First there are the facts, the sequence I’ve told and retold since the day after it happened, to the point that I don’t know if my memories are of the event or just of the story itself. For example, I remember my mother running around the kitchen frantically dialing the windows open with those annoying car-window-like handles they had. She had heard that if the windows are open then your house won’t explode. But I could not have witnessed this, since she had told my brother and me, “Now, get your asses in the basement and don’t come up!” from the front yard where the three of us had been collecting hail balls the size of baseballs seconds before in a kind of giddy wonder. My brother and I tore into the house and down the basement stairs, my feet moving from step to step faster than I knew they could move, with Mark in front of me and just as fast, even though he was only six and I had just turned nine. Then we just stood there uncertainly in the middle of the floor, because this was the day in 1974 that the mile-wide tornado wiped out Xenia, Ohio, fifty miles northeast of us — an event that spurred the creation of the tornado drills and sirens and shelters in the Midwest that on that day did not yet exist. I stood at the bottom of the stairs and called up to my mother to please, please, come down here too, and this was when she must have been running around the kitchen opening windows. It could not have been two minutes before I heard the front screen door slam and my father’s voice, yelling at my mother to stop opening the windows and get the dog and get in the basement. I could not hear those words then, but I remember his voice, and how I did not perceive fear but rather a commanding presence that would know exactly what to do in a tornado. And it all seemed perfectly natural to me that he had arrived just in the nick of time, although we had been waiting for him for an hour past our usual suppertime, to 6:15, where the clocks stuck for days after the electricity went out. I called up the stairs again, “Get my turtle!” and my father rushed to my room at the opposite end of the house, essentially risking his life to pick up the plastic turtle dish with my tiny Eastern Slider named Sportsy. My mother was coming downstairs now, a little sideways because of her bad knees, carrying our fat little toy fox terrier Tinker. My dad was immediately behind her, stepping faster than her, almost herding her down the stairs, carrying the plastic turtle dish. He set it down on the floor, and in one movement grabbed the sturdy table mom used for folding laundry from a side wall and shoved it flush against the wall facing the direction of the tornado. I did not understand what he was doing until he pressed his hand to my back and guided me under the table, where all four of us crouched with his two arms holding us all together. “Put your head down!” he ordered and then we waited a terrible moment for something we could not imagine. Almost immediately a rushing, roaring sound became audible and moved swiftly toward us. My brother started crying, and somewhere in the drama of it all I felt compelled to say, “I’m too young to die!” like something right out of a bad TV movie. I knew it was a cheesy line even at age nine, but at the same time, I really was too young to die, and I hoped God would take that into consideration. No one said anything else. The sound was quickly on top of us, and it really did sound, as people say, like a freight train. You literally imagined a freight train running through the length of your house from front to back; it had the same chugging sort of roar, mixed with the sounds of shattering glass and furniture being thrown into walls. I was very familiar with the freight trains that ran through our part of the city, and that was what I visualized even in the moment, a runaway train or a crashing plane in collision with our house, destroying every helpless thing in its path. It did not last long. The crashing stopped, and the rushing sound continued away from us and faded. When it was completely silent I lifted my head, and my father said, “Stay here!” His hand was still on my shoulder. I understood then that it could conceivably come back, that there was no way to tell a tornado that it was “over.” After about five or ten minutes in which we waited and listened without speaking, my dad said to my mom, “Well, I think it’s gone. Do you want to go up now?” She did not answer, but they both crawled from under the table and stood up. Then she bent to look at my brother and me, and said in a harsh voice that frightened me, “Don’t you two dare, under any circumstance, come upstairs! Do you understand?” That the grownups were going upstairs now gave me a sense of relief: they had everything under control. Then I heard my mother at the top of the stairs burst into tears, and I heard my dad comforting her as she sobbed at the ruins of her home. Nevertheless, like freed hostages who continue to write letters to their captors, we admired and still admire our tornado. I had caught a glimpse of it before being sent to the basement; my mother herself had pointed it out to me before ordering us to safety. I did not know it was a tornado; it was she who told me it was. Our next door neighbor Gerry had come out onto his front porch and yelled something over to my mother in the front yard, and my mom yelled something back; but I didn’t hear stress in their voices and so I ignored their conversation and continued to pick up the giant hail balls. Somehow I didn’t notice the roaring sound that they had to shout over, either. And none of us had known, then, to be afraid because of the greenish-yellow sky, or the way the air and the birds went completely still. (Later, this was weather that terrified me at the most basic animal level.) Then my mother