How to Flutter Tongue on the Saxophone

Most days back when I was in elementary school, my friend Pete Rogers brought his submachine gun to school. It was a formidable weapon that Pete employed with withering effectiveness during the war games we boys played at recess, and it possessed the added advantage of instant disassembly into just two components which bore a striking resemblance to Pete’s right and left hands.

As the enemy approached us on the battlefield, Pete would make pistols out of both hands, jam the barrel of one pistol into the other hand behind the base of the thumb, and presto! Instant Tommy gun. “D-D-D-D-D-D-D-DOOOWWWWWW!” Pete would yell, doing a convincing imitation of a kid simulating automatic weapon fire. “D-D-D-D-D-D-D-D-DOOOOOWWWWWWWW!!!” And into the fray he’d charge, he and his handufactured submachine gun. Pete was impressive.

I envied him. Like the rest of the boys, I had to consign myself to plain old bolt-action–until one day, I figured out Pete’s secret for making his machine gun sound. The sound, after all, was the thing. There’s no point in having a machine gun if you can’t fire it. I discovered how.

By placing the tip of my tongue lightly but firmly against the roof of my mouth–not directly behind my teeth, but more toward the center of my palate–and then directing a steady stream of air against it, I could get my tongue to flutter, generating a rattling t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t sound. Mimicking Pete’s machine gun was then just a matter of adding my vocal chords to the mix.

Now that I was onto Pete’s secret, naturally I customized it to fit my taste. Pete’s sound was loud. I opted for a subtler approach–a Tommy gun with a silencer, if you will. A stealth machine gun. By fluttering my tongue right up against the top of my clenched teeth, and by not using my voice, I managed to produce the coolest, most convincingest machine gun fire you ever heard. It outclassed Pete’s prototype hands down. From then on, my lunch hours were littered with the bodies of scores of enemy soldiers who fell under the subtle but deadly chatter of my .50 caliber finger.

Years later in high school, long after my boyhood war games had ended, I discovered another use for my machine gun sound. By employing it while playing my saxophone, I was able to produce a wild, burry kind of effect. I didn’t realize that what I was doing had an actual name–flutter tonguing–or that R&B saxophonists such as Junior Walker incorporated it as part of their trademark sound. I thought of it as simply an interesting but useless curiosity.

Of course I was wrong. Flutter tonguing can be eminently useful depending on the kind of sound you’re after. I don’t use the technique often, but I can and do pull it out of my pocket occasionally, and so can you whenever you wish. Flutter tonguing is not hard to learn.

Here’s How to Flutter Tongue on the Saxophone

Actually, if you were paying attention, you already know how to flutter tongue. Re-read the fourth paragraph. It describes the basics. Give it a try. No saxophone–just make the machine gun sound (leaving out the vocal part). You want to use my buddy Pete’s approach, not my refinements. Your tongue needs to touch closer to the center of your palate rather than directly behind your teeth.

Once you’re able to produce the rolling, machine-gun-like effect I’m talking about, try it with your horn. Bear two things in in mind:

• You’ll probably need to take in less mouthpiece than you normally would.

• You should not let your tongue touch the reed. Flutter-tonguing isn’t really tonguing in the usual sense; it is not a form of articulation such as single-tonguing or double-tonguing. Rather, your tongue flutters rapidly against the roof of your mouth as you blow into the mouthpiece. If your tongue actually touches the reed, it will choke off the sound.

Flutter tonguing is easiest to use in the middle register of your horn. With practice, you can work your way higher. And with practice, you can also play reasonably in tune. I say this because flutter tonguing can flatten your pitch if you’re not careful. So while the basic effect isn’t particularly difficult to produce, getting it to a point of usefulness may take a bit of work. Overall, though, flutter tonguing is in my experience one of the more easily acquired effects. Compared to mastering double-tonguing or the altissimo register, it’s a cinch.

I may create a video clip of my own to demonstrate the flutter tonguing technique. Meanwhile, this one by Phil Baldino does a great job of letting you see and hear how it’s done.

The Noob: A Review of Adam Lucio’s New Storm Chasing DVD

June 17, 2010. If you were in Minnesota on that date, I need say no more. Regretfully, I was not there. But Adam Lucio was, and in his new DVD chronicling his chases from 2008 till today, Adam’s Minnesota chase–which rewarded him with some of the most visually stunning tornadoes of circum 2010–is just one in a list of potent tornado events captured on video.

No, it’s not the next best thing to being there in Minnesota–how could it be? What it is, is great footage of some spectacular storms, the kind of video that makes me wish like anything that I had been there and glad that Adam has done such a good job of showing me what I missed.

