SAM TOWNSEND (a character in Supercell), OWNER AND OPERATOR OF THE “GUST FRONT GRILL”

Sam Townsend, rheumy-eyed, weatherbeaten and heavyset, sports a face folded with age and memories. If you ever searched for him in a crowd, he wouldn’t be difficult to spot. He wears a black stovepipe hat with an eagle’s feather jammed into the hatband.

Half Osage Indian and a Vietnam combat veteran, Sam is conflicted by visions rooted in his native American background, and nightmares erupting from his memories of the killing grounds of Southeast Asia. For instance, when he tells his old friend and veteran storm chaser Chuck Rittenburg to Beware the thunder, it turns out he wasn’t warning of thunderstorms.

DOES A HURRICANE DISASTER LOOM? WHY I’M WORRIED

When the great “Dixie Tornado Outbreak” of April 2011 ripped through the Deep South, I remember being absolutely appalled that over 300 lives were snuffed out.

How could that happen, I wondered, in this era of sophisticated weather prediction, detection and warning systems? You had to go back to 1936, into the “Dark Ages” (my term) of meteorology, to find a higher death toll in a multi-day outbreak: 419, Tupelo, Mississippi, to Gainesville, Georgia.

But back to 2011. Earlier that year, a violent twister snatched away 158 lives in Joplin, Missouri. Prior to that, the record holder for a single city was Woodward, Oklahoma: 181 deaths in 1947.

GABI MEDEIROS, FBI AGENT, AD HOC STORM CHASER (character in Supercell)

Gabi Medeiros is a Special Agent with the FBI. Born of a Russian mother and Portuguese father, she’s attractive but not classically beautiful. As she once explained, “I gotta watch what I eat, or I get a little heavy in the ass and start looking like a female Michelin Man.”

Divorced and the veteran of several dead-end affairs, she’s come to the realization there’s a scarcity of men who want to settle down with a woman who “shoots guns, curses in Russian and can’t cook worth a damn.”

CHUCK RITTENBURG, STORM CHASER (lead character in Supercell)

A decade ago, Chuck Rittenburg was the most successful professional storm chaser in the business. The founder and president of Thunder Road Tours, he was a sought-after guest on “The Today Show,” “Good Morning America,” “60 Minutes” and The Weather Channel. He was a frequent talking head on network newscasts. And he and his company were featured in articles in USA Today and People magazine.

“YOU AREN’T DOING THAT AGAIN”–SOME THOUGHTS ON CHASING TORNADOES

My wife Chris and I are watching coverage of the Moore, Oklahoma, tornado, the devastating EF-5. It’s gripping, gut-wrenching, heart-rending stuff. After while, we can’t watch any more and turn off the TV.

Chris grasps my arm. “You aren’t doing that again,” she says.

“Doing what?” I ask, not making an immediate connection to any recent transgressions . . . which I seem to be able to perform at regular intervals whether I’m aware of them or not.

“Going on a tornado chase.”

Oh, that. Last spring I’d gone on a chase to gather background for the novel I was working on, Supercell.

SUPERCELL, A MORE IN-DEPTH LOOK

Beyond the one-line description of Supercell being “a fast-moving thriller set against tornado chasing on the Great Plains,” what the heck is the novel about?

Here’s the “elevator pitch” for it (an “elevator pitch” means the author’s got only the duration of an elevator ride to pitch his/her book to an agent or publisher):

Chuck Rittenburg, a former professional storm chaser, has lost it all: his business, his home, his family. But he’s offered a chance at redemption—-and a million bucks—-by a Hollywood film company if he can lead its cinematographers to a violent EF-4 or -5 tornado.

AFTER THE CHASE, INDELIBLE MEMORIES

Was it fun? people ask, knowing I’ve just returned from a tornado chase on the Great Plains.

Sure it was fun. If your idea of fun is sitting in a van for 10 hours a day, reeling in the miles (3500 of them in seven days); or waiting and waiting and waiting for something to happen (thank God for Walmarts, great places to hang out); or falling in a ditch in the dark (next time I’ll bring a flashlight); or clogging your arteries with fast food (I had to double my statin drug dosage).

HUNTING UNICORNS

Yesterday, Silver Lining Tours and I might as well have been hunting unicorns as tornadoes. Tornadoes? We didn’t even see a towering cumulus! For awhile, we thought we might have chance at a big storm far to our west just north of the Kansas border in Nebraska, but, like legislation in the U.S. Congress, it went nowhere. So, we ran up the white flag and boogied for Salina, Kansas, where we caught up on our sleep.

We saw a lot of these yesterday…

But none of these…

THE MOTHERSHIP

Yesterday was a weird day for storm chasers. We spent a lot of time camped out on dirt roads next to fallow fields and curious cattle in southeast Nebraska waiting for something to happen (photo below). Nothing did. Several storms rumbled and grumbled for a couple of hours, but just couldn’t get their acts together.

Meanwhile, over our shoulders, we watch a massive supercell blow up all by itself about 40 or 50 miles south, down near the Kansas border (photo below).

HERE SNAKEY, SNAKEY, SNAKEY

After pushing northward yesterday from Wichita, Kansas, to Yankton, South Dakota, we got a shutout tossed at our tornado chase team. Thunderstorms did bubble up along a cold front sliding across the northern Plains, but for the most part—-at least where we were in far southeastern South Dakota—-they were run-of-the-mill.

So we packed it in early and bunked down in Yankton. After a marathon run the previous night from Amarillo to Wichita, the decision was welcomed by most of us. It certainly was by this old dog. It was great to actually saw logs for eight hours.