04 July 2019

REBORN ON THE 4th of JULY



50 Years Ago Today, a Tornado Hit Cleveland. Not Everyone Got Out Alive.


MY BROTHER CHRIS WAS A ROYAL PAIN when I was growing up. He and his friends taunted me incessantly, and as the next elder sibling in the Miller food chain, he made sure I knew that he was the boss, as many older brothers often do.

I could go on and on about the childhood traumas: he pushed me in a pile of dog manure; he broke a neighbor’s window with a baseball — and then blamed me; and once, he even poked me in the eye with a stick. When my Mom brought me home from the hospital, Chris tried to tell me how cool I looked with a patch over my eye, to avoid getting in any further trouble.

“You look like a PIRATE,” he exclaimed with all of the thespian might he could muster.

“The patch is WHITE,” I replied angrily. “Have you ever seen a pirate with a WHITE eye patch?” 

He just smiled.

Chris knew that his bullying had to end soon, but he persisted for as long as he could. He had an eerie knack for stopping his evil acts just before being caught-in-the-act by mom. By the time she walked around the corner, his little devil-face would magically transform — and his cherubic demeanor would miraculously re-appear.

God, I hated that.

By the time I turned 13, however, I was growing — rapidly. I had developed a far more athletic build than my brother, and suddenly, we were the same size. 

The era of being the taunted sibling had come to a close.

CHRIS’ LAST ACT OF CHICANERY came on July 4, 1969 when he stole my brand new outfit: a pair of black bell-bottom pants and a new striped pullover shirt. As I prepared to leave for the Independence Day fireworks at Lakewood Park, I noticed that my sweet new clothes were missing. 

Chris had somehow slipped into my clothes, slipped out of the door and was long gone.

I’m sure I cursed at him under my breath — and I know for certain that I created quite a stir with my Mom about the injustice of it all — but the bottom line was that I would have to leave for the fireworks without my spiffy new outfit. So I stopped by a friend’s house and we began our walk to Lakewood Park a few miles away.

By 1969, Lakewood had developed into a huge inner-ring suburb and was full of kids — and the 4th of July fireworks were always spectacular. It had been a picturesque day in Northeast Ohio and we were looking forward to meeting up with friends and enjoying the evening.

We were about five minutes from Lakewood Park when the sky turned from a beautiful blue to jet-black — in less than two minutes’ time. Without notice, my friend and I were suddenly caught in the grip of the most furious storm either of us had ever experienced. Make no mistake, we were scared to death. Trees were snapping all around us. Huge tree limbs were being flung with unfathomable force. The temperature dropped rapidly and so much rain drenched us that we were suddenly shivering. It was dark, the street lights were out, and we were frightened and dazed.

And then there were the power lines; live electrical power lines that buzzed and danced in the flooded streets. 

It was the storm that changed everything.

It took about an hour to get home, as my friend and I made our way through a jungle of downed trees and flooded roads in the darkness. Lakewood — and indeed all of Cleveland was without electrical power. We saw dozens of cars smashed by trees, windows blown out of businesses and even a few people injured by flying debris. 

When I finally walked in the door, my Mom and Dad gave me the look of joy and relief that only a parent can truly understand. The living room of our humble home was lit by flickering candles, but it was easy to see how grateful my parents were to see me. A small transistor radio was on the mantle, and was reporting the bad news: 100 mph winds had slammed into Cleveland and Lakewood with brutal force; people had died, including some who had been electrocuted by power lines like the ones my friend and I had dodged. Scores were injured; hundreds were missing on Lake Erie — and the hospitals, all on emergency power, were under a terrible strain.

As I began to recount my saga to my family, the phone rang. 

The call came from Lakewood Hospital: and they informed us that my brother Chris was in the emergency room. My parents rushed to the car and somehow made it to the hospital, despite the trees and the power lines and the flooded streets. When they phoned a few hours later they told us point blank: “Chris is in critical condition — a priest has given him his last rites — and and it doesn’t look like he is going to make it. Pray for him.” 

Sobbing uncontrollably, I ran to the darkness of my bedroom and began to pray. . .and pray. . .and pray. “If you let him live, Lord,” I said, “I will never fight with him again. I-WILL-NEVER-FIGHT-WITH-HIM-AGAIN.” I repeated this mantra hundreds of times, begging and pleading and crying all the while.
Over the coming hours and days we learned that a tree of more than four feet in diameter had crushed my brother Chris. We also discovered that the very same tree that had struck my brother so violently had killed Gretchen Schwartz, the sister of one of my friends and classmates. 

We learned of the heroism of volunteers and emergency workers who risked their own safety to free my brother, who had been trapped in the middle of the tree after it splintered around him. And we learned that once Chris had been freed from the clutches of the tree how the volunteers and ER workers carried him to a makeshift triage in a garage nearby the Park in an attempt to save his life.

Today is the 50th anniversary of that day.

Twenty years ago, on the 30th Anniversary I drove to Lakewood Park before all of the festivities began — and just sat quietly. Then I picked up my phone and dialed.

I told the person on the other end that thirty years prior I had made a promise to God that if he would spare the life of my brother, I would not fight with him ever again.

“It’s been thirty years,” I said. “And do you realize that we’ve never had so much as a disagreement?”

On the other end of the phone, my brother Chris sobbed. Since the accident, his life has been one of unbelievable twists and turns — of challenges and faith — and of real-life drama.


Yet, fifty years later I am happy to report that my prayers were answered — on that night when the storm changed everything.



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