Review of “The Man Who Caught the Storm” by Brantley Hargrove

Not normally motivated to post book reviews on my BLOG, I’ll make this a special exception. Via the supercell on its cover, Elke and I spotted Brantley Hargrove’s new tome, “The Man Who Caught the Storm“, on sale at Sam’s Club cheaper than Amazon or any other online outlet, and snapped it right up. As of this writing, she hasn’t read it yet and is undecided on doing so; she took Tim’s death (especially the gruesomeness of it) rather hard. However, I finished it a few days ago, and my shamelessly verbose reaction follows.

Before plunging into the review, some background is necessary. I am absolutely a biased reviewer, no question. The book’s subject, Tim Samaras, had been a friend and colleague of mine since we met on a chase, in 1996. Tim and Elke had known each other from their Colorado chase days, as both had lived in and near Lakewood before she and I married.

Excerpt from my memorial tribute to Tim:

    Tim was a genuine gentleman, approachable and generous with a smile and a laugh, a devoted family man, and as authentic of a person as I’ve known. No pretensions, no agendas…just a passion-driven desire to channel his keen intellect into better measuring and understanding of the storms he observed. Tim was one of the most highly regarded class acts in this realm, by me and just about everyone else, regardless of our backgrounds. He dealt with the crazy variety of personalities and demands in the worlds of media and storm observing with extraordinary grace, diplomacy and patience. At dealing with people, he was as much of a natural as in tangling with the violent skies.

    Tim and I first exchanged e-mails when he was in his formative chase years in the early ’90s. We finally met on 23 May 1996 at Last Chance, CO, hanging out in a parking lot by the northeast corner of the crossroads, just before the development of [a] supercell. I’ve recalled that encounter every time I’ve passed by that spot since. Immediately, I was impressed not only by his technical wizardry and almost magical collection of onboard gizmos, but by his affable demeanor and willingness to chat about our shared passion for storms. We hit it off right away, and would keep in touch ever since at severe-storms conferences and on some chases. I participated in the field with him and the T.W.I.S.T.EX. project crew a few years back, and gladly wrote several supportive recommendation letters to National Geographic since the late ’90s to help him get funded. It was an honor to do those things, the only regret being that I didn’t spend more time with Tim and crew.

    Meanwhile Elke, whom I didn’t know yet, became friends with Tim in the late ’90s, attended some of his talks in Colorado, chased with the early National Geographic-sponsored projects out there, met Paul while the latter was a teen, and attended chaser gatherings at his house. She also designed and built the website for his field project. Paul was a budding and talented photographer; and we admired his storm and landscape shots from afar. Soon after Elke and I got married, we met Carl–fittingly, after the end of a storm intercept with Tim in northern Kansas. Though we didn’t know him well, we liked him…our hearts are heavy for his family and friends as well.

Until I got to know Tim a little better in the 2000s, I learned much from Elke about his high character, integrity, and passion for those untamed Great Plains skies. She also had chased with the early NatGeo teams, and was (along with Al Pietrycha, Christina Hannon and the late Matt Biddle) part of the truncated group who went on to intercept the Siren, WI tornado, while Tim, Carsten and the rest hung back west in simmering frustration.

My fondest memories with Tim were after chases, including during an otherwise meteorologically moribund week with T.W.I.S.T.EX., when we observed a few wet supercells in difficult terrain, Bruce Lee and Cathy Finley struck a deer and had to limp their vehicle home, and we briefly encountered one tornado. That was on 10 May 2008, in the canyon of pines that lines US-259 north of Broken Bow, in far southeastern Oklahoma. [This was the same day as the EF4 wedge that permanently destroyed Picher, about 200 miles to the north]. At first unseen to us, our much smaller and weaker tornado developed directly over the leading Chevy Cobalt that I was driving, with Tony Laubach as passenger. The vortex then whooshed off into the tall conifers and strengthened somewhat. We barely saw it; Tim and the armada behind us got a somewhat better look.

Earlier that day, at the pre-chase meeting and briefing in OKC, Rich Thompson (who also was with the project that week) and I advised Tim against chasing into the heavy forest and steep terrain of the winding Ouachita Mountains roadways, but unlike us, Tim never had been there. That was his target area, and he was sticking to it. He later admitted that was a mistake; fortunately the tornado was a transient wisp where we were before it broke trees to the east, and we all had plenty of talk and laughs about the experience over food and drink that night in Paris, TX.

