She and her husband were trapped in their van during a devastating twister, but she spotted a penny that assured her they would be all right.
- Posted on Feb 26, 2020
“Did you understand anything they said?” I asked.
Behind the wheel of our van, my husband, Nick, shook his head. “Something about…beekeeping?”
It was a Saturday afternoon, April 13, 2019. We were on our way home from a seminar in Jacksonville, Texas. The lecturers had spoken on ways to reduce our ecological footprint—a cause our son Michael is passionate about. He’s always reminding us of our duty to preserve the earth. We recycled, took monastic showers, tried organic farming and attended seminars like this one. We liked to think of ourselves as well-informed. But the Jacksonville seminar had been too much.
We wanted to be good stewards of the earth. Installing solar panels, switching to a mostly plant-based diet and reducing plastic and water waste could be overwhelming, though. Did that make us ungrateful and unworthy of the task God had given us? As we stood to leave, the host took the stage once more. “Take care out there,” he said. “There’s a tornado warning near Alto.”
Nick and I shrugged. This was northeast Texas, part of Tornado Alley. Still, we had to pass through Alto on our way back to Houston. Best to be careful.
We drove slowly on Highway 69 South toward Alto, following the signals of local people who were helping the police direct traffic. I breathed a sigh of relief. Phew, the tornado already hit. We’d missed it. Then Alto came into view. There were downed utility poles everywhere. Sparks danced dangerously in the air. How awful, I thought as we passed fallen trees, demolished houses and schools with major structural damage. Lord, protect these people. The words came to mind easily, but doubt crept up in my stomach. Was God even listening?
I’d been feeling distant from God for years now, ever since 2003, when my father passed away from Alzheimer’s. It had been agonizing to watch him decline over the course of 10 years. First came the memory lapses, then the struggles to find the right word. Eventually Dad lost everything that made him who he was—he couldn’t enjoy baseball anymore (in his younger days, he had played in the New York Yankees organization) or even recognize the people he loved and devoted his life to. Mom, his wife of more than six decades. His children and grandchildren. I tried to comfort myself by thinking of “Pennies From Heaven,” the song Dad used to sing to me when I was a child. So when you hear it thunder, don’t run under a tree. / There’ll be pennies from heaven for you and me.
“Whenever life throws you a curve ball, I’ll be there for you,” he’d say at the kitchen table. “No matter what.”
Dad had held on to that promise for as long as he could, but I wasn’t so sure about God’s promises anymore. Not after what he’d let happen to a good man like my father.
Nick and I now headed west on Highway 21. I saw signs for a festival at the Caddo Mounds State Historic Site, a former Native American settlement just outside Alto. There were 50 or so cars in the parking lot. Like Nick and me, those people had been lucky to escape the tornado. Some of the cars behind us turned into the lot after we passed. They must be going to the festival, I thought.
Beep, beep, beep. My phone made a noise from my pocket. Not a regular text. An emergency alert. I pulled it out and read, “Take shelter immediately.”
I was just about to relay the warning to Nick when an enormous tree fell right on our windshield, slamming the van to a stop in the only grove for miles. Too late to take shelter!
Darkness spread across the sky like spilled paint. The wind howled. Three more trees fell on top of us. Before I could brace myself, the wind spun our van counterclockwise into a red dirt embankment, wedging us in deep. Was it just my imagination, or were the trees using their limbs to bury the end of the van into the dirt, holding us in place?
The tornado raged on, trying to yank us into the air. Our van was like an unbalanced washing machine, rocking back and forth, up and down. Yet I didn’t scream. Or gasp. Or say a word. I felt oddly calm. I looked out my side window. The glass had been sucked out. Anything could come flying in and knock us out, I thought. Nick and I tried to get as low as we could, forcing ourselves down onto the floorboards, straining our seatbelts to the limit.
I glanced up. The dashboard—it was gone! Ripped away by the wind. Only wires left, blue and red, dangling. I felt Nick’s hand close over mine. I squeezed back, hoping he would sense what I did—that somehow we were being sheltered from the storm.
Then I saw it. A flash of copper on the floor under the dashboard wires. A penny! How had it not been sucked into the tornado?
In my mid-fifties, after my father was deep in his battle with dementia, I’d gone back to school to get a master’s degree in French at the University of North Texas. School is hard for everyone, but for someone my age? Exhausting. But every time I thought I’d give up and quit, every time I felt as if nobody cared whether I passed or not, I’d find a shiny penny. On the ground, by the water fountain, on top of a pile of books in the library. Everywhere and anywhere. As if Dad were somehow reaching out to say, I’m watching over you. It had become a running joke in our family—Dad’s messages to Linda.
Now, as the tornado held our van under siege, Nick’s eyes found mine. Neither of us had to say anything. We knew what the penny meant.
The wind continued howling, the rain pelting. We ducked our heads and held on tight. Then light began filtering in through the cracked windshield, breaking through the ominous dark. Was this just a pause in the mayhem? Was a third twister bearing down on us? No. It was over. We’d made it! I pulled myself up and looked out the side window. A tree stripped of all its bark and branches leaned precariously over the van, but it hadn’t fallen. It could’ve crushed me.
Nick and I pushed our way out through the door on my side, which was easier to open because it had been nearly ripped clean off. “I’m going to start digging us out,” Nick said and began pulling up clumps of mud with his bare hands. I walked around the van to survey the damage. The front end was totally caved in. Someone had indeed protected us. Thanks, Dad, I thought.
I punched 911 on my phone. The call went through, but the dispatcher on the other end couldn’t hear me. Not with all the electrical interference from the storm. I tried calling my sister, Sandy, in Houston. No luck—she couldn’t hear me either. But a second later, I got an incoming call from her husband, John.
“Everything okay?” John said, concerned. “Sandy says she couldn’t hear you on her phone.”
I told John about the tornado hitting us. He called the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Department. Nick phoned a friend one town over to come get us. Officers pulled up. The sheriff took one look at our van and asked, “Lady, are you all right?” Yes, I was fine. So was Nick. We were lucky to be alive. More rescue workers soon arrived—three helicopters and four police cars. By then, other folks were making their way to the grove. People from the festival who had seen what happened, families from nearby neighborhoods. An elderly woman and her husband walked over and asked, “Would you and your husband like to stay at our house tonight?”
“Thank you,” I said. “But our friend is on his way.”
It felt as if everybody wanted to help us: police, rescue workers and regular folks. I’d heard people call East Texas God’s country, and that day I really understood why.
I stared into the grove, trying to put the events in order in my mind. Leaving the seminar and driving through Alto, passing the festival, the tree falling on our van and stopping us. I knew the insurance people would ask us a million questions. I wanted to be prepared, but I was still too stunned to process what had happened.
It wasn’t until weeks later, sitting at our kitchen table and thinking about it some more, that I realized in our utter helplessness in the middle of the tornado, I had reached instinctively for God. Not with words but with my heart. And that breached the distance I’d felt from him. God was the one who pinned our van to the ground and protected us, sending us a sign that I, especially, would immediately understand. Who reminded me, through the wind and the rain and the darkness, “I am watching over you.”
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