Memphis punkers Pillowtalk recently survived an encounter with a tornado while on tour. Joshua Cannon is a band member and a journalism student at the University of Memphis. A version of this essay ran in The Daily Helmsman, the school paper.
It was mid-afternoon on Sunday in Peoria, Illinois, when our GMC Suburban and the trailer carrying all of our music equipment was lifted off of the ground and sucked into the middle of an unexpected and devastating twister that swept across the area, leaving six dead and neighborhoods in ruins.
Just moments before, it had been an ordinary day on the road for our band, Pillowtalk. We played a show the previous night in someone's basement. The next morning, we woke up on a stranger's floor. I'm not sure there is any way we could have been prepared for Sunday morning's storm.
After we drove onto the interstate, the rain shot down like machine gun bullets. Branches broke from trees and flew like hummingbirds.
"Guys, I think we're about to be in the middle of a tornado," Calvin Lauber, guitarist, singer, and our driver, turned to us and calmly said as the wind pushed like a tidal wave against the car. Before we could process what was happening, the autumn leaves grew into a chaotic collage of color. The colossal tornado grabbed our car and trailer before throwing us into the air.
"The wind and debris blocked any view of the road," Lauber said. "I realized we were in danger right before I lost control. My only thought was to maintain the direction of the car in any way possible. I wasn't scared at the moment, because I was determined on keeping my friends alive."
Our car spun three times while in the air — 1,080 degrees that lasted no more than 10 seconds but felt like 10 minutes. From the third row, my perspective was much different from Lauber's. Considering my powerless position as a passenger, keeping my friends alive didn't cross my mind as I tussled with the idea that we were all going to die.
Kevin Gibson, another member of our band, cradled his arms around me.
"I love you. This is it. I'm not going to let you go," he said staring me in the eyes.
In that moment, the glass from the windows imploded onto us from every direction, and the debris from the funnel flew into our car as we shook back and forth.
We buried our heads into the seats, as there was now nothing separating us from the white winds of the twister.
Shards of glass struck Gibson in the forehead. Weston Hall, a friend who was selling our merchandise on this tour, was sliced on the ear. Barrett Kutas, bassist, was in the front seat when the window imploded against his neck. Sam Leathers, drummer, temporarily lost his glasses as he was directly hit in the face by the debris. Nate Packard, a photographer at The Daily Helmsman who was traveling with us, was thrown into the back of the vehicle while he was reaching for his camera gear.
"I sat in the front and accepted that I was going to die with six of my best friends," Kutas said. "I thought I was going to die."
Just as the Suburban was on the verge of flipping, our trailer rolled over and slammed onto the ground, pulling us from the twister and back onto the interstate, facing oncoming traffic.
The tornado passed. There was silence — the kind of quiet that you never hear on the interstate. We raised our heads from the seats, maneuvering through the broken glass that was covering every inch of the car.
"Are we all okay?" Leathers asked, afraid of the answer.
We all had a moment when we looked at each other and realized that even though Packard was thrown into the back, he still had his camera. I could see Kutas' chest moving in and out with every breath as he became aware that we were all still together. We wrapped our arms around each other and didn't let go. We just kept squeezing, in disbelief.
"I felt like it was a scene from a disaster movie," Packard said. "I couldn't believe that we were all alive and uninjured. There is no reason that any of us should have survived."
If it were not for the nearly 2,000 pounds of gear tethering us to earth, we would be dead.
In retrospect, we were such a small part of the devastation. Houses were leveled. Cars were strewn across streets and yards. Telephone poles fell like dominoes, cutting power throughout the area. We were fortunate to have houses and families to come home to after all of this — not everyone could say that.
Somehow, our car managed to drive. Our trailer was totaled and towed to a lot. The police officer guided us up the exit ramp of the interstate to Harvest Bible Chapel, where we met Matt and Kelsie Zarko, two members of the church.
"We were in service when the power went out," Kelsie said. "It sounded like a train that was going to come straight through the church. There was a point where I had to give it to God and act out my faith."
The Zarkos took us into their home. The church paid for our dinner. They used their cars to help us move our music equipment from our totaled trailer into their garage.
"The community in Peoria was unbelievable to us," Leathers said. "They took us in without question and helped us with whatever we needed. They never thought twice and never wanted anything in return."
Mysteriously, all of our gear still worked. The guitars were still in tune and in their cases. The amps had barely moved from their original position, despite the trailer rolling. Even if they had been completely useless, it didn't matter — we were fortunate enough to be able to say that we walked away from a tornado.
Our families drove eight hours from Memphis and picked us up. While we were physically unscathed, mentally picking up the pieces may be the most disorienting part. The cliché "someone's life flashing before his or her eyes" is more than just an old saying.
The near-death experience rattled me. Food tasted better. The first meal I had after the accident was barbecue, and while it wasn't from my home city, it was the best meal I'd ever eaten. I hugged my mother and father longer than I ever have, realizing that I was moments away from never being able to tell them how thankful I am to have them as parents.
"It's almost like normal life feels out of place," Kutas said. "I'm going back to work and the real world as a different person."
Whether it was higher powers at work or mere coincidence, we made it out of the storm. Lauber, as well as the rest of us, is thankful that we even have a story to share.
"I believe all of this happened for some reason," he said. "I'm not sure how to process it yet, but I do feel inspired to be alive."