Elke and I had chased separately from Tim’s crew on 9 June 2005, starting in different states and never being in contact, while seeing tornadoes with an amazing supercell near Hill City and Stockton, KS. Somehow we ended up at the same eatery at the same time, along with several other good storm-observing friends who had chased with neither us nor Tim, yet found each other in one restaurant in Hays (photo below). Those post-tornado steak dinners with storm-satiated friends make the best kind of “chaser convergence.” We all had a fantastic couple of hours swapping stories and watching videos (and admiring Carsten’s thoroughly mud-encased chase vehicle) until the place closed. These and a few other post-chase feasts are the memories of Tim and his crews that I’ll cherish most.

          Photo courtesy Vickie Doswell


I hadn’t read a satisfying biography of field scientists since “No Apparent Danger” by Victoria Bruce: a reasonably well-written story of the geologists who studied Nevado del Ruiz, a volcano that blasted six of them (and three tourists) to death in its summit crater. Like that book, “The Man Who Caught the Storm” was written rather adroitly by a journalist, though Bruce earned an advanced degree in her science before going into journalism. Hargrove holds no meteorology degree, but like Tim with his probes, managed to build a credible, accurate and compelling product, regardless.

ORGANIZATION: Hargrove organized the story sequentially, which I find appropriate and refreshing. He started from the start, and finished with the finish. Stories that start in the middle or end, and jump back to the beginning, or hop to and fro like a frog on a hot plate, annoy the hell out of me; I am a logical and chronological thinker. The Bruce book irritated me by starting with part of the deadly eruption story, cliffhanging that, and proceeding with chronology for a long time before returning to the climactic event and its aftermath. That may follow some lit-school, paint-by-numbers template for biographical writing, but I don’t care for it.

Hargrove served the narrative best by taking it as it really came. Going in, most know exactly how this story ends, and it’s not pleasant at all, so why start with that? This book doesn’t, thankfully. The reader is best served with highly interesting insights into Tim’s rich life, and his relentless passion to learn and understanding what I have referred to as “the smorgasbord of atmospheric violence” for decades. The story rightly documents and commemorates Tim’s life before its unavoidable obligation to cover his death. Hargrove did his due diligence in obviously thorough research for the story, offering many facts about Tim that I didn’t know, and that only someone could offer who was as close as Tim’s wonderful wife Kathy, or even Tony, Ed Grubb, Anton Seimon, and others who spent far more time with him on chases.

WRITING QUALITY: Other than being a little too enamored with the word “bolus”, a weak analogy arising from medical context, I found the writing to be keen, clean, well-flowing, and never dull. It could have used fewer passive verbs, but the exciting subject matter overcame that very minor flaw. Some writers of scientific topics avoid terminology and “big words” out of the mistaken assumption that the audience for such material consists largely of floundering ignoramuses and/or the primitively educated. Wrong! Even if that were the case, such an approach doesn’t help the reader become less ignorant!

The author’s relatively rich vocabulary and mostly skillful deployment of phrases lend themselves well to a story such as this. Hargrove clearly is quite advanced for a young writer, especially in this day and age. I know that’s not saying much, given the broader Millennial desecration of our language with horrendous skills in the fundamentals of grammar, punctuation, spelling, capitalization, sentence structure, and compositional flow. All in all, this author helps to ameliorate his generation’s otherwise wretched writing reputation!

STORY and REPRESENTATION: When a biography teaches a reader who knew the subject things he didn’t know, that’s a measure of success. This did. Tim’s life story was even more textured and colorful than I had imagined. That includes his absolutely fascinating childhood and early adulthood.

The author poignantly depicted Tim’s struggles to be accepted by a science where the letters “Ph.D.” matter more than substance of the person and his work. Having deployed TOTO myself as a NSSL student employee in the 1980s, being a formally published scientist and journal editor without a Ph.D., and being familiar with several of the scientists discussed, I understand how Tim’s reserved but intense defensiveness must have come about, especially now that Hargrove has revealed some of the “inside” stories of those field programs.

I can relate to Tim’s fiercely independent nature, and his drive to do things his own creative and innovative way, free of the shackles of rigid structure, while still striving through his work ethic and benevolent nature to make meaningful contributions to the same science fostering an aura of leash-restrained conformity and sometimes militaristic inflexibility. As Rich, Elke and I watched the Stratford wedge on 15 May 2003 from a safe eastern angle, little did we know that it nearly had consumed Tim and Anton. I only found out later, through discussions on the private Chase Forecast Discussion Group (CFDG) listserv, of which both were members at various times. That was a seminal event in shaping Tim’s subsequent tornadic endeavors, and rightfully is depicted as such.