If for no other reason than the 2010 Minnesota outbreak, Adam’s DVD is a viewing windfall for storm chasers and weather junkies. However, June 17 is just one of a number of memorable chases that appear in The Noob. More recent footage from 2011 includes the dusty EF-3 Litchfield, Illinois, cone of April 19; a turbulent EF-4 wedge from the historic April 27 Super Outbreak; and the violent Oklahoma storms of May 24.

The Noob also whisks me down Memory Lane to May 22, 2010, in South Dakota, an unforgettable day for those of us who chased the northern plains. And heading back even further, Adam shares some visceral footage from 2008 of a large tornado crossing I-57 south of Chicago, his hometown.

At nearly two hours in length, Adam’s DVD covers a lot of material, and I’m not going to attempt a blow-by-blow analysis of it all. I’m just going to comment on a few highlights and let you discover the rest for yourself when you buy the DVD. Which you should do. You’ll congratulate yourself on your purchase every time you watch it.

I’ve already mentioned the Minnesota outbreak of June 17, 2010. This is the one section of the DVD where I took notes, because the storm was simply incredible. The video first shows an initial elephant trunk near Kiester. It’s followed by another much larger tornado, and from here the drama rapidly ramps up. I’ve heard some guys describe this date as their best chase ever, and I can see why: there’s a lot going on with both the tornadoes and the surrounding sky.

As the second, dark wedge does a multi-vortex dance on the other side of a distant woodlot, a new circulation rapidly develops in the foreground. There appears to be no handoff of energy from one circulation to the other at this point; for a while, presumably, two distinct, large tornadoes coexist in close proximity to each other. Eventually, however, we’re left with just one large, white cone surrounded by a huge, rapidly revolving collar cloud. The effect, already spectacular, becomes even moreso as the tornado moves toward Conger and then onward toward Albert Lea. It is a monstrous, long-track tornado that displays every shape and behavior in the book.

What at times captivated me as much as the tornado was the behavior of the clouds in the foreground. There’s at least one instance where you can see clear signs of anti-cyclonic rotation, both on a broader scale and in smaller swirls of cloud. It’s amazing to watch. And so is the horizontal vortex that passes overhead. The 1 km helicity near this storm had to have been just plain crazy.

Moving on, the Alabama footage is engaging not so much from a visual as a historical standpoint. Don’t misunderstand me, it’s good, entertaining viewing; it’s just nothing like the Minnesota section. What makes it remarkable is the date: April 27, the day of the 2011 Super Outbreak. Not since the infamous 1974 Super Outbreak have so many powerful tornadoes wrought such havoc in a single day. For that reason, this section of The Noob may be of historic interest in the future.

The May 22, 2011, South Dakota footage captures another spectacular, beautifully structured storm. What sets it apart, however, is the insanity of that a number of chasers experienced when the road they chose for an escape route dead-ended in a farmer’s wheat field. Adam was among them, along with his chase partners, Ben Holcomb and Danny Neal. With multiple tornadoes spinning up and advancing toward them, the chasers took the only evasive action they had left by bailing south into the field, where ponding eventually cut them off. “Game over,” as Adam put it. From that point, all they could do was hunker down and brace themselves until … well, you’ll just have to see for yourself what happened. Ben Holcomb captured the intensity of that part of the chase on camera, and Adam has included Ben’s video as part of the South Dakota section.

I might add, my buddies and I were in that same field just a stone’s throw from Adam’s vehicle, and I remember well how it was that day. But some of the footage here reveals things even I didn’t see, and viewing it makes me realize how truly blessed all of us were to have escaped without injury.

I could continue on, but you get the idea. The Noob is a great storm chasing DVD that delivers a huge amount of bang for your 14-and-99/100 bucks.

Adam is a passionate and capable chaser who takes every opportunity available to him to go where the storms will be. The title of his new DVD reflects to me both humor and humility, winsome qualities in any person.

The Noob is raw chasing. Adam clearly invested time and care in editing his material, and he offers a few nice editorial touches (such as Ben Holcomb’s embedded footage during part of the hair-raising South Dakota field escapade). For the most part, however, the DVD doesn’t get too fancy. In my book, that’s a plus. The occasional splashes of background music are conservatively used, not overdone, and hence a welcome addition rather than a subtraction from the focus of this video, which is tornadoes and the experience of chasing them.


Is there room for improvement? Sure. Much of the video footage is hand-held, which makes for slightly to drastically shaky viewing. Of course, this is real-life chasing–not a professional film crew, just one guy with a camera coping with constantly changing conditions as he pursues the most violent and volatile weather phenomenon on the planet. Some of the storms were clearly moving fast, and Adam didn’t have time to park his vehicle, set up his tripod, toss out a lawn chair, and sip his favorite beverage, iced tea, while casually filming. I noticed that he made better use of his tripod with slower moving storms. In any event, I’m pretty sure he has already been considering how he might get more stable shots next season.

