Tornado Warning by
(86 Stories)

Prompted By Dating

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A sane adult would have stayed home and taken refuge from the storm, wary of the tornado watch that was all over the radio. But I was neither—17 and heading off to college in the fall—and my parents weren’t home to convince me otherwise. Patti and I had been dating for three months and we were caught in the rush of hormones and mutual attraction. Neither rain, snow, sleet, nor gloom of night was going to deter us from our planned movie date.

Neither rain, snow, sleet, nor gloom of night was going to deter us from our planned movie date.

I had seen the movie before: A Guide for the Married Man, in which a master philanderer (Robert Morse) tries to teach his married protégé (Walter Matthau) the secrets of infidelity. In retrospect it was grossly sexist, but in 1968 I found it witty, adult, and sophisticated, and thought Patti would like it. Besides, it featured hilarious cameos by the likes of Jack Benny, Lucille Ball, Joey Bishop, Sid Caesar, Jayne Mansfield, Phil Silvers, Sam Jaffe—box office gold then, though unknown to teens today.

By that time, the movie was playing at only one theater, way across town on the west side of Detroit. I picked her up in the rain and headed west on Ten Mile Road. I drove carefully—or as carefully as any 17-year-old boy with a sports car—as the rain pounded the convertible top and the wind whipped the chassis. More than once we looked at each other in amazement. Can you believe this deluge? But I was an experienced driver—I’d had my license for almost two years—and if we considered the danger we never let on. It was all part of the adventure. Finally we made it to the theater.

The auditorium was cavernous (in those days before multiplexes) and we felt safe and warm inside. Still, we heard the storm outside the walls. The wind wailed around the building.

By movie’s end the rain had stopped and the remnants of a rosy glow lit the western sky. The drive back was easier, despite the wet streets. I headed to my house, which I had to myself that weekend—my parents were out of town and my brother and sister were at camp. But as we entered my small tree-filled suburb—it wasn’t called Huntington Woods for nothing—we realized that the storm had not just passed through. Huge elms and maples were down, damaging houses, crushing cars, and blocking streets. Limbs and branches were strewn across the yards and streets. No lights shined from the house windows. We tried one route after another, only to find the streets flooded or debris blocking our path.

This was damage that only a tornado could wreak. Holy shit! In the time it took to watch a movie, a tornado had devastated my quiet suburb, then left as quickly as it arrived.

Finally, we made it back to my house, dark and forbidding against the gray sky. I unlocked the door and led Patti in. Everything seemed intact but it was creepy. The power was out and the phones dead. I rounded up candles and flashlights and made it as cozy as I could. We talked and made out on the couch in the den for maybe an hour, then decided we had better get Patti home, where her mom was doubtless waiting anxiously.

So we ventured back out onto the streets toward her house, about four miles away. But try as we might, we could not find a route that wasn’t blocked, either by flooded streets or downed trees. Finally we gave up and headed back to my house for the night.

(At this point I have to confess that we didn’t try quite as hard to find a way out as we had to find a way in.)

Patti was just 16 and I wanted to be a gentleman. So I set her up in my sister’s bedroom and found her a robe to wear. I put on a robe of my own and lay beside her as fatigue overtook us. It was all quite proper if not prim, although—perhaps influenced by the movie, perhaps by the cataclysm—we reached second base for the first time that night. Eventually I went back to my own room and we both got a few hours of sleep.

In the morning, the power and phones were still out. Around 8:30 we were snuggling on the living room sofa in our robes when we heard a key turn in the lock. We jumped!—then quickly separated and straightened our clothing. It was my best friend’s father from down the block, coming to check that everything was okay. He looked us over disapprovingly as we told our story. He would certainly tell my parents. But what else could we have done?

A little later we ventured out. The floods had receded and crews were already cleaning up the debris. When we pulled up in front of Patti’s house, her mother rushed out, glad to see us safe but more worried about possible family consequences. “Don’t tell your father you’ve been out all night!” she warned.

It was the first of many storms we would weather together.

Profile photo of John Zussman John Zussman
John Unger Zussman is a creative and corporate storyteller and a co-founder of Retrospect.