stepped close to me, took my shoulder, pointed and yelled in my ear, “Look up there!” There was no funnel, no long, skinny shape. There was only a grey-yellow churning cloud, like a squat cylinder on the ground, wider than it was tall. It churned with fragments popping out like a spinning frayed rope. Those fragments must have been debris, pieces of houses, trees. I thought it was interesting, because I’d never seen a cloud churn like that before. That’s when my mother said, “That’s a tornado!” — and that’s when she told my brother and me to get our asses in the basement and not come up. (Those words in particular stuck with me because she had used profanity, and although she often cursed she never used it at us.) The tornado proceeded to graze a swath of my Mack, Ohio neighborhood a quarter mile wide, having just destroyed the town of Sayler Park on the Ohio River and traveled north. People still know the tornados that hit Sayler Park and Xenia, Ohio on April 3, 1974, and they nod in recognition.
Our tornado was number 43 on the National Weather Service map of the 148 tornados that touched down that day, in thirteen states, from Mississippi to Michigan and Illinois to Virginia, in what is known as a “Super Outbreak.” (The weather report had called for scattered showers and thunderstorms that day.) Ours was one of six tornados that were a “level F-5,” the highest level of intensity on the Fujita-Pearson scale. It was the only tornado in the Super Outbreak to occur in three states. Our tornado first touched down near Rising Sun, Indiana, then moved to the northeast, crossing Boone County, Kentucky, and then crossed the Ohio River into Ohio at Sayler Park, traveling twenty-one miles in total at an average speed of 54.8 miles per hour. It first touched down at 6:28 P.M. and lifted off at 6:51 P.M. eastern time — it was on the ground for just 23 minutes. In that space of time, this one tornado out of 148 killed three people, hospitalized 210 more, and did millions in property damage, razing houses and tossing cars around like popcorn. My next-door neighbor’s brand new blue Chevy pick-up truck, for example, was lifted from his basement-level driveway, completely around his two-story house uphill to his backyard, and into his above-ground swimming pool, destroying, of course, both the truck and the pool. When we first came back outside we initially thought there was flash flooding, until we realized it was the volume of water from his pool running downhill through both of our yards and into the street. In total, the massive Super Outbreak of April 3 and 4, 1974, remains the worst recorded tornado occurrence in U.S. history. It is speculated that weather conditions might converge to produce a storm of this magnitude once every five hundred years. I learned all this on the Internet recently, curious about the facts and the true details of the events that have resided in my mind’s eye for thirty years now. To some extent I’ve resisted this sort of investigation, for reasons I don’t fully understand. Once our street was opened to through traffic after the tornado, long lines of sightseers in cars drove by slowly all day long for weeks. Our personal disaster seemed a source of entertainment to them, like a movie, and my mom and brother and I would sit in the front yard close to the street and pointedly stare back. They didn’t seem to get it; they’d gaze right back at us with their open, curious expressions. Even my current investigation starts to feel a bit close to pandering to this vacuous human feeding frenzy on natural disasters, an impulse I learned to hate. Nonetheless, the event is mine too — more mine than the sightseers’. And I had not even known there were 147 other tornados that day, or that the tornado that hit us and Sayler Park was not the one that hit Xenia. News traveled more slowly back then; but it still seems odd that the news media did not provide this context for us. My family devours all tornado stories hungrily and we would never have overlooked it. Perhaps it took time for the weather service to put together what had actually happened, and by then it wasn’t “news”; I’m not sure. I’m also surprised at the amount of detail on the Internet — scanned-in photographs, eyewitness stories, scientific detail — whole Websites devoted to this storm. (One site, belying the meaning the date alone took on, is named simply april31974.com.) Clearly there were and are quite a few people still in the grip of fascination with this monstrosity twenty-five or thirty years later. This was also the first time that I had ever seen photographs of our actual tornado. There are the huge hail balls in someone’s yard, with the small ranch houses and the swing sets and the boxy sedans of my childhood. The photos have that old distorted color and waxy finish of color photos from that time period, and everything looks so ancient, so abnormally and impossibly old, like our family pictures of me in second grade wearing bell-bottoms and giving the peace sign. And then there is The Tornado. In one photo it is rising behind someone else’s neighborhood, approaching two farmhouses, an irregular smoking blob on the near horizon, huge and inevitable, drawing its force down from the widening charcoal-colored cloud cover overhead. Another site shows a series of images of the giant as it alternatively rises into the sky as a classic funnel and then seems to bite down into the earth so that its tip disappears from view and its width tears up the next town or neighborhood. In one photo of our tornado, you are gazing up through telephone wires to view the top of the approaching funnel as it bears down on you. I don’t know if I saw our tornado through telephone wires, but it’s very possible given the configuration and that we were in a valley such that the tornado had to