
Of course, like any weird kid who does things like this, I filled my lonely time up there with fantasies of shouting out to the recess teacher, pointing towards a fat, low-hanging pustule on the sky’s belly as it began to gyrate tellingly. Naturally, she would let me lead the way inside and demonstrate to my classmates how to duck and cover in the hallway. When the dust settled and we all safely exited from the wreckage, I would have my picture in the paper and my parents would brag about me to their friends.
Like I said, I was a weird kid. None of that ever happened, of course. Even in the moment I was keenly aware that it was all just an indulgent daydream that would evaporate into space when the bell rang. It wasn’t the only thing that disappeared for me from those days. The school and playground were razed ten years ago, and nothing was ever built on the lot. When I visit my parents, I have noticed that I go out of my way to avoid ever going in that direction. For some reason, I don’t like to see the vacant lot where the school used to be…
It was at this time in my life that Tyler Allan moved to Indiana from Arizona. He was slight and pale, with a shock of bright, blond hair, and a blaze of freckles across his face. He was a prodigious piano player, even then, and was extremely well-read and intelligent. Like me he was eccentric, but also confident and extraverted, which made his strangeness more charming, if more obvious. He was assigned to my second-grade class and we became friends almost immediately: he was the only other boy I knew of who was interested in history, books, and science. To give just one example, the other boys my age all watched shows like COPS, Power Rangers, or Beevis and Butthead – things I had no interest in. But Tyler and I watched the same nerdy PBS shows – Wishbone, Carmen San Diego, and The Magic School Bus. He seemed to instantly understand what it would take to win and maintain my friendship. As I would come to realize, Tyler was very talented at smelling these things out.
He was my first long-term friend, and even though it was not to last – though I’ll tell you about that another time – it was intoxicating to have another person my age who knew who Sherlock Holmes was, understood the difference between Mercury and Mars, and wanted to play Robin Hood instead of MondayNight Raw. His friendship was magnetic to me, and yet my parents were quickly skeptical of how good of a friend he might be: he invented wild stories about himself that I swallowed without hesitation: that his family had moved from Phoenix to escape the Crips and Bloods, that his new house had trapdoors in it, that he had found a bonafide Civil War fort in the woods behind it, that his uncle was a private detective, that he knew several movie stars, that his parents had found pirates’ flintlocks in his basement, and that his mom had the three ingredients to make the gunpowder needed to fire them in their pantry (of course: what 90s housewife didn’t have saltpeter in their cupboard behind the Tang?). Naturally, these marvels were never available for me to see, although he promised many times to try to convince his parents, nothing came of it, and there were always excuses.
Later, in middle school he would lie about being on Jeopardy! with his mom, having memorized the entire dictionary, and being a sworn-in member of the “Junior FBI,” at which point he hung a sign for a detective agency in his bedroom window and claimed to be working of the mayor of Berne on a secret case. I hate to admit that I was twelve years old when my own gnawing suspicions and my parents’ gentle ridicule finally sank in, and I realized that I had been had.
All of this is true. Remember that: I am not making any of these details up or goosing them for entertainment’s sake. He literally told me that he was a real-life Encyclopedia Brown, trained by the FBI, and solving cases for the mayor like a Hardy Boy. If I wanted to make up a story about a person like this, I would want to leave that part out for realism; but Tyler was a very real person with very real charisma. However, this is a story about an earlier time in our short, strange friendship.
In reality – thinking back on him as an adult – Tyler was surely nervous in this new home, so far from his old friends, and was only too eager to make a quick friendship with another kid who was just enough of an outsider as to be vulnerable to his influence, but not enough of a pariah that I would be a danger to his social career: true, I was odd, but I was well-liked and although I had no solid friendships or social circles, everyone was friendly to me and I had no enemies. I was an easy mark for a charismatic newcomer looking for a disciple.
As that first year turned from autumn into winter and from winter into spring, Tyler and I compared notes on the natural dangers of our respective hometowns. He bragged about surviving the massive black widow spiders and bark scorpions that he claimed overran Phoenix – not to mention the threats of sandstorms, blazing heat, Crips, Bloods, and earthquakes. I had virtually nothing to offer against this: in terms of deadly critters, northeast Indiana harbored timber rattlers, cottonmouth water moccasins, and brown recluse spiders, but I had never seen any. In terms of weather, we had intense winters, but to young boys those were exciting opportunities for snow days and snow forts. We certainly didn’t have gangs or earthquakes.
We did have tornadoes, though, and I was surprised to realize that Tyler was actually impressed by them. What’s more, he genuinely seemed to be afraid of them. Twister hadn’t quite come out at this point in my story – this was the spring of ’96 – but the Y.A. disaster novel Night of the Twisters was very popular then, and violent tornadoes had recently worked their way into the news: two years earlier an F4 had ground its way through West Lafayette, and that same April no fewer than twenty-one whirlwinds had scoured across Indiana during a national outbreak.