My second comment: There were times when I wanted to see a continuing view of a tornado’s interaction with the ground, not the sky. In the Minnesota footage, a large wedge barely misses two farms, appearing to barely graze behind them. Yet the camera drifts away from the drama on the ground–it had to have been terrifyingly dramatic for the people living at those farms–to the cloud base, back and forth. There’s enough ground footage to give a good feel for what’s happening; still, I want the focus to remain on the lower part of the funnel as it sweeps past past human habitations, so I can dwell on the story unfolding there at the surface.

With those two critiques out of the way, the only question left is, do I recommend this DVD?

Are you kidding? Absolutely! Yes. Buy it. Watch it once, watch it again, watch it multiple times. This is killer stuff.

Purchasing Information

The Noob is 1 hour, 57 minutes long. Purchase price is $14.99 ($17.99 international). For more information and to place your order, visit Adam’s site.

Dixieland for Cows

Till now, I thought for sure that I was the only jazz musician in the world who has played for a cow audience. And maybe I was until these guys, like me, discovered what fine, appreciative listeners cows are.

I have to admit, I can’t top this act. What a stitch! And some great Dixieland music, too. Thanks to my friend Bill Karlsson for sending me the link.

Relocated: A Review of Ben Holcomb’s 2011 Storm Chasing DVD

With his newly released second storm chasing DVD, Relocated, Ben Holcomb has done a fabulous job of capturing the action out west during 2011, a banner year for chasers. I just finished watching the DVD with Kurt Hulst. That makes my third time, and I’ve only had the video for a week.

I much enjoyed Ben’s maiden voyage DVD, which shows highlights from his first three years of chasing. Relocated improves on that foundation. As its name implies, this DVD reflects Ben’s move from Lansing, Michigan, to Norman, Oklahoma, smack in the heart of Tornado Alley. It also demonstrates Ben’s development as a videographer and producer, as evidenced by the quality of both the content and the packaging. From laid back to intense to pure wow, the moods and dialog in Relocated cover a variety of situations a chaser is apt to experience; and the storms are always the star of the show, which is how it should be.

While I’m on that last subject, one thing I appreciate about this video is its conservative use of background music. I enjoy a certain amount of music for spice, but not a lot. Mostly, I like to hear the environmental sounds of the chase–the crack of thunder, swoosh of the wind, and clatter of hail; the spontaneous comments and interactions of chasers; even the road noise and the sound of the car engine. I want to feel like I’m there, and this video does that for me.

Anyone who knows Ben knows how passionate he is about chasing. He moved to Oklahoma to maximize his opportunities to chase tornadoes, and 2011 rewarded him with a bumper crop. The action starts on April 9 in Mapleton, Iowa, a day that drew a lot of chasers out for an early chase. This section ends with a neat synchronization of freeze frames with music. I won’t say more–you’ll have to see for yourself. I’ll just tell you that it’s clever and nicely executed.

A couple weeks later, on April 24, things appear to have gotten a bit hairy for the Benster out in Baird, Texas. As he trains his camera on a distant lowering, a vortex spins up in the field next to him, and it becomes clear that circulation is establishing itself directly overhead. Call me a wuss, but that is the kind of situation that would make me pee like an elderly aunt in a beer tent, and it evidently inspired Ben to lean plenty on the accelerator, all the while continuing to shoot video. The result is some exciting footage shot at uncomfortably close range, and for me it’s the adrenaline spike of this DVD. Don’t try anything similar at home.

The footage from the May 24 Oklahoma outbreak is outstanding. What more could a chaser possibly want? The Chickasha EF4 grows rapidly from a cone to a powerful stovepipe as it crosses the road and then moves past Ben’s position at a distance of perhaps three-quarters of a mile (just guessing here). The tornado continues to grow into a violent wedge with a collar cloud circulating around it like a monstrous merry-go-round, dropping lower and lower toward an immense dust plume that rises up to meet it. Remember I mentioned that this video packs wow-ness? Well, here is a prime example.

Next, Ben captures a spectacularly beautiful white rope-out of the Shawnee tornado, which crosses the highway, then more-or-less anchors in a field and attenuates into nothingness as debris drifts out of the sky, sparkling in the sunlight. The camera probes high up the side of the disintegrating rope funnel, all the way up to its juncture with the cloud base. Very nice.

The June 20 section, shot in Nebraska with J. R. Hehnly, is one I find a bit frustrating to watch because I missed the tornadoes myself by about an hour. Not Ben. He got great, ongoing footage of a cyclic supercell that kept popping out tubes one after the other. A high point, fairly early in this part of the DVD, is some fantastic multiple vortex action after the first tornado crosses the road in front of the vehicle and then intensifies. You see a gorgeous white cone with suction vortices pirouetting around its base, an elegant egg-beater. It’s my favorite scene in a DVD that’s full of great tornado videography, and I’m caught between admiring the storm’s beauty and wanting to bang my head against a wall. Aaagh! Sixty more miles…one lousy hour sooner…nutz. Bad for me, but good for Ben and J. R.

