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The Sacred Acre
The Ed Thomas Story
By Mark Tabb
Copyright © 2011 Parkersburg Productions, LLC All right reserved.
When the wind starts blowing, don't tell me about the hurricane; just bring the ship home, fellas. ED THOMAS
A low rumble of thunder rattled the glass in the windows of Ed Thomas's classroom. He glanced outside and noticed the sky had grown much darker since he arrived at the school a few minutes earlier. "Looks like the farmers at church this morning were on the money," he said to himself. "They said we were going to get a storm today and, by golly, they're right." He turned back to his desk and pulled a key out of the top drawer. One of his upcoming senior football players had asked for a key to the weight room so he could work out the next day. Any other Monday morning, Ed would have opened the weight room himself, usually by 6:00 a.m. since tomorrow was memorial day, he had other plans. Of course, Ed was more than happy to give a key to any player who wanted to push himself. The very thought of it put a smile on his lips. That was the kind of dedication and leadership he wanted from his seniors.
The loud blast of the tornado siren broke Ed's train of thought. He had never heard it so loud in his second home, Aplington-Parkersburg high school on the south side of Parkersburg, Iowa. For years, the only tornado siren in town sat on the north side. The wind had to be just right for people on the south side to hear it. All that had changed two days earlier, when city workers installed a brand-new siren near the high school. They installed it on Friday, tested it on Saturday, and now set it off for the first time at 4:46 p.m., Sunday, May 25, 2008.
Ed grabbed a handful of copies of "2007 Aplington-Parkersburg Football" DVDs, which he gave as gifts to all graduating seniors, and then walked calmly out of his room and down the hall. The siren didn't add any sense of urgency. Half an hour earlier, while leaving a graduation party at a local restaurant in the nearby town of Aplington, he had talked to a couple of firemen who were on their way out the door as weather spotters. Both seemed more concerned about Ed's opinion about his team's prospects for the next football season than they were about the storm clouds growing in the west.
Scattered raindrops hit Ed as he walked outside. It wasn't much, but from the looks of the western sky, he knew the heavy stuff wasn't far behind. "I better go get my golf cart before this thing hits," he said. He'd spent the first part of the afternoon playing golf with his youngest son, Todd, and Todd's soon to be father-in-law, Mike Brannon. Ed had to take off after nine holes to attend the numerous high school graduation parties going on that afternoon and evening. Rather than use one of the rental carts from the golf course, Ed had his own. It was his most treasured possession. A few years earlier, the community and his players, past and present, presented it to him when he won his two hundredth game as a coach. He even had a special trailer for it, which he pulled behind his pickup truck. Before he left the afternoon golf game, Ed told Todd to leave the cart at the course, and he would pick it up later. This was later enough.
Ed climbed in his car and drove the three blocks from the school to his house on the far south side of Parkersburg. As he walked in the front door, he called out to his wife. "Hey, Jan, where are you?"
"I'm in the basement where more people should be. You need to get down here, NOW!" she said. Ed and Jan put in the basement during the first of the three home additions they had made over the course of ten years. When they bought the house a year after they married, it was quite small, just over eight hundred square feet. As their budget and family grew in size, they added on to it—first another bedroom, then a new kitchen, and finally a new living room and bathroom. They added the basement with the bedroom. Since Iowa is known for tornadoes, it seemed like the thing to do. However, Ed never expected to have to use it. Legend had it that a tornado could not strike Parkersburg because it sat at the fork of a river. Up until Memorial Day weekend, 2008, the legend seemed pretty accurate.
"I need to go get my golf cart first. I'll be right back."
"Forget the golf cart," Jan said. "Channel 7 said this storm is really bad. I heard the fire trucks go by on their way out of town right after the storm sirens went off. That can't be good, not if they're moving fire trucks out of harm's way."
"Oh, it can't be that bad. The television always blows these things way out of proportion. I don't want to leave my golf cart out in the rain. I'll be right back."
"No! There isn't any time."
"I looked around when I came home. I didn't see anything."
"You couldn't see anything because of all the trees. Grab your pillow and get down here fast." A trained emergency medical technician (EMT) and volunteer first responder with the local ambulance ser vice, Jan knew that most injuries in storms come from flying debris. That's why she knew to take her pillow with her to the basement when the storm sirens went off.
"All right, you win," Ed said. Thirty-two years of marriage had taught him that some arguments are best lost. He went into their bedroom, grabbed his pillow off his bed, and walked down into the basement, closing the door behind him.
Ed found Jan under the basement stairs, but he didn't join her there. He stood in the middle of the basement floor, his arms crossed, with a look on his face that said, "I'm here. Are you happy now?" no sooner had he crossed his arms than they heard a loud rush of wind, like the dry cycle of the car wash on steroids.
"Do you hear that!?" Jan said.
