Some Memories of Al Moller

Alan R. Moller–a friend, mentor and meteorological and photographic inspiration of mine–is now gone from this earth. In the predawn hours of 19 June 2014, Al died in his sleep from the end-stage physical ravages of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

Soon after he found out he had this awful condition, Al retired from his position as a lead forecaster for the Fort Worth office of the National Weather Service (see their tribute page). I know this phrase is hackneyed in the popular lexicon, but it surely applies here: Al was an absolute giant in severe-storms science, analysis and forecasting, spotter training, and outdoor photography. Before reading further, it may help readers not as familiar with his life and influence to read this tribute that I wrote about him in 2009–when he still was lucid and aware, and when he could appreciate knowing what he meant to so many of us who shared his passions. And yes, if there is one word that defined Al, it was passion.

Before his ailment, Al had been looking forward to a retirement of travel, photography, blues music, watching drag racing, and continuing his lifelong devotion to educating storm spotters and fellow weather enthusiasts. Even after his retirement dinner, by which time I already knew (but didn’t yet publicly discuss) his diagnosis, I still hoped that he could enjoy storms and travels in whatever time he had left. To a very limited extent, with the aid of great old DFW-area friends like Sam Barricklow, he did. I was hugely glad to hear of his and Sam’s intercept of the tornadic Perryton-Slapout supercell of 13 June 2010.

Moreover, I’m grateful to Sam, Ed Cohen, Tim Marshall, Carson Eads, and others who spent time with Al in his final months, even as his exquisitely brilliant mind receded from view. Despite his condition, I think seeing old friends stop by, in addition to his family, soothed his troubles and confusion a little, and gave him a measure of comfort. On my next-to-last time seeing him, in late February, he couldn’t talk anymore. Still, I know he recognized both Elke and me–holding her hand gently as she talked to him. When I looked him in the eye and introduced myself, he stared back with clear focus of recognition, grabbing my hand and giving me a firm, solid handshake. As I showed him some surface maps I had drawn for him, from historic chase and forecast days that had been very familiar, he paid reasonably close attention, fighting off sleepiness and other effects of the sedatives, and staring especially hard with a hand gesture at the map from the Wichita Falls (10 April 1979) tornado day.

True, a cruelly manifest disease truncated all those great plans and ideas, kept him from experiencing so much more that life had to offer, took him away many years too soon, and also, reinforced for all of us who knew and cherished Al that we cannot and must not assume any tomorrows. Instead, we should live in the present, be present, step outside ourselves to plug in fully to the exquisite moments and scenes with which life blesses us. What’s wonderful about remembering Al, among much else, is that he lived that way on a daily basis.

That philosophy, that manner of being, is the art of escaping the smallness and relative insignificance of self and immersing completely in one’s surroundings, all senses engaged and in tune to the present. Nowhere does that manifest more deeply for me than in the inflow of a huge, strikingly sculpted Great Plains supercell. Al had the very same appreciation and ability, and as such, we related very well and had several deep conversations about the manifest awe of, and inner cleansing in the presence of, storms we had observed. In general terms, whether applied to storms or anything else in nature, it’s mostly known as a Zen-related ideal; indeed, many years ago, Al convinced me to read one of his favorite tomes: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

My own Christian faith is compatible fully with that more generalized (but hard to find) ideal, in terms of connecting more directly and intimately with God the power, marveling at His beauty and reducing myself before some great presence in the atmosphere that still represents but an immeasurably tiny fraction of His grandeur and majesty. Al and I may have expressed or attributed it differently, but it’s the very same phenomenon–and a manifestly spiritual one that transcends doctrines or labels. Yes, Al was a deeply spiritual person, whose thinking on such topics was far-reaching and likewise didn’t conform to doctrines. Even though I didn’t get to spend a lot of hours with him over the years compared to his older friends, we understood each other on a profound level because of that treasured intangible. I’ll always be grateful for his encouragement and refinement of that aspect in me, because he truly got it–deeply, immeasurably, on a plane well beyond all but a very few other people I’ve known. I strive to continue improving at that immersion, being open to the moment, to dive deeper and more often in that appreciativeness afield when the opportunity arrives.

On a professional level, Al also manifest that philosophy, including the ideal of swimming in the real, observational data and taking the time to slow down and truly understand the base state of the atmosphere through (among other practices) skilled hand analysis. This subjective art, an oft-neglected aspect of our science, is an inescapable attribute of the consistently best forecasters. Al overtly called it “spiritual”–a way to bring intuitive thinking into the forecast process that taps into knowledge not necessarily expressed as cold, objective numbers or militaristic thresholds. The art of scientific analysis and forecasting cannot be measured against verification stats, poured into a beaker and gauged, or offered to bean-counters as numerical proof that humans outperform models. That’s not how it works, nor is that the motivator. The motivation instead is simple but difficult: excellence for its own sake! To this day and beyond, the most devoted and excellent forecasters still take this approach. Al and I shared the belief that they succeed in that way because of the passionate side, the deep interest, and yes, a spiritual, intuitive element that leads one to truly understand the data (as opposed to just looking at it).

Now I’ll share a few more remembrances of Al, besides what appeared in the tribute from 2009, and elaborate upon one or two I briefly mentioned then. Though painting a complete written picture of such a complex and far-reaching person is impossible, I hope this selection from among many memories offers still more insight into his impact and importance.