march down a large hill to get to us. For whatever reason, that view, in particular, got to me. A distantly familiar feeling of terror and helplessness flooded me — a feeling I remembered having as it happened, and perhaps after that in storms in childhood, but not for many years. For ten minutes I found myself crying openly, even while I wondered why I was being so silly and melodramatic. I was surprised at the strength of my response — the strength of my forgotten sensory memory, in part. And perhaps something more, some dawning understanding from an adult perspective of the real precariousness of our situation. I wanted to call my boyfriend Chris for comfort then, but like so much else about this experience, I didn’t know how I would explain it to him. The science of it is fascinating. Several factors came together in exactly the right combination at exactly the right time to produce a tornado outbreak of this magnitude. On that day, a layer of warm, moist surface air coming up from the Gulf of Mexico to the Ohio Valley sat underneath an upper layer of warm, dry air coming in from the Southwest. Normally the warm, moist air from a “low pressure region” would dissipate as thunderstorms, but in this case the upper warm, dry air sank into it and acted as a “lid” on it. It was sunny off and on for much of that day (we later remarked what had caused us the most surprise was the sunny weather during the hailstorm and immediately before the tornado hit), and as the sunlight continued to heat the trapped moist air all day long, it dramatically increased its energy and its tendency to rise. Eventually the lower moist air had enough energy to punch holes through the “lid” of dry air holding it down. As it rapidly rose through the holes in the upper layer, the air began to rotate and in many instances a tornado developed. My Internet research also informed me that F-5 on the Fujita scale signifies the highest level of tornado intensity. An F-5 tornado causes “incredible damage,” which is greater than the “severe damage” of an F-3 or the “devastating damage” of an F-4. So it was worse than severe, beyond even devastating; and what in life can be beyond devastating? Only something so bad that it is beyond comprehension or acceptance, so that you’re in a sort of denial and don’t even fully realize that you’re devastated. And that is the official description — something “incredible” — something that could not even happen. What an odd word for a scientific term. Something that even science can’t believe.1 Certainly my mother was devastated when she found our windows blown out into tiny quarter-inch-long slivers embedded in the walls, carpet, living room furniture, and my brother’s abandoned mashed potatoes; shards of dishes strewn along the floor; my dad’s orange easy-chair pierced through by a two-by-four like a threatening personal message from mobsters; and part of the roof gone. Eerily, the chandelier over the kitchen table was still swinging when she and my father came up from the basement. Our house was a strong one and had not been blown completely off its foundation like many of the others. Yet none of us could digest the experience at that point. We spent the night in the basement of my grandparents’ house listening to the little black transistor radio and tracking the storms. At three o’clock in the morning my mother put my brother and me to bed in an upstairs bedroom, but I was so frightened not to be in the basement where it was safe that at first I begged her not to leave me there. (I quickly fell into an exhausted sleep.) The next day we picked up debris in our yard, swept up the debris in our house, and assessed the damage. Our swing set was gone with no trace, as was the playhouse my dad had built us, all except for the door hinge, which was lying where the rest of the structure had been. We liked to imagine it had landed whole in some other kid’s yard, like Dorothy’s house. In some bizarre sort of trade, someone’s foreign stamp collection had been blown into my yard, as if the tornado itself had blown in from distant, exotic lands. I kept it; we did not even try to find its owner. I felt guilty, but my mother tried to explain to me why normal standards of honesty did not apply to what a tornado blew into your yard. My mom had kept a plastic margarine cup full of pennies on the kitchen windowsill over the sink. We found all the pennies scattered in the yard, but the plastic margarine cup was, impossibly, still right in the place it had been. People photographed plastic drinking straws blown like spears into trees. But what strikes me most in writing this story for the first time is, strangely, not my own story, the sequence I’ve told and retold, nor even the additional context given by my research. Instead it is an image of my father that I had never considered, racing alone in his green ’67 Mustang on the highway against the tornado that was visible to him for miles as it approached our house, itself traveling the speed of a car on the freeway. He did not stop to seek a safe place for himself; rather, he rushed directly toward the path of the tornado. I had always thought it merely fortuitous that he arrived when he did. I had assumed he wanted to be home to be safe, the way I did at nine, but now I see the desperate effort behind it. I think of him separated from us, his wife and two young children, while we may have been oblivious to what was approaching, for all he knew. The phone lines were dead and there were, of course, no cell phones. In fact, power lines were down, and later I remembered hearing that he had trouble finding a clear path to our street, racing up one way and then having to stop and turn back and find another. He arrived just minutes before it hit. He was thirty-seven at the time, two years younger than I am now, and I remember how thin and smooth his face was then and how dark his trimmed, wiry hair. I imagine the love and fear that must have been battering his heart while he threw the full force of his will into getting there first. And with my mother’s irrational reaction, running around opening windows (she insisted later that she just didn’t believe it would really hit our house; after all, we live in a valley), tragedy might truly have struck our family. The tornado was an uncontrollable, impersonal force — an accident. My father’s arrival was no accident.
