On May 13, 1980, I was a 22 year-old graduate student at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. I was also a starter on the Broncos baseball team, which had practiced that morning under sunny skies.
That afternoon, I was scheduled to umpire a high school baseball game in neighboring Portage, just 10 miles or so from the house I shared with four of my WMU teammates.
I made an uneventful trip to Portage in my 1970 Buick Skylark, arriving at 3:30 p.m. Thirty minutes later, the ballgame started on time. I was behind the plate.
By the bottom of the first inning, the wind was gusting to about 15 MPH. The sky beyond the outfield was a deep gray.
In the top of the second inning, the sky turned an eerie violet. Something was happening toward Kalamazoo. That was certain. Several cars pulled into the parking lot at once as I crouched behind the catcher. A woman approached the backstop, frantic.
“Why are you still playing?” She demanded.
“It’s not raining, ma’am,” I said. “I know it looks bad out there, but that stuff isn’t coming our way.”
“There’s been a tornado in Kalamazoo!” She said. “I think you should stop this game!”
More parents were gathering at the backstop, nodding and mumbling in agreement. I decided to take a meeting. I waived my partner in from the bases and brought both coaches over from their dugouts.
“I’ll leave it up to you guys,” I said to the group. “Whatever you decide.”
Twenty-four hours earlier, I had lugged two large sacks of dirty clothes into a laundromat and dry cleaner on West Main Street in Kalamazoo. I’d been going there every few weeks for two years, so I was friendly with the staff, which included a couple of women in their late twenties.
I had intended to read a few homework chapters during the two hours or so it would take to wash and dry and fold my things, but I forgot the book. There was a grocery store nearby, so I decided to grab some snacks and a paperback to read. Unfortunately, there were no books or magazines in the store (other than The Globe and The National Inquirer). However, a rack filled with mini-books stood near the checkout. I scanned the titles and decided on “How to Read Palms.” It seemed like a useful life skill—not to mention a way to flirt with those older women.
“What's that you’re reading?” The blonde wanted know.
“Palms. How to read palms,” I said.
“Oh. Can you read mine?”
“Sure. Let me see your hand.”
I followed the instructions in the booklet and inspected the lines on her palm.
“What’s it say?” She asked.
“It says you’ll live a long, happy life. Your love line is exceptional. Not surprising,” I flirted.
She ignored that remark and turned to call her co-worker from the dry cleaning counter.
“Read hers, too,” she said, as the brunette sat beside her.
I reached for her left hand, which sported an engagement ring with a smallish diamond solitaire.
“All right. Let’s see what we’ve got,” I mused.
“She’s getting married this weekend,” said the blonde.
“Oh. Great!” I said, hiding my disappointment.
I studied her hand just as I’d studied the blonde’s hand. I followed the same instructions. When I read the analysis, I quickly closed the booklet and tried to change the subject.
“What does your fiancée do?” I asked.
“He’s a fireman,” she said. “What did the book say?”
“Nothing. I have to check my wash,” I said.
“Come on!” The blonde persisted.
“Yeah. Come on!” Said the bride to be.
“Okay. Okay,” I relented. “Just remember, it’s a stupid little two-dollar book I bought in the grocery store checkout line.”
“Go ahead. What’s it say?” Asked the brunette.
“It says. It says. Well, see for yourself,” I stammered, showing her the analysis page.
“Doom?” The brunette asked, smiling nervously.
“Doom!” The blonde, laughed. “Let me see that thing. Yeah. It says ‘doom.’ I guess you’ve got a bad palm, sweetie.”
We all had a good laugh. I finished my laundry and wished the brunette good luck with her wedding.
Twenty-four hours later, the baseball coaches in Portage convinced the group of anxious parents that the safest place to be under the circumstances was right where they were. We finished the ballgame under clearing skies.
The next day, the Kalamazoo Gazette reported that five people had been killed in an F-3 tornado that struck shortly after 4 p.m. Among the dead was a young woman who’d been working inside a laundromat on West Main Street.