Tornado spares all but a good friend

Published 1:06 am Sunday, March 29, 2009

I cut my engine and listened to the silence. Then I heard something over the lapping of the water against the side of my boat. I strained to hear then I made it out, a youthful cry for help. It came from a heavily damaged cottage.As I approached the cottage, I realized I would need some help, but I couldn’t wait. I beached my boat and found four teenagers trapped in the debris. I lied as I tried to convince them that everything would be OK.With a little help, one of the boys was freed and was able to assist getting the others out with only bruises and scratches but very frightened. Why was the little girl screaming and pointing to the partially submerged boat? Finally she was able to tell me.

“Please help them! I saw them, a man and little children disappear when the storm came. Please help!”

While getting the teenagers to safety, I lied again as I said I would get the man and his children. I whispered a prayer as I approached the boat. There was no one in sight! “Where is everybody?,” I asked no one in particular. Is my own family OK?After going through all the debris, I struggled to move the boat. Since part of the bow was visible, I could read the registration numbers and called the dispatcher and checked ownership of the boat. I wanted to ask for help, but the dispatcher was 50 miles away and she too was busy—she wouldn’t understand.

I went up the lake looking for a working phone; was I wasting valuable time? The number was long distance; would they accept my call? What would I say if the mother and wife answered? After a long wait, the man answered, and the children were safe 60 miles away! The witness was mistaken; the boat was simply blown away. I went to tell the girl the good news, but they were gone! What in the world were they doing there? I managed a much-needed smile. I never saw them again or knew their names. I felt a little relief then began to think: Could there be others in the water? Could there have been a second tornado? Was I in trouble for leaving my post? Are my children OK? Why is it so quiet? Do I need Rescue Squad or is it all over?

I received a radio message. An eyewitness had reported seeing a man blown from his boat in Hatchett Creek! I had almost forgotten how bad it looked up in Hatchett Creek. I almost choked as I repeated, “Alert the Rescue Squad”!

It was unbelievable as I followed the path of destruction—the beautiful pine trees broken and uprooted in different angles. I thought of the many times I had fished that shoreline. This was a game management area and no cottages.

For the first time, I thought, what if the tornado had come during the “Tornado Season”! So many people would be on the lake.

I followed the path and remembered how much we take all this beauty for granted—only to have it marred by yet another act of nature. I had gone about 4 miles when suddenly I saw it—the swamped boat looked so familiar—”No, God, not him!” Not with all the other things that had happened to this gentle giant we all knew and loved.

I stared away, and, through the tears that had finally come, I saw the strewn debris in the woods as the path continued, items that had belonged to this lovable person that I had known for so many years. Could he have survived? If not, could I find his body in the woods?

I had begun to question his judgment and lecture him as I had so many times—I felt so ashamed. After what seemed like an eternity, I remember hearing the familiar voice of another friend, Mr. Leon Jones: “Bill, Calvin won’t be back this time.”

Leon told me that he and Calvin had left Cedar Circle below Lay Dam in separate boats, not knowing where the other had gone, went the 9 miles south, then met, exchanged fishing ideas and went up Hatchett Creek for 4 miles, where they were putting out their trotlines.

My thoughts wandered as I remembered all the handicaps my friend had. Besides the problems from birth that left him with physical and mental problems, he was blessed with a compassionate feeling for people, always wanting to help someone, never wanting anyone to help him. It had only been a year since he lost an eye, one hand and a part of another from a dynamite accident. I remembered questioning him about the distance he operated his boat in that condition, and went approximately 1 mile for help! “Bill, that wasn’t me running that boat, it was God. I could see him!”

Mr. Jones was talking, “I was on the other side of the creek about a half-mile away. I heard it breaking trees, making an awful noise. I hollered at Calvin; he never looked up. I went to the bank, got behind the biggest tree that I could find, covered my head with my raincoat, and just held on. I could feel the tree roots breaking under me. Bill, he never looked up,” he repeated.

Thoughts came to me about how we would all worry about Calvin dying in the river. He would just laugh and talk about “sleeping in the river.” Where do we start looking? Did the force carry his body along the path of his belongings? Was he in the water? Finally, someone heard my thoughts: “Bill, it’s getting dark. We’ll have to wait till morning,” someone was saying. I reluctantly left my friend.

I stumbled in the door at home, wet, tired and dirty, but managed to hold the children a little tighter. Looking into their innocent eyes, I knew they would not understand that they could never see their friend anymore. As I lay in the warmth of my bed, I could see him “sleeping in the river.” It seemed as if he were smiling.

Years later, I reminisced with Mr. Jones. He was 78 and still on the river. I asked him to refresh my memory, what did we call that part of Hatchett Creek? “All I ever heard it called was, The End of the World.”

Good-bye, Calvin.

– Bill Attaway’s original Cruisin’ the Coosa column was published in The Clanton Advertiser in the 1980s and ‘90s.