That’s it for the tornadoes, but Ben has sweetened the deal with bonus footage of the last launch of the Atlantis space shuttle. Right, that has nothing to do with storm chasing, but it was obviously a standout event for Ben, as it would have been for anyone. So why not conclude this 75-minute DVD with a personal glimpse of a historic moment?

Relocated is a thoroughly satisfying video that anyone with a jones for tornadoes and severe weather will enjoy. Be aware, though, that this is the real deal, a realistic and personal presentation of storm chasing as most chasers experience it rather than what reality TV has made it out to be. The camera is often hand-held by a guy who is either simultaneously driving or else trying to gain an optimal view from the passenger seat. That’s part of the package, and it makes for an honest and engaging production.

Purchasing Information
Purchase price for Relocated is $15.00 plus $2.00 shipping. For more information and to place your order, visit Ben’s site, where you can also buy his first video, My First Three Years, for the same price. Or save $2.00 when you purchase both videos together for just $28.00 plus shipping.

If you’re looking for some great storm footage to while away the hours from now until spring, buy this video. And no, Ben didn’t pay me to say that or to write this review. I took it upon myself to do so because Ben is a good friend, a passionate chaser, and a guy who puts not only expertise but also a considerable amount of heart into what he does. Which is why Relocated rocks, and why it belongs in your video collection.

Video Tutorial #2: The Tritone Scale

A while back, I wrote a post on the tritone scale. For my second video tutorial, I thought I’d supplement that article with a brief audio-visual clip. Supplement is the operative word. Besides describing the theory of the tritone scale in somewhat greater detail and probably a bit more lucidly than the video, the writeup provides written examples for you to work with. But the video helps you hear the sound of the tritone scale, and in so doing, allows you to come at the scale from every angle.

People’s learning styles differ, so maybe this tutorial will be more your cup of tea. Regardless, if you haven’t read my written article, make sure to do so after you’ve watched the clip.

On a side note, the video was shot out at the Maher Audubon Sanctuary in rural southeastern Kent County, Michigan. I’m discovering a fondness for producing these tutorials in outdoor settings when I can. With winter closing in, my future productions will soon be relegated to the indoors; right now, though, nature is singing “Autumn Leaves,” and it has pleased me to capture a bit of her performance.

If you enjoy this tutorial, check out my Jazz Theory, Technique & Solo Transcriptions page. And with that said, enjoy the video.

My July 27 Michigan Tornado Video, for What It’s Worth

Michigan is not Oklahoma. It is not even Illinois. If you’re a storm chaser who has any life experience with this state, as a few of you do besides me, you know exactly what I mean. Had Dorothy and Toto lived here instead of in Kansas, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz would never have been written. That or else author L. Frank Baum would have had to find a dfferent means of lofting his main character and her little dog somewhere over the rainbow.

Sure, Michigan gets its annual tally of tornadoes. It’s just that most of them are something less than what you’ll encounter west of the Mississippi or down south in Dixie Alley. That’s not a bad thing, given our population density. But it does require Michigan-based chasers to either travel long distances out of state or else languish from convective malnutrition.

You want to see a Michigan tornado? Okay, I’ll show you a Michigan tornado. But be forewarned, it’s not a pretty sight. It’s barely any kind of a sight at all. When I first spotted it, I wasn’t even certain it was a tornado, though after reviewing my HD clip and getting a couple of other reliable opinions, I’m now convinced. Good thing, too, because it’s all I’ve got to show for this year in terms of actually seeing a tornado. That’s pretty pathetic, considering the chase opportunities that circum 2011 has presented. But you can’t chase when your 85-year-old mother is having a knee replacement, as mine did on April 27, the day of the 2011 Super Outbreak; or when you just don’t have the money to go gallivanting freely across Tornado Alley, a reality that has badly limited me this year.

Given such circumstances, you grab what you can, where you can, when you can. July 27 was an example. Although a light risk tapped on the very westernmost edge of Michigan, my state was for the most part outlooked for nothing more than general thunderstorms. Severe weather wasn’t a concern. So imagine my surprise when I spotted distinct rotation on GR3 in a cell just to my southwest, heading ESE toward Hastings.

Grabbing my gear, I hopped in my car and headed east, setting up my laptop on the way. And what do you know! The radar didn’t lie. The storm had a large, well-defined wall cloud that I caught up with as I approached Hastings on State Road.

