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WHAT A TORNADO IS REALLY LIKE...

Have you ever experienced a tornado first hand? Let me tell you a story that defined my career path. As many of you know, I grew-up on a farm in Wayne County, North Carolina. I was never particularly afraid of severe weather in my early childhood. Like many children, thunder would occasionally startle me out of a sound sleep at night, but for the most part I was "OK" with thunderstorms. Then came the night of March 28, 1984.

It was a Wednesday evening. I know this because my favorite TV show at the time was the "The Fall Guy" (yes, the "stunt man" show with Lee Majors). The show aired on Wednesday nights from 8-9 PM. On the evening of March 28, 1984, I was watching this program. At about 8:45 PM, mom walked into the room and abruptly ordered everyone to bed. I thought this was a little strange. After a few seconds of respectful pleading on my part (supported by my dad), mom relented and I stayed awake to see all of my TV show. I wish now that I had gone to bed.

You see, mom had been following the weather that evening. A line of severe storms had developed in South Carolina and was heading our way. The storms were getting stronger, and mom was concerned that I might get scared if I stayed awake. At 9 o'clock, the closing credits rolled on my program so I arose to turn off the TV. As I passed by the window, I saw a few flashes of lightning. I had seen lightning many times before, but something was different this time. It was nearly constant, almost like a strobe light. And each time it flashed, I could see the trees swaying in the distance.

Dad stepped into our sunroom (really just a converted garage with plate glass windows) and called for us. I came running to his side, and he picked me up and we just stood there in amazement at the lightning. The winds continued to increase. The yard was illuminated in a pale green glow every time the lightning flashed. Mom, perhaps exercising a bit more common sense that we were, told us to come back into the den (away from the windows). As we crossed the threshold, I saw something I'll never forget. The trees in the yard were no longer swaying. They were shaking violently, as if a big hand were strangling the very life out of them. For the first time in my life, I was deeply afraid of the weather.

The next few minutes seemed like three hours. The house creaked, the winds howled, and the lights went out. The roar of the winds became so loud that we thought the house would explode. Air rushed down our chimney and blew through the living room. Suddenly, the phone rang in the darkness. It was my uncle (who lived next door). I'll never forget his words... "What in the world is going on?" If only we knew.

Scared that the house would collapse, we all huddled in the hallway. Abruptly, the winds abated, and all was quiet. It took us a few minutes to stir, but eventually we emerged from our hiding place. The house was still standing, but everything was dark. There wasn't a sound to be heard. It was frightening. A few minutes later, we heard the first of many firetrucks and ambulances pass by our house. Dad turned on his old battery powered radio. It seemed that people had been hurt, maybe even killed. We stepped outside the house and loaded into our old Ford Bronco. We didn't even make it a mile down the road before we encountered down trees. Police were setting up road blocks and refusing to let anyone pass. Just a few hundred feet beyond, friends of our family were laying beside their destroyed house. I was so scared, dad took us home.

We all slept in the same room that night, listening to the reports of damage and death on the radio. It wasn't until the following morning that we really knew the true extent of the damage. A total of 22 tornadoes had traveled through North Carolina. One of the strongest passed through my hometown, passing just a few thousand feet from our house. Storm winds were estimated to be over 207 mph. 57 people had been killed, with over 1500 injured.

For me, a memory was created- and a career was chosen. I never want to experience anything like it again.

(Send comments to Jerry at jjackson@wwaytv3.com)

By: Jerry Jackson