"Yeah," Ed said. He dropped his arms, grabbed his pillow, and jumped under the basement steps with Jan. Both of them barely fit in the space under the stairs. The two curled up into a near-fetal position next to one another, their faces less than an inch apart, their arms holding their pillows tightly against their heads. Above their heads, a freight train plowed into their house. Boards snapped. Glass shattered. A deafening cracking sound started at one end of the house and raced toward the other.
Ed and Jan looked at each other, their eyes wide with fear. They both started praying out loud, their voices drowned out by the wind that grew louder and louder. Dirt dropped down on top of the two of them. Jan peeked out once and saw nothing but absolute black. "Oh, God, please don't let the house collapse on top of us!" she cried out.
"AMEN!" Ed said.
And then, as quickly as it started, the wind stopped. Everything grew still and silent. "I'm going out there," Ed said.
"No, wait just a minute. There could still be more," Jan said.
"I really think it is over. I want to go up and have a look around, make sure everything is OK."
Ed was the optimist of the family, Jan the realist. She looked him in the eye and said, "You know when you open that door that our house is gone, don't you?"
"You think?" Ed said in a doubtful tone.
"Absolutely. It's gone."
Two houses down the block, Todd Thomas and Candice, his fiancée, were at the home of Mike and Nancy Brannon, Candice's parents. Candice and Nancy spent most of the afternoon working on the wedding invitations, along with Jan. Jan left when the television weatherman warned of an approaching storm. Todd and mike played golf with Ed. They played only three additional holes after Ed left to head for the graduation parties. A clubhouse attendant came out to the thirteenth tee box and said, "A big storm is heading our way. You need to clear the course." Todd didn't want to leave. He was up by several strokes and hated to waste a good game of golf. But playing in the rain wasn't exactly his idea of a good time, so they did as they were told. The tornado siren went off not long after Todd and mike made it back to Mike's house. As soon as the siren started blaring, Candice and Nancy darted for the basement. Todd and mike headed toward the front door.
"Where are you going?" Candice asked.
"To take a look," Todd said.
"A look? at what?" Candice said.
"You know, the storm, to see if anything is headed our way," Todd said in a matter-of-fact "duh, what else do you do when tornado sirens go off?" tone. "We won't be out there a minute. I promise."
Candice rolled her eyes and ran downstairs. Todd and mike walked out into the front yard. The wind and rain that chased them off the golf course earlier had stopped, replaced by a dead calm. silence hung in the air. Nothing made a sound. No dogs barked in the distance; no bird sang, and not even an insect buzzed. Parkersburg felt and sounded abandoned.
"Wow, that's weird," Todd said.
"Yeah, I've never felt anything quite like this before," mike replied.
"Get ready. I've got a feeling something is about to happen," Todd said.
The two of them looked out toward the west. Storms in Iowa always travel west to east. A huge black cloud covered the western sky, and it appeared to be moving closer. A strong breeze suddenly hit Todd in the face. The cloud climbed over the hill on the far side of town, moving closer to the lumberyard a quarter mile from Mike's home. Suddenly, the lumberyard exploded as the cloud fell on top of it. Sheet metal and two-by-fours and poles flew through the air.
"Crap, let's get outta here!" Todd shouted. They ran into the house, flew down the stairs of the basement, and dove under the pool table, where Candice and Nancy were huddled. Only then did they hear the proverbial freight train sound. Todd couldn't quite fit his six-foot-five frame under the pool table. His legs stuck out exposed.
Glass crashed overhead, followed by a loud tumbling, rolling sound. "I think that was the couch," Mike said.
Nancy turned on a flashlight and prayed. "It's going to be all right," Todd said to Candice as he held her hand. He felt debris dropping onto his legs. "Please God, don't let anything heavy come down on top of me!" he prayed aloud.
Boards cracked and snapped. The smell of fresh lumber filled the basement. "And there goes the roof," Mike said. Nancy prayed harder.
The moment the noise stopped, Todd jumped up and headed toward the stairs. "I've got to check on my mom and dad," he said.
"Todd, expect the worst," Mike said.
Todd nodded and ran upstairs. Most of the roof and walls of the house were gone. "What the ...?" he said when he looked at the dining room table. It had not moved, and neither had the stack of wedding invitations on top of it. He glanced over to where he had parked his 2006 Nissan Maxima. A tree had sliced the car in half.
Todd ran out into the Brannon's front yard. He could not believe his eyes. Every house, every business, for as far as he could see, had been reduced to piles of rubble. He looked around from side to side. A few minutes earlier, the town sounded abandoned; now it looked completely deserted. "Where is everybody?" he said. "oh, my gosh, didn't anyone else survive?"
