inside a twister
by e.r. bathrick
I was about eighteen years old and had wandered out to that new
country with an aeronaut, Wilson, by name, who made the country fairs
giving exhibitions with a wheezy old balloon that afterwards killed him. I
sometimes made the ascensions with him. but on this particular occasion
he sent me across country to a point about four miles distant where he
thought he could land, after leaving the fair grounds.
I was to be on hand to assist him in caring for the balloon. About half an
hour before the ascension I left the small fair grounds and proceeded
with the wind across the prairie in the direction indicated.
After about three-quarters of an hour I looked back and saw
the big hulk lazily following me at a height of several hundred feet. For
a time it came straight after me, but when I reached the top of a swell in
the prairie, having lost sight of it for a few moments, I saw it had been
caught by a counter current of air and was moving off at an oblique angle to the
north-east. Changing my course I pressed on for a while and finally saw
the balloon settle down and down, until the anchor, jumping from hillock to
hillock on the prairie, caught a tough root or some other obstruction and the
big gas bag stopped short.
In about ten minutes I was helping Wilson pack it in shape for
transportation, after which I started off to the nearest farm-house, seemingly
three or four miles distant, for the purpose of engaging a
wagon to haul the balloon to town.
As I was about to start, Wilson stopped me and handed me the
parachute, saying: 'Here, Ed, take this along. It looks like rain, and I don't
want the parachute to get wet if I can help it.'
I took the silk contrivance, and proceeded on my way. It was a neat,
light-weight affair with sliding rings, ropes, and a kind of
attachable belt that could be fastened about the waist
and quickly attached or detached from the parachute. As I walked along this
belt dangled about annoyingly and to get it out of my way I
fastened it about my waist.
I had probably made about a mile of my walk towards the farm-house
when from the west a threatening storm cloud came into view.
I thought of nothing but a rain storm, and although a good soaking would have had
little terror for me, as Wilson did not
want the parachute wet, I broke into a half trot.
I had hardly gone fifteen rods before I noted that the black
cloud was coming my way with a rush. Sometimes it was only a big bank of ink rolling
along the prairie, and then it lifted and a huge tail
lashed the grass and muck, switching its monstrous bulk
around and back and forth over a whole farm as quickly as one could snap a whip.
I had heard of cyclones before and not being anxious for an
interview, I started to run down a hill.
One quick glance back, and I fully realized the folly of an attempt to dodge. So
throwing myself flat, I hugged the ground, digging
my toes into the muck and clutching tufts of grass with my hands.
An instant later something took me off the earth with a jerk
and raised me high in the air. It seemed to me that I went up fully 500 feet,
I went so swiftly.
Then when I had reached a point as high as the Cyclone wanted
me to go I became sensible of a swift motion
about a large circle. Then a down, down feeling
made me realise that I had been cast outside the fiercest strength of
the vortex and my weight was carrying me swiftly
earthward, to death, thought I.
I had once or twice looked out of the basket of Wilson's balloon
at the landscape far
below, and shuddered at the certain death that would ensue if the balloon burst
and so wished myself out and standing on good earth.
But just then I felt that the balloon would have been a
godsend for me.
Down I went, swifter and swifter, as further and further to the
outside of the whirling wind I gyrated. I noted well what
the influence was that prevented me from dropping straight down,
and wondered how soon my perpendicular descent would begin.
Suddenly there was a pull at my waist. Then a sharp tug, and I felt
my downward flight growing less rapid. The parachute had opened.
Busy as I was just then I caught sight of the broad folds of silk above me
and fervently thanked the giver of all good.
'Now,' I mused to myself, 'it will be easy dropping.'
But the storm king had designed further sport with me. I ceased
to fall; I rose instead. The orbit of my aerial whirlings grew less
and my speed around it greater. It was easily understood.
The action of the parachute on the air had so counteracted the
gravity of my body that I was again easy for the outer motion of the
cyclone to handle, and I had again been drawn into its central
and stronger embrace.
Up I went to the very top of the vortex, and could look
below me into the hollow funnel. It was easy sailing up there, but not particularly
pleasant. The trouble was mostly going on below. The sides of the funnel were a twirling
mass of branches, small trees, birds, feathers and a conglomeration of
things chasing each other round and round.
Round and round I went, and on and on; rising sometimes high into
the air until the business end of the aggregation
below me barely touched its tip to the earth. Then Its circle of devastation was
small. Dipping down
lower, until the immense tail was bent on the ground, but still threshed swiftly
around, it covered a large surface at each whirl and wipe.
I could actually catch glimpses of the surrounding country through the darkness around
me as we sped on. Ahead was a grove of Lombardy poplars, pointing their
spire-like forms straight up, not a leaf fluttering. Just here we came lower down.
A thousand sounds of crackling, splitting and ripping were
audible. A cloud of leaves, twigs and small birds floated up near
me for an instant, and then settled back for the race around the
inside of the funnel. I glanced back -a quick glance- for it
was a speedy cyclone, and away back in the rear I saw a tangle of shrubbery
and roots and scattered trunks where the grove had been.
Then we dipped down into a sort of valley, and soon the river shone, a bright
white line below. Across this I was carried with a roar and a
swish. The water came up and drenched me with its
thick spray, then up the bank, gathering a mist of sand and on again across the
There was a farm-house just ahead, another off to the left. I could see the
farmer and his wife at the first one running for the cellar, but at that moment
we veered to the left and cleared them,
but the other house was doomed. There the woman seemed to be alone with
two children in the yard. They plunged into the house. There
was another succession of cracking and crashing sounds as
the house and barn were swept away. The roar and rattle were awful.
The tin ware, bedding, straw stack, chickens, carpets and the washing from
the clothes line joined our collection in the funnel.
I heard a terrible prolonged scream, its weird notes trembled
on the air, and died out far behind. I saw a cow fly feet up
through the air away off to the right and strike the ground and lay still.
A long flat board sailed up
near me, menaced my parachute an instant and then shot off at a tangent from the circle,
thrown with the terrible centrifugal force.
Although it takes some time to tell this, it took only three or four moments
for all these and more incidents to transpire. I was beginning to
feel dizzy and faint, then fainter still, until I had entirely
How long the swinging swell of the cyclone
carried my limp and almost lifeless form, I know not. I only know
that some farmers picked me up about six miles from where
I started with the cyclone, and cared for me for three
weeks before I could get out.
Wilson had been there and got the parachute.
I have often wished I had it as a memento, but I never saw it or Wilson
since. I have a crooked arm, though, which is probably memento enough.
The World, June 7, 1896