Do you remember the scariest night of your life?
Mine came 46 years ago this evening.
Maybe that's when yours came, too.
I bet it did for quite a few Americans who were alive back then.
It was, after all, the day that came to be known as the Palm Sunday Tornado Outbreak.
Wikipedia sums things up this way:
The second Palm Sunday tornado outbreak occurred on April 11, 1965 and involved 47 tornadoes (15 significant, 17 violent, 21 killers) hitting the Midwest. It was the second biggest outbreak on record. In the Midwest, 271 people were killed and 1,500 injured (1,200 in Indiana). It was the deadliest tornado outbreak in Indiana history with 137 people killed. The outbreak also made that week the second most active week in history with 51 significant and 21 violent tornadoes....
The tornadoes occurred in a 450 miles (720 km) swath west-to-east from Clinton County, Iowa, to Cuyahoga County, Ohio, and a 200 miles (320 km) swath north-to-south from Kent County, Michigan, to Montgomery County, Indiana. The outbreak lasted 11 hours and is among the most intense outbreaks — in terms of number, strength, width, path, and length of tornadoes — ever recorded, including 4 "double/twin funnel" tornadoes.
This is the third deadliest day for tornadoes on record, trailing the Super Outbreak of April 3, 1974, which killed 315, and the outbreak that included the Tri-State Tornado which killed 747. It occurred on Palm Sunday, an important day in the Christian religion, and many people were attending services at church, one possible reason why some warnings were not received. There had been a short winter that year, and as the day progressed, the temperature rose to 83 °F (28 °C) in some areas of Midwestern United States....
About 10 of those 47 tornadoes tore through Ohio.
One of them - an F4 with double funnels - came close to wiping out virtually everything of importance in my life - including me.
It remains the worst natural disaster in Toledo history.
I can't recall anything of the daylight hours. If we had record warm temperatures they weren't warm enough to leave any imprint on my memory.
The terrific winds and thunder and rain that started after dark and rattled the second floor apartment I was living in a few feet beneath a flat roof proved to be unforgettable, however.
I was home alone with my 15-year-old sister at the time. We were watching our Admiral TV in the living room, listening to the weather bulletins and the repeated order to take immediate cover in a basement when the worst of the storm hit about 9:30pm.
The prospect of going to the basement terrified me. It was dark down there. It harbored all kinds of spiders and other bugs - at least in my imagination. We would have to cross the open back porch to get to the stairwell that went down to it. As unappetizing as all that was, though, I thought it a better bet than continuing to be a sitting duck for everything the sky was throwing our way.
My sister disagreed. She refused to go down. So of course I didn't go, either.
It was a decision that could have easily cost us of lives.
I pointed this out to my sister recently. She told me that all she really remembers is the TV suddenly going out even though our power stayed on. I don't recall the TV doing anything strange at all. Which I guess just goes to show yet again how different the same event can be perceived by two closely-related people in the same room....
Somehow we survived.
Eventually, my mother made her way home. She'd been out with Bob the Marine - "at some bar" she later told me, though it's hard for me to wrap my mind around her being out at a bar at all. It wasn't the sort of thing I can recall her ever doing, let alone on a Sunday night.
Much more in character was her utter cluelessness. "We knew it was storming out, but we didn't have any idea how bad it was."
To be fair, a lot of people didn't realize how bad things had been until the next day's newspaper gave us pages and pages of details.
I still have our copy of that newspaper. It was the first in a long series that I decided was worth keeping - maybe because I wanted proof that such a terrible thing had actually happened and wasn't simply a nightmare, maybe because I hoped someday to revisit the details and finally understand how and why the world can turn into a terrible place with very little warning.
That newspaper included a sketchy little map showing the path the tornado had taken.
In an attempt to better comprehend that night, I recently used that sketch and a current online map to create the following graphic:
The white X shows were the tornado touched down and the dotted line shows the path it took to the northeast before disappearing over Lake Erie.
The first red circle shows the approximate location of the drive-in where I saw Cleopatra less than a year earlier.
The second red circle shows where my Aunt Rita and Uncle Bob lived along with their 6 kids.
The third red circle shows where I lived.
The fourth red circle shows where my maternal grandparents lived.
The tornado seems to have missed me by less than two miles. That's less than I thought before I made this graphic - and it seems like even less when I realize that the tornado was on the ground for maybe eight miles.
Had a butterfly batted its wings one extra time earlier in the year, I might not be here today....
I suppose I realized how fragile life was before April 11, 1965, but afterwards there have been very few days when I've managed to forget just how fragile it really is.
For at least a decade after this storm hit I dreaded spring. Every thunderstorm seemed like a potential assassin. Every new tornado watch that was issued seemed like a possible death sentence. Every new tornado warning (and we seem to have had at least one a year) felt like an inescapable return to the worst night of my life....
I eventually outgrew my fear of storms (I guess one can only get worked up over such things so many times without being harmed before one starts to get complacent, if not jaded) but I've never been able to begin to understand those people who continue to insist that this world must have had an intelligent designer. I just can't comprehend how they reconcile that claim with swirling black death coming down out of the night sky without any rhyme or reason beyond that which secular meteorologists can provide us with.
And of course swirling black death coming out of the night sky is merely one form of cruelty an unconscious and amoral nature is capable of inflicting upon us with little if any warning. The newspapers and other news media continue to present us with many other examples of even worse disasters on an almost daily basis.
What they rarely mention, however, is the long-term psychological impact even a brief brush with a relatively minor disaster can have on the human mind....
Perfectly designed world? HA! Even a run-of-the-mill 6-year-old could have offered the alleged designer a long list of suggestions, any one of which would have made things immeasurably better.
A ban on tornadoes is one of the simplest that comes to mind....