Monday, April 11, 2011

The Scariest Night Of My Life

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....


  1. The closest a tornado came to me was 1972. My mother was home at the time and made us go into the basement, which I thought was dumb. My sister was more conventional than I was, so she went along with the ruse that it was important.
    We had a radio tuned to the local AM station which was just a few blocks away. I used to experiment with minimalist "crystal sets" to pull in that station. The most minimal that worked was to attach a diode to one lead of an earphone and ground the other lead to the dial stop on a rotary telephone. The signal was so strong it even worked using a microphone instead of the ear phone. I mean the radio station played out the microphone when the microphone was between the diode and the telephone. Just to be clear the diode was waving around loose. No capacitors or coils or nothing but what I just said.
    Anyway, the deejay in the radio hut in the large field surrounding the broadcast antenna was getting telephone reports of tornado sightings and it became plain to him that the tornado was headed right at him. His voice sounded very panicky and he was torn between running away and trusting in the brick bunker construction of his broadcast hut to protect him. His only window faced north so he had no way to see the tornado. It uprooted up a bunch of trees on our block. My brother and sister say it disturbed the roof on our house but they have retold the story to each other too many times to remember anything but the stories they tell.
    My mother was very worried about our roof because it was under construction.
    I'll stop now because it's past my bedtime.
    Click my link to see an alternative ending to the Wizard of Oz. There's no place like Homo. There's no place like Homo.

  2. I am not sure if I remember mine, though I can think of a few.

    A ban on tornadoes would be good. And one on hurricanes, and one on poverty, and one on communicable disease, and and and...

  3. The closest tornado to me was one that shook the house in the middle of the night when I was about 17 or so. I believe it took some siding off, but the siding was always blowing off.

    Scariest night was when our two dogs chased a raccoon up the house right by my window in the middle of the night. A lot of barking and a very odd scrabbling sound. Scared the daylights out of me. The raccoon ended up at the top of a barn, I believe it escaped from there.

  4. There was this tree in my neighbour's yard, Mrs R. And it was hollowing, and had a crack in it. As kids, we used to toss sticks and toys and rocks in it, and the crack slowly widened and deepened, but the tree held.

    One summer, when I was 12, it was storming, and my mum was woken up by a crack and the sound of a thump against the house. Then the sirens went off, so my parents herded us all into the basement, and I shivered in my summer nightclothes and listened to the wailing of the wind and rain. The sirens stopped, and it was quiet for all of two seconds before lightning cracked and it started to storm again.

    We went upstairs to look out the bay window to see if we could see anything, but even when the lightning cracked, it was pitch black out - we couldn't even see the rain. I went back to bed and woke early early in the morning to the sound of chainsaws [to this day, my mother says she has no idea how I slept through the start of the sirens, or fell asleep to the storm, or slept through the chainsaws].

    Mrs R's tree, the one that had been widening and deepening, had finally done what it had been threatening to do for years, and cracked into two, with the smaller side crashing into our house, and the larger side in the yard. We lived in a neighbourhood built ~1910, and over 60% of the old oak trees fell. The tornado itself touched down in the park behind our house and the damage was more than trees; entire businesses were wiped out, the park was destroyed, much of historic downtown was also damaged. It was the worst storm my town had seen in a long time.

    Back to that tree, though. I was busy pretending to drag branches - and actually dragging them when the helicopters hovered above - when the damage contractors showed up, as ours was one of the few houses on the block that actually sustained damage. I hovered nearby and overheard as he told my parents that if the tree hadn't been widening and deepening, the entire thing would have fallen on the house and wiped out the entire back.

    The damage was listed as 'an act of God' and we fixed up the roof and moved that next summer. I go back to that memory a lot; call the weather what you will, but that tree wasn't 'an act of God.' My parents were saved from catastrophe by some stupid kids who couldn't leave well enough alone. It's the little things, right?

  5. Where I grew up, we didn't have tornadoes. (At least not the meteorological kind!) But we DID have hurricanes! I still remember Hurricane Hazel, which was certainly scary, as the hailstones hit the windows and lightning and high winds raged on into the night (actually, it seemed all dark during that hurricane). But it was also a bit exciting, too, perhaps because I didn't know any better. I was only 5 years old!

    A different, more profound fear hit, however, when I was in Texas, huddled with my two babies in the bathtub, pillows on top of us, as the threat of twisters approached uncomfortably closely. (We were living in the southern part of tornado alley.) The one I remember ended up knocking off the chimney of the school about two blocks away. Tornadoes were THE main reason I wanted out of Texas. #2 & #3 were tied - intense heat and fire ants.

    However, if we're talking SCARIEST night of my life? That was when the movie usher forced me back inside the theater showing the "Return of the Fly" and "The Alligator People." I had nightmares and terror of falling asleep for YEARS afterwards, long after I'd forgotten the instigation of it all.