My father and I have not had an idyllic relationship. In many ways I was Daddy’s little girl in my childhood; he helped me build Lincoln Log cabins, and taught me to make handmade pot holders, and bought me my own little tool kit with real tools just like his. He made a box for me to keep my turtles in, and he greeted with utter equanimity all the other reptiles and amphibians I caught. He taught me to waltz, and he accompanied me to the father-daughter square dances put on by Girl Scouts. I thought his singing was just as good as his Jim Reeves or Jimmy Dean records, which he thought was funny, and I thought his stories were better than TV. But as my brother and I got older, he seemed not to know how to relate to us. He became prone to verbal fits of rage and was highly critical of our every move — my mother had to tell him once, quite literally, that he didn’t need to tell us how to wipe our asses, as he was going off on a repeated tirade about how we used too much toilet paper. Every weekend for years he was in the same mood; as soon as my mom went out on errands, I would see him stomping around the house looking for something to yell about, and I would hide in my room pretending to do homework — but then he would just scream at me for spending too much time in my room. We fought tooth and nail during my senior year of high school, because I wanted to go away to college but he thought that staying at home was the only reasonable financial option. Perhaps he felt guilty about his lack of college savings. I often told him I couldn’t wait to leave, and he always told me he couldn’t wait until I left either. Of course, over the years I’ve gained an adult’s perspective on his emotional problems, on the stresses he was dealing with then (albeit poorly), and on his own father’s abusive treatment of him in adolescence. I recognize the sadness and regret in his manner with me and in the wishes he tells my mother: why are the two of us no longer close like we were when I was a kid? When he was laid off from his job of thirty-six years, he said to me sadly, “I guess you’re right — I’m not a success.” I was horrified; it was something I’d flung at him during one of our fights in high school. We converse awkwardly and try to bridge the chasm between us, but somehow — even though both of us want to — we never quite can. But then there is, now, suddenly, this startlingly idyllic or heroic image of my father in the tornado. This, and the fact that I’m as old as he was then — suggestive of so many comparisons — leads me to my second piece of tornado research, a very personal piece: how did my family, in particular my father, remember the event? Even when he was my hero in childhood, I had never really thought about his point of view during the tornado. Of course we would be safe; of course Dad would come; of course no one would get hurt. It seemed part of a stock childhood mythology that my father would arrive home before the tornado, and that no one in my family would be harmed; and I was fortunate not to have that mythology shattered by actual events. But now I recognize the tenuous reality of that storyline, the close call we all had. Other people were injured and died in that same tornado. If there is one thing I thought we learned from it, it’s that we don’t enjoy special protection from the bad things that everyone assumes will never happen to them. That was what made me suddenly such an old third grader. That is what my family means when we speak to each other in code about other tornados. But the awful precariousness of our lives, of life itself, had always been obscured for me by my knowledge of the happy, the comedic in the classical sense, ending. My father was an adult at the time, and I wondered if the “close call” would have been his experience of it already. At my parents’ home the day after Thanksgiving, I interrupt some stories I’ve already heard many times about my grandfather’s Uncle Will and Aunt Addie to ask my father about the tornado. Mom is also interested and joins the conversation. It’s hard to get them to focus specifically on the events I have the most questions about; they want to tell it all. The first thing I notice is that we all three disagree on many of the details. Dad claims that the three of us were still picking up hail balls in the yard when he got home; and that we hid under the piano instead of a table. Mom remembers those specifics more the way I do, but cannot piece together her sequence of opening windows, bringing the dog downstairs, or hearing me yell up the stairs for her to come down. She finally settles on a fact she is sure of: once all four of us were in the basement, she ran back upstairs to rescue her pack of cigarettes from the kitchen counter. “I remember thinking, I’m really going to need a cigarette once this is all over!” she explains dryly. The tornado must have been very close by then, because as she pulled the basement door shut behind her on the way back down, the door began shaking and rattling violently. Each of them remembers details I’ve forgotten and details I’ve remembered differently, and often when one of us challenges the other, we grow less certain. Sometimes one person’s certainty brings the event clearly back into all our memories. