- Put on the Petty
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After Eric and I survived an F2 tornado in Tulia, Texas, I thought we'd live forever. We rode out the tornado in a high-profile SUV—precisely the wrong kind of shelter—and after we'd crashed into a brick wall and ducked under a one-hundred-twenty-knot jet that screamed through the blown-out [End Page 77] windows, it seemed as if the Angel of Death had roared, in a breath choked with debris, and then fled, leaving us alone and lucky. We were unscathed, but for a scratch on Eric's ankle and a cut on the back of my neck—or at least that was how it seemed for days and even weeks after the event. We were okay. We'd made it. Our chief complaint was embarrassment: two experienced storm chasers with almost two hundred tornado documentations between them weren't supposed to wind up inside one. But the vortex had formed in an unexpected portion of the storm and reached full strength almost instantly. After we climbed from Eric's totaled Nissan Xterra and studied the devastated town around us, he turned to me. "Well," he said, thinking of the next chase, "I guess we'll take your car on Monday."
I laid my camera on the ground and cleared a pile of Abilene brick away from the passenger door, the sensation of good fortune already forming in my chest. Not a broken bone or even a gash that would require a stitch. A miracle.
Four months later, I reminded Eric of this good fortune in the hallway of an Arlington, Texas, psychiatric hospital. My friend and chase partner, who always wore white T-shirts and khaki shorts, was leaning against the wall in blue hospital scrubs and a bright red wristband that marked him as "actively suicidal." Even his regular shoes were a potential threat, and so he wore laceless plastic ones, more like slippers. He was losing weight, looking younger every day, as if he were retreating into the safety of boyhood.
I said, "We can get through this"—one of the many rehearsed lines I always used when I visited Eric, though my top priority was to listen and make "normal" conversation. From then until my next visit or phone call I would compose more such lines, desperate to talk him out of a chronic mental illness I'd learned about just days before his hospitalization, before what he would describe in his journal as an "adamant" desire to kill himself "in a sudden and violent way."
On my visits we talked about the weather—of course—and a coffee-table book he was publishing with another storm photographer. Eric's storm images are among the most widely reproduced in the world. Days before his admission, I'd helped him copyedit the captions of his pictures for the book. When I reminded him of our unlikely survival back in Tulia, a light appeared in his eyes. His odds were better this time around, in a hospital, receiving treatment. I thought this logic would appeal to a meteorologist with a minor in mathematics. But after visiting hours ended and the hallway marked "Extreme Elopement Risk" emptied of friends and family, Eric's rational mind battled compulsions that I would never dispel with one-liners, however smoothly delivered. It started late at night, when the urge to cut himself, for "relief," rose like a blue-gray thunderhead [End Page 78] on the empty prairie. One night he asked a nurse if they could draw blood. She tried to humor him, undoubtedly noting the bizarre request in his chart. The doctors would take vitals in the morning, she promised, and a few vials of blood in the process. He pondered injuring himself with the pencil he used for his journal but didn't want to lose his writing privileges.
Bob Fritchie and Rachael Sigler, meteorologists and friends of Eric's from college, were outside Tulia when the tornado hit. They knew Eric and I were close to the storm, and they...