Since my video clip doesn’t show much in the way of structure, let me assure those of you who care about such things that this storm had good visual clues: impressive wall cloud, crisp updraft tower, and a warm RFD cascading off the back end. As I’ve already mentioned, storm motion was ESE, which corroborates my recollection of a northwest flow regime and explains why the rotation was more on the northwest part of the cell than the southwest. Also, as I recall, surface winds were from the SSW, though I can’t say how they were behaving ahead of the updraft area as I never managed to outpace the storm.

With all that said, here’s what happens in the video: Heading south behind the storm, I first spot the tornado out of my side window, which is covered with raindrops. Those somewhat obscure the funnel, but you can still make it out as a small, faint, whitish blotch connecting the cloud base to the treeline a little ways to the right of center. At this point I’m debating with myself and conclude that the feature is just scud. I park the car, zoom in on the storm and lose focus, then roll down the window and zoom back out. You’ll then see a small sapling mid-screen, and the tornado still barely visible to its right as a tiny strand of light gray condensation set against the darker background. It, translates almost imperceptibly to the right for a handful of seconds before vanishing. In my HD clip, I can make out something of an actual rope-out, but you can’t tell with YouTube.

Nevertheless, even though YouTube isn’t great for detail, I think you’ll see what I’m talking about overall. I promise you, it’s there; you just have to look closely. And use your imagination. And be highly suggestible. And believe in the Tooth Fairy. (I’ve also got some clips of Sasquatch and the Loch Ness monster that you may take an interest in, but those are for another time.)

The tornado doesn’t appear in the day’s storm reports, and I don’t believe the supercell that produced it ever got severe-warned. I think I was the only chaser on the darn thing, at least from my side of the state. I did report the wall cloud to GRR. I never bothered with the tornado because it was there and gone before I’d made up my mind what it was. It certainly was an anemic little puke, and I’m not sure whether to feel grateful that I scored at least one tube this year or to feel mortified about even claiming it. I almost felt sorry for the poor thing, and if I could have, I’d have taken it home and cared for it until it was healthy, and then released it under some nice, beefy updraft tower while strains of “Born Free” played in the background.

Go ahead and laugh, but I’m probably the only chaser in Michigan who got video of this tornado. Then again, that’s nothing to brag about, particularly in a year when so many chasers have captured videos of violent, mile-wide monsters. It’s just, like I said, all I’ve got to show. Yeah, I was there with my buddies right by the airport when the April 22 Saint Louis tornado hit, but none of us actually saw a funnel. I doubt anyone did after dark in all that rain. So July 27 is it for me, my sole visual record. Mine, all mine. Bob’s tornado. I’ve assigned it an F6 on the original Fujita scale, F6 being a hypothetical rating associated with “inconceivable damage.” That description fits perfectly, as this tornado was practically hypothetical, and it’s inconceivable to me that it could have damaged much of anything. Maybe snatched up an ill-fitting toupee, but that’s about it.

So there you have it: a genuine Michigan tornado. Now you know what storm chasing is like here in my state. It’s just another of the great perks that this supercell haven has to offer besides its economy.

I will say this: we do have fantastic craft beer.

Video Tutorial #1: The Augmented Scale

The time has come for me to kick it up a notch on with my first video tutorial on jazz. This one is on the augmented scale, a favorite of mine.

I feel a bit presumptuous taking this step, since I’m putting myself out in front of you, my musical readers, in a new way that suggests a high degree of expertise. The reality is, I’m a mostly self-taught saxophonist who lives in a rural, bedroom community of Grand Rapids, Michigan, where you can still drive just a few blocks to find plenty of corn and cows. That said, I know what I know. More important, I’m a perpetual learner, and I like to share what I’ve learned, often as I’m still in the process of learning it. This video tutorial represents my effort to offer you more value by, er, augmenting your learning experience. (Pun intended. Rimshot, please.)

In the Jazz Theory, Technique, and Solo Transcriptions section of my Jazz page, you’ll find a good number of written articles on the augmented scale, complete with exercises, to supplement this video. One thing they can’t do, though, is familiarize you with the sound of the scale. That’s where this tutorial comes in handy. I hope you’ll enjoy it.

Hurricane Irene in North Carolina

Hurricane Irene demonstrated to me conclusively that hurricanes aren’t my thing. Maybe I’m too cautious; maybe I’m downright chicken; maybe I’m smart. Certainly I’m inexperienced; just as certainly, I’ve never felt the same fascination for the hurricane environment, as I’ve understood it, as I have for tornadoes and supercells. However these various factors work in combination, the bottom line is, while I’m glad I got the opportunity last weekend to experience an impressive degree of Irene, if not her full fury, I doubt that my future holds any more hurricane interceptions.

Hurricanes and tornadoes are different animals, and the mindsets required for a severe weather junkie to appreciate the two are worlds apart. A tornado is ephemeral, arriving and departing in minutes; a hurricane is a time commitment of hours, possibly a lot of hours. A tornado is something you go to see; a hurricane is something you go to experience. A tornado’s human impact is terrestrial; a hurricane’s, amphibious, bringing the ocean with it as it arrives onshore. A tornado is something you seek to avoid getting munched by; a hurricane is something you purposely allow to ingest you, and it requires that you be willing to risk circumstances of a kind and scope that can outstrip anything even the worst tornado can produce.

I’m by no means minimizing the lethal, wholesale destructiveness of tornadoes. I’m just saying, we’re comparing apples and oranges. Yes, both storms pack a heckuva lotta wind, both are capable of horrific impact on communities, and both can kill you equally dead. But beyond that, the similarities vanish.

Different personalities embrace the variables in different ways. My friend and long-time storm chasing partner, Bill Oosterbaan, is now hooked on hurricanes. His brother, Tom, enjoyed doing the eyewall with Bill at Morehead City, North Carolina, but I suspect that once was enough for him. As for me, witnessing the massive surf pounding Atlantic Beach as Irene approached, and watching tropical-storm winds and hurricane-force gusts blast our hotel inland at Greenville, was all the taste of Irene I needed. Don’t get me wrong–the experience was thoroughly exhilarating, and I’m really glad I went. I just can’t see doing it again, particularly with a stronger hurricane than Irene.

I never expected to go to begin with. As Bill and Tom were making plans a few days in advance, I chimed in on the discussion, but I had neither the money nor the driving desire to join them, though I confess that I was intrigued. Then Bill called me three hours before their departure with the news that their trip would be underwritten and wouldn’t cost a cent. Would I like to go?

It was a kind, thoughtful offer. Bill knew that this storm season–historic and record-breaking as it has been for tornadoes–had been a miserable one for me as far as chasing went. Between family responsibilities and personal finances, it had been an utter washout, to the point where I’ve felt awkward even calling myself a storm chaser. Yeah, I’ve earned the merit badge over the last 15 years, but you wouldn’t know it judging by this year. Bill and Tom, good friends that they are, knew that I had felt the disappointment keenly and wanted me to have at least something to show for circum 2011.

So, making a last-minute decision, I grabbed the opportunity, threw some clothes into my softside, grabbed my gear, and off we went.

GPS and Live-Stream Hassles

Bill had made arrangements with WOOD TV8 to live-stream Irene using his new, super-fast Asus quad-core laptop. Unfortunately, DeLorme’s serial port emulator wouldn’t work with the laptop’s 64-bit Windows 7 OS, nor would Bill’s GPSGate recognize the DeLorme puck. The long and short of it was, while Bill could stream through iMap, there was no way of showing his location, rendering his live stream useless.

My computer isn’t as fast as Bill’s, but it’s fast enough, and it didn’t pose the same problems. However, for some reason, I kept losing my mobile signal Friday as we headed towards Morehead City. Worse yet, my output on iMap appeared jerky and horribly pixelated, to the point where I finally just gave it up. So much for live streaming for both of us. And so much for getting the trip underwritten.

Big Surf at Atlantic Beach

Friday, August 26. After checking into our hotel in Greenville, North Carolina, we set off for Morehead City. When we arrived, the bridge to Atlantic Beach beckoned, so over we went. We parked in a lot occupied by various media crews as well as casual sightseers. With just two hours before law enforcement intended to start kicking people off the island, we bundled on our rain gear and took in the massive waves pounding the shoreline.

The eye of the hurricane was still a good 150 or more miles south of us, but the wind was stiff and the sea a maelstrom of spuming breakers and brown, roiling undertow. My YouTube video doesn’t do justice to that wild, watery scene. The waves farther out in the video had to have been a good 15 feet high, their tops trailing spray into the gale as they raced toward shore.

By the way, that’s me in the rain jacket and shorts, cavorting in front of the waves. Hi, Mom!

Bill was determined to stick around and experience the eyewall, and I had the nervous sense that he wanted to hang out on the barrier island. My concern was that the island might wind up underwater, and that even Morehead City could get inundated by floodwaters, or the storm surge, or both. It just didn’t seem wise to me to locate ourselves that close to the Atlantic shoreline. Irene, which the day before had been forecast to make landfall as a category 3 storm, had by now been downgraded to a top-end category 1, but she was still an abnormally huge hurricane. I was concerned that our escape routes would be cut off and we would find ourselves stranded, with nowhere to go and the ocean encroaching on us as Irene’s eye moved in. High winds I’m fine with–bring ’em on; I like it. But I prefer them as a dry-land phenomenon, not a maritime experience.

Ultimately, I wimped out. The guys graciously brought me back to our hotel in Greenville, which was where I’d thought we would ride out the storm to begin with. I felt ashamed of myself for inconveniencing them, and I knew that Bill was disappointed. We’ve shared so many storm adventures over the years, but this wouldn’t be one of them. To be fair to myself, my reasonings–not all of which I’ve elaborated on here–were, I believe, fairly sound. Plus, again, I’ve never felt drawn to hurricanes the way I am to tornadoes and severe thunderstorms. Still, I had moved from an asset to a liability.

I beat myself up for quite awhile, so in case anyone reading this post feels inclined to pitch in their two cents, spare yourself the effort. I already did the job for you. That said, there was something to be said for peeling off my sopping clothes–which, thanks to a catastrophic failure on the part of my Helly Hansen rain suit, had gotten totally drenched–and then kicking back on a dry bed to watch the unfolding coverage of Irene on TV.

Saturday, August 27

When I awoke, Irene was making landfall at Morehead City. I picked up the phone and called Bill. No answer, and no surprise. I wasn’t certain whether the cell phone towers were working, but I was sure that the guys had their hands full. The television showed the west side of Irene’s eye squarely over their heads.

Outside, the wind was lashing a tree out in the courtyard and blowing a fine spray of rain against the window. Hurricane rain is not like the rain you get with an ordinary thunderstorm. The hydrometeors are smaller, halfway between droplets and wind-driven drizzle. But what a drizzle! Watching the stuff lash horizontally across the landscape, alternating between lighter respites and sudden, heavier bursts that tumble along like fog shot from a cannon, you really can’t fathom just how much is actually falling. The answer is, lots, an almost inconceivable amount.

By and by, I got curious what the view offered from a vantage point other than my fourth-floor room. Grabbing my video camera, I took the elevator downstairs and headed for the hotel entrance. There, for the first time, I got a good taste of Irene. Greenville may not have been in range of the hurricane’s full force, but the westward extent of her tropical-storm winds had surprised forecasters, and my location lay within a concentrated area of those winds. With sustained speeds of 55 mph and gusts as high as 75 mph, there was more than enough to hold my interest.

The higher winds in a hurricane are associated with its rain bands. When you see one of those bands approaching your location on radar, you can count on two things happening simultaneously: It is going to get very rainy, and it is going to get very windy. The transition occurs with a suddenness that verges on explosive, and in Greenville, its effect was everything you could imagine. Trees were down, and more were going down all the time. Branches were snapping. Power was out over a large area. In the hotel, the electricity flickered off and on, off and on, but amazingly, it somehow stayed with us for all but one two-hour stretch. As for Internet connection, forget it. I had been without radar updates since shortly after 8:00 a.m. So much for getting GR2AE volume scans of Irene while she was over Morehead City. They’d have made a nice memento for the guys, but there was no accessing the data.

The Storm Troopers Return

Bill and Tom returned around 3:00 in the afternoon, exhilarated and exhausted. After showering up, they headed back out into the wind and rain to catch dinner at one of the few open restaurants. They returned in an hour and filled me in on their eyewall experience. It sounded awesome, and I’m glad it was everything they’d hoped for. I can honestly say I didn’t mind having missed it, but I was pleased that they got what they were after. Particularly Bill. Experiencing a hurricane is something he’d been wanting to do for several years, and now that he’s gotten it in his blood, I’m quite sure he’ll do it again.

We started for home around 8:00 Sunday morning. The first 25 to 30 miles westward were littered with downed trees. Some of them blocked the road, requiring us twice to find an alternate route. In a few places, yards and even homes were flooded. Corn fields had been flattened by the wind and rain, and the tobacco, while not appearing as badly ravaged, had clearly taken a hit. Other more compact crops such as cotton and soy beans had fared better.

Fourteen hours later, a few minutes after 10:00 p.m., we rolled into Bill’s driveway, and a short while afterward, I was in my own vehicle driving east down M-6 toward home and my sweetheart, Lisa.

Will I do another hurricane? Well, I didn’t entirely do Irene for reasons I’ve at least partly explained. I did, however, get enough of a taste to confirm my sense that hurricanes don’t exert the same pull on me as tornadoes. I’m grateful to Bill and Tom for wanting me to join them–thank you so much, guys! I really appreciate it. Those middle rain bands in Greenville may not have been as intense as what you witnessed, but they were a blast, and I’m very glad I got to see at least that much of Irene.

However, lacking the passion required for accepting the risks involved, I would likely be just as reluctant to commit to a landfall intercept in the future as I was this time, and thus I would simply detract from the experience for others. That wouldn’t be fair to them or enjoyable for me.

So, while the old saying may be, “Never say never,” I seriously doubt that another hurricane lies on my horizon. Not anytime soon, anyway. If you enjoy multiplied hours of wind, water, sweat, and uncertainty, then a hurricane just might be your thing. Me, I’ll stick with tornadoes. They’re not so all-fired comprehensive.

The Historic 2011 Tornado Season in Review: A Video Interview with Storm Chaser Bill Oosterbaan, Parts 2-4

This post continues from part one of my video interview with Bill Oosterbaan on his storm chases during the monumental tornado season of 2011. Since the interview involves one chaser’s recollections, it obviously can’t and doesn’t embrace the entirety of this year’s significant tornado events, such as the April 9 Mapleton, Iowa, tornado and the April 14–16 outbreak.

The latter event was historic in its own right, the worst outbreak to occur since February 5–6, 2008. During most years it would have been the biggest headline maker for spring storms; yet in 2011, it got eclipsed three weeks later by the deadly super outbreak of April 25–28; and again on May 22 by the heartbreaking disaster in Joplin, Missouri, where 158 lives were lost.

The tornadoes of 2011 will long be remembered for for their violence, size, and path length; for their sheer number; and for their devastating impact on large towns across the South and Southeast. In the following videos, my friend and long-time chase partner Bill talks about his experiences in Arkansas, Alabama, Oklahoma, and Nebraska. If you haven’t already seen Part 1, I encourage you to start there and view the entire interview in sequence.

These videos constitute a person-to-person conversation, not a series of tornado clips. In fact, due to issues with his camera, Bill regretfully didn’t get the kind of video record he hoped for. He did, however, manage to film the Vilonia, Arkansas, wedge; and, equipped with a new camcorder on June 20, he captured some interesting and exciting footage in Nebraska, some which you can view here and here.

Bill, while I couldn’t join you on most of your chases this spring, I’m glad you had such a successful season. I know the dues you’ve paid over the years. You’re the McCoy.

The Historic 2011 Tornado Season in Review: A Video Interview with Storm Chaser Bill Oosterbaan, Part 1

Just about any way you look at it, the 2011 tornado season has been exceptional, disastrous, spectacular, and heartbreaking. On April 25–28, the largest tornado outbreak in United States history claimed over 340 lives over a span of 78 1/2 hours. Hardest hit was northern Alabama, where 239 of the fatalities occurred. Of the 335 confirmed tornadoes that drilled across 21 states from Texas and Oklahoma to as far north as upstate New York, four received an EF-5 rating, a figure surpassed only by the 1974 Super Outbreak. In other ways, what is now known as the 2011 Super Outbreak rivaled its infamous predecessor of 37 years ago. There were more tornadoes. And, in an age when warning technology and communications far outstrips what existed on April 3–4, 1974, there were nevertheless more deaths.

The 2011 Super Outbreak alone would have set the year apart as a mile marker in weather history. But less than a month later, on May 22, another longstanding record got broken–and tornado records are rarely anything one hopes to see beaten. In this case, a mile-wide EF-5 wedge that leveled Joplin, Missouri, became not only the first single tornado since the 1953 Flint–Beecher, Michigan, tornado to kill over 100 people, but also, with a death toll of 153, the deadliest US tornado since the Woodward, Oklahoma, tornado of 1943.

This has been a year when large cities have gotten smeared, churned into toothpicks and spit out at 200 mph. Tusacaloosa, Birmingham, Huntsville, Joplin…if you survived the storms that trashed these towns, you were blessed. And chances are, you know people who weren’t so fortunate.

Rarely has the dark side of the storms that storm chasers so passionately pursue been on such grim and devastating display. This has been an awful tornado season, and that’s the truth. It has also been a spectacular one, and if many of the storms were man eaters, yet many others spun out their violent beauty harmlessly out on the open plains. Chasers this year have witnessed the full gamut, from April’s deadly monsters that raced across Dixie Alley to slow-moving, late-season funnels that meandered grandly over the grasslands.

For me, the season has largely been a washout. Family and economic constraints kept me mostly benched this spring, and the few times when I made it out west to chase were unproductive.

Not so, however, with my friend and chase partner of 15 years, Bill Oosterbaan. Bill has had a spectacular and a sobering season–and in this first-ever video interview, he’s here to talk about it.

The 40-minute length of this video requires that it be broken into four sections in order to fit YouTube requirements. It’s a lengthy process, and me being a novice at video editing–particularly with high definition–it has taken me a while to figure out how to make it work. This evening I finally had a breakthrough, and now I’m pleased to say that Part 1 is available for viewing. I will be working on the remaining three parts tomorrow, and I hope to have them available in their entirety on YouTube by Wednesday. [UPDATE: Parts 2–4 are now available for viewing.]

For now, by way of a teaser with some substance to it, here is the first part.