He had been told to "expect the worst," but this was worse than his mind could imagine. Almost worse. Where were his parents? Were they OK? his mother had called him right before the storm hit, asking if he knew where his father was. If Todd knew his dad, and he did, then he was probably down at the golf course loading up his golf cart right when the tornado blew through town. "And if dad was there, then ..." Todd pushed those thoughts out of his head. "Mom! dad! are you OK?" he shouted as he ran toward his parents' house.
Todd jumped over a set of downed power lines and ran the short distance from the Brannons' home to his parents' home. "Mom! Dad!" he yelled as he ran into their yard. The storm had thrown a flatbed trailer into the side of Ed and Jan's house where the front door had once been. It held up what little of their roof remained. "How am I going to get in?" Todd said before he realized that all of the walls of the house were gone with the lone exception of one interior wall with the door to the basement. "MOM! DAD!" he shouted.
"We're fine. We're down here," he heard his father yell. Todd flung open the basement door and ran down the stairs. He threw his arms around both of them.
"We're OK," his mother said in a matter-of-fact tone. Ed, the rough-and-tumble football coach, choked back tears. Not Jan. Nothing ever seemed to faze her. "Go check on Marian," she said. Marian DeBoer was their retired, widowed neighbor who lived by herself. Jan had tried to get her to come over and join her in the Thomas basement before the storm. She refused, saying she would be fine in her own basement.
Ed followed Todd up the stairs. He glanced back at Jan, who seemed to lag behind. "Are you coming?" he asked.
"Yes, but of all the dumb things to do," she said.
"I was so intent on getting down here when the sirens went off that I forgot my shoes. I grabbed my pillow and completely forgot my shoes."
"Do you want me to help you find some?"
"No, go and check on the neighbors. I'll be all right."
Ed did as he was told, and as he climbed out of the basement, he found himself out in the open, even while inside what had been his living room a couple of minutes earlier. Upended cars littered the streets around him. shattered boards stood where houses had once been. "It looks like a war zone," he said to Todd. Ed turned toward his bedroom, or at least where his bedroom was supposed to be. The rest of his house, along with the entire neighborhood, was gone. The large maple trees that lined the streets had all been stripped bare and mangled into deformed skeletons.
He turned and walked in the general direction of where the front door used to be. "What on earth?" he said at the sight of the flatbed trailer wedged into his house. Off to one side he saw his pickup truck. It looked like someone had taken a giant can opener to it. The golf cart trailer was nowhere to be seen.
Looking past his truck, he stared off to the north and east, toward his second home, A-P high school. Even from a half mile away, he could see that the top half of the gym was gone. He couldn't tell how badly damaged the rest of the buildings might be, but even from this distance he knew it wasn't good. His head spun as his mind tried to process what his eyes saw. Ed leaned over with his hands on his knees as if he had just been punched in the stomach. In a way, he had.
Jan emerged from the basement and came up behind him. she glanced around quickly. "Wow. I knew it would be bad, but this is worse than I imagined."
"This is just unbelievable," Ed said, his voice cracking.
Behind them, a loud scream pierced their ears. Ed and Jan turned and saw one of Ed's students, a seventeen-year-old girl, in hysterics. Todd had just returned from helping Marian out of her basement. She had come through the storm unharmed, but her house was gone. "Todd!" Jan yelled.
"I'm on it," he said and took off running toward the screaming girl. Ed followed behind.
"Where are my shoes?" Jan said as she dug around through the rubble that had been their bedroom five minutes earlier. "Ha, found one," she said, pulling a soaked canvas tennis shoe out from under a pile of wet sheetrock. She dug around some more, frustrated. Finally, she found the match. Not only were both shoes soaked; dirt and fiberglass insulation filled the insides. Jan dumped out as much of the crud as she could and slid them on. They were better than no shoes at all.
Todd ran back over. The frantic girl was screaming because her neighbor, an older man who was like a grandfather to her, had been badly injured when his house collapsed into the basement. "Mom, you need to get over here quickly. Chuck is hurt pretty bad."
"OK," Jan said. As soon as she reached him, she knew Charles Horan was in trouble. Blood gushed from a gash in his head. Lifting his shirt, she saw severe blunt force trauma injuries across his chest. "I've got to get the ambulance. Stay here. I'll send help," she said.
Todd and Ed stayed with chuck as Jan took off running toward the fire station. She hoped the station would still be there when she arrived. As soon as she was gone, Todd looked at his father. "How many others do you think are hurt like this?" he asked.
Ed looked around at what remained of the south side of Parkersburg. It looked like old black-and-white photos of Hiroshima after the atomic bomb had decimated the city, albeit on a much, much smaller scale. He let out a long sigh. "I'm afraid to even guess," he said.
Rain began to fall again. The rainstorm the farmers predicted had finally arrived.
Excerpted from The Sacred Acre by Mark Tabb Copyright © 2011 by Parkersburg Productions, LLC. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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