Characterizations: funny, moving, right on!, well written


  1. Laurie Levy says:

    Wow, we grew up not far from one another, although by 1968 I was newly married and living in Chicago, so I don’t remember that tornado. But August of ’68 in Chicago was its own disaster. I do remember that movie and what those times were like!

  2. Suzy says:

    John, I love this story! Such vivid descriptions of the havoc wrought by the tornado and the difficulties of driving through it. And of course all routes from your house to Patti’s were impassable. And there was no phone service. And no power. I can see this as a movie very easily. One question remains unanswered: Did Patti like the movie? I vividly remember the title song, which is now an earworm in my head, but I’m not sure I ever saw the movie.

  3. Betsy Pfau says:

    Of all the stories I know about you and Patti, amazed that I never heard this one before, but I do love it. You were such a gentleman! Funny that Herbie (I assume that’s who checked on you) caught you red-handed, so to speak. And impressive that nothing stopped you from seeing that movie, and how vividly you describe the perils of returning home.

    Like Marcy, I, also was away at camp, but my brother was working at the GM Building that summer, living in our house around the corner from you. He had to abandon his car somewhere, I think on Huntington, and walk home (I think he took off his shoes) through the flooded streets. I remember his description. I think my parents were up north, visiting me. Harrowing for all concerned.

  4. You’re obviously a seasoned storyteller/writer. Your piece is so well written. Thank you for the inspiration to keep writing for myself. You describe images in the way that I try to steer my own 22 year-old son toward. I am thrilled that he has discovered a love for writing, landing his passion for fantasy-fiction-storytelling. On the site that he is on I can post comments, make edit suggestions, offer grammar corrections, etc. And I always ask him to describe more, to paint a picture of the scene, to take me there. And that’s exactly how you write. I felt like I was there too. Mentors like you are so needed for that next generation following you, because mom doesn’t always know as much as the experienced expert. You are so good at your craft. Very well done.

  5. Thanks, John! Remarkable story about the fickle nature of weather! Yikes. The moving rattling along, you cocooned in your little world. You gave us a great description of your emergence into tornado’s aftermath. In a sense, the second half of your story was very cinematic, the torn up neighborhood (impossible to recreate) and the weird darkness in your familiar home, with your teen-aged girlfriend! All the ingredients are there!

  6. daiseaday says:

    I recall that storm. I lived just a few blocks away from Huntington Woods near uptown Royal Oak. We had three trees down just on our block. They evacuated my folks due to a gas leak. I was in Oak Park at my aunts when we heard that animals were loose in the Zoo because of downed trees. Our house had wires hanging due to a fallen branch. Edison said we were lucky we didn’t have a fire. But, John, I heard that it was actually very strong straight line winds rather than a tornado. In spite of this memorable storm don’t we really remember the summer of ‘68 as the year the Tigers won the World Series?

  7. Wonderful story and wonderfully written John!

    So glad you made an honest woman out of Patti and I sense your days together since have seen mostly sunny with only occasional showers!

  8. Dave Ventre says:

    Very touching and evocative. Ah, youth….

    The photo you chose really strikes a chord; as a kid, the tornado in The Wizard of Oz absolutely terrified me. I was convinced that one was going to hit Bayonne, NJ. This wasn’t helped by my actually seeing a funnel cloud form during a thunderstorm. It was very high, small, and lasted less than a minute, but to me it validated my fear!

  9. Betsy Pfau says:

    You have, indeed, weathered many storms and I think of you two as my role models for long-term loves. (In discussing the “dating” prompt from last week, I told Dan that you often allowed me to be a third wheel, coming along on movie dates when we were all back home – you both have been true friends for a very long time).

    Having commented before on this story, I will just add one more. A camp friend in LA has now become good friends with Robert Morse (through a men’s meditation group); was the only non-family member at his 90th birthday party, and delights me by sharing the memories that Robert shares with him. So the circle goes around.

  10. Khati Hendry says:

    Great story. I half expected that your house would have been destroyed, and the only thing that saved you was being rash enough to head to the movie theatre in a terrible storm. Ah, the invulnerability of youth! It was plenty dramatic enough as it was, and you painted the teen sexual tensions perfectly. I can see why you and Patti ended up together.

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