Hargrove depicts Tim’s wizardry with gadgets as legendary, and that’s the truth. Once in my limited set of chases with T.W.I.S.T.EX., I saw Tim fold himself into the crannies of one of the Cobalts and quickly repair some obscure electronic problem that baffled everyone else. Given that, I was especially glad to see anecdotes about quick fixes to busted equipment that saved the chase day, portraying Tim with considerable accuracy as a sort of storm-chasing MacGyver.

Naturally, the chapter on Manchester focuses heavily on the HITPR deployment that recorded the largest tornadic pressure drop (to date) of 100 mb, and its aftermath that brought fame, respect and a mixture of beneficial and unwanted attention to Tim. One small flaw: nowhere did I see mention that the record was surpassed by Amos Magliocco and Eric Nguyen a few years later, in a mistaken penetration of the Tulia tornado. The formal EJSSM paper documenting the Tulia event is found here in PDF and in HTML form. As editor for that manuscript, I specifically recruited Tim Samaras as one of the reviewers due to his technical expertise with instrumentation, not at all concerned that Tim would get territorial about “his” record. Indeed, he didn’t, and the paper benefited greatly from Tim’s review and close scrutiny of the instrumental specifications and performance.

Near the end, Tim’s “last ride” was handled in a gripping yet matter-of-fact manner, not overdramatized at all. I appreciated that, as a wonderful departure from the overblown norm of storm-chasing popular literature. In the thoughtful, diligent and unfailingly considerate Gabe Garfield, the author picked the right guy with whom to work for much of that difficult part of the story.

My only lasting gripe with this book is small, but memorable: the description of Tim as the “greatest storm chaser”. What does that mean, by whose authority is it decided, and what are the consistent and verifiable standards? There is no “greatest storm chaser”. That’s the only foray into needless hype in the whole thing. While few doubt that Tim was one of the best from a strategic and safety perspective, the brutally honest reality is that an unsafe error in strategy somewhere between him and Carl cost their lives in that big subvortex south of El Reno. Hargrove does tell the story of those moments, to the extent they can be known, in a measured, careful way that can lead the reader to the same conclusion: excellent chasers who made one fatal mistake. That’s the truth, too. Still, “greatest storm chaser” is like that tiny pebble inside the hiker’s sock that manifests a time or two across the miles: too little to be worth the effort to undress and remove, but there to yield pointless nuisance just enough to remember.

Aside from that unfortunate glitch, one of the aspects I most appreciated about the presentation was its overall levelheadedness, an absence of melodramatic embellishment. By its very nature, based only on known facts, the demise of my colleagues in that tornado-demolished Cobalt was horrible and dramatic. That much I gathered in the days following the tragedy, in surveying the scene first-hand and talking with others who also were out there looking for the cameras, and then later, conversations Elke and I had with Doug Gerten, over a lunch at the Green Chile Kitchen with Elke, Gene Rhoden, and others.

Those events didn’t need embellishing, interpretative interpolation. Nor did the other amazing chases Tim led. They speak for themselves. It was as if Tim were still guiding the author in spirit, in establishing book’s tone. While still alive, Tim likely would have been rather bashful and hesitant to have a story such as this written about him, but if one insisted on doing so, it would have had to be representative, truthful, and not dramatic beyond the character of events themselves.

Hargrove showed other writers that captivating factual writing is indeed possible. That should be the default approach for writers on this subject! Alas, most fall into the trap of thrill-a-minute Evel Knievel portrayals, and grotesque bastardization of scientific concepts under the false notion that doing so makes it more interesting. Instead, doing so reveals fundamental flaws in the writer, in the form of limited prowess in the art of accurately compelling portrayal. I can wave this book in their faces and shout, “See, it can be done!”

Truly I say, no one should have to praise Hargrove for building a biography how ought to be normal and standard. Yet I do, because he does set an example here that should be followed — and yes, I have no doubt more biographies of leading field scientists and chasers will appear, whether constructed by him or others. Let this part of my review be a note of thanks to the author for keeping it real.

I also thank Hargrove for his gracious, dignified and kind treatment of Tim’s family — both in the tome and in person. While I wasn’t privy to their discussions, nor ever contacted nor consulted in any way (and that’s fine, by the way…my role in Tim’s story is that of a bit player at best), I know Kathy would not have consented to contribute the thoughts that she did, had she been treated with anything but utmost respect. Having come to know Kathy through Elke, since Tim passed, I appreciate that.

RECOMMENDATION: Read the book. It’s good.


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