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Back in the mid-late ’80s, I was a green-as-a-gourd undergrad student working at NSSL, temporarily helping Chuck and Al to sort and choose slides from the lab’s image library for their latest generation of spotter-training material. Sensing his heightened interest, I asked Al some question I can’t remember about a supercell day from the ’70s or early’80s that was before my time. I don’t remember the date, but Al was clearly intimately familiar with it. Al started waxing poetically in his usual, captivating way, explaining not just what happened but why, and his own experiences out there with those storms, complete with a funny story or two that I can’t recall. I was listening with rapt attention, but Chuck–apparently quite familiar with this event already, started fidgeting and getting impatient. Finally he reminded Al (rightfully, given the late-afternoon hour) that we needed to move on with our work. Al shot him an irritated look and said, “Shut the f&#^ up, Chuck!” For a second, I was astounded that somebody could and would do that to the legend himself, Dr. Doswell. I think we all started laughing after that, and indeed, the work soon hit a good stopping point that we may have reached by then anyway. Simply observing those two best friends and top-notch scientists interact, whether in that project, on storm chases afield, or analyzing maps in a forecast office in the early ’90s, was both hilarious and educational. I thirsted for more and wish I could have chased in the same vehicle with them just once. If dashboards could talk…

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Even after knowing he had a serious and invariably fatal condition, Al could have a sense of humor about it. At his retirement dinner, he and I were standing on one side of a big room, talking and catching up, when he spied Rich Thompson headed our way. Al, who had known Rich for over 20 years, but hadn’t seen him in a few, nudged me with a wink and said, “Watch this.” As Rich walked over to say hello, Al turned to look at him with a deliberately befuddled, head-tilted expression, pretending to study Rich’s face for a couple of seconds. He then asked Rich, “Who the hell are you?” Giving Rich just enough time to stammer a bit in atypically speechless awkwardness, Al then advised him of the practical joke he had just unleashed, and confidently greeted Rich by name.

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I’ll forever value just a few days in June 2003 when Sam, Al, and Elke and I (in three vehicles) caravanned across eastern New Mexico in search of storms, food, laughs, stories, and breathtaking vistas. We found them all. Two among several great memories:

  1. As Sam and I photographed this storm, we saw Al’s vehicle roaring toward us from the distance and right past, its driver with an ashen yet exhilarated look on his face, eyes seemingly big as dinner plates. Turns out Al barely had escaped the giant hail falling all around him, somehow with no damage to the vehicle, and wanted to get as far from that translucent but destructive core as possible.
  2. Al, Sam, me, Carsten Peter, and another chaser or two (in roughly that order) were lined up side-by-side on some hilltop outside Fort Sumner, trying to shoot fairly close daytime lightning bolts flung by an otherwise fuzzy, high-based junkpile of storms that was approaching. Likely wiser than all of us, Elke remained in my car to avoid the hazard. One stroke blasted right in front of the setting sun, setting off a “YESSS!! I got it!!!” reaction from Al. I hollered back, “So did I!” Somehow we both knew, despite using slide film and having no instant confirmation like digital now offers. I’m not sure any other two chasers ever have captured the same composition of the same daytime lightning bolt using only a timely finger push, not a triggering device. Al and I each showed our essentially identical versions of the resulting picture at the next Severe Storms Conference, and told each other in jest, “You stole my photo!”

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Not often did Al and I disagree on something we both deemed important, but I treasured the times we did, for they too were learning experiences. We once had a heated argument in an Orlando hotel foyer regarding the integrity and necessity of issuing tornado warnings for extremely severe, nontornadic thunderstorms moving into metro areas. I took con, based on the position that we are not paid to be dishonest with our audience by telling them something different from literal reality. Al was pro, arguing that thunderstorm winds as strong as some tornadoes, and huge hail that can kill people, deserve that level of alarm, and a tornado warning was the only way to deliver it. I argued back that it was because severe thunderstorm warnings had become so diluted by over-use that they have lost meaning, and we need to fix those instead of watering down tornado warnings. Then he countered with a valid point. Then I countered…and so on, for about 45 minutes. For good measure, a few profanities (well, maybe quite a few) were flung about during that episode. The entire time, a small audience gradually gathered, assembling from the arrivals for the impending AMS Severe Storms Conference. I hope we gave them a good show and taught them something to boot! Despite that and just a couple other intense discussions we had, it never took away our respect for each other; in fact such events strengthened our mutual regard. I certainly cherished them with great gratitude, for those challenging deliberations made me a better thinker and meteorologist.

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Al had a heart as big as his Texas-sized personality. My kids (David and Donna) and I visited my dad in a Ft. Worth hospital shortly before his death, and stopped by the forecast office to see Al on the way back. He bought Dr Peppers from the vending machine for David and Donna, who were aged 8 and 6 respectively that year. As Al and I were finishing some “grownup” discussion out in the forecast area, one of the kids spilled soda on the floor. Al and I rushed into the breakroom, and without hesitation, Al immediately got down on the floor to clean up the mess that I was going to make my kids deal with. This exemplified his selflessness and good character. The kids then looked forward to seeing Al again after that when we went to TESSA meetings or otherwise had the too-seldom chance to all get together.

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Before the Dr Pepper spill, in that grownup discussion, I broke the news to Al that Elke and I were engaged. He knew her already from their chases for a field project (one ironically also involving the late Tim Samaras). With a surprised look on his face, Al said, “Elke? Really? How the hell did you convince an amazing woman like her to marry you?” After we shared a laugh, he turned stone-serious, glared right at me with those steely eyes he could wield, and told me in no uncertain terms that I had better treat her right. As usual, he was on the mark. Nearly twelve years later Elke and I are still very happily married.

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Last but definitely not least, Al’s scientific colleague, great friend of over 40 years, and frequent storm-intercept partner, Chuck Doswell, posted a moving essay about Al’s life and death that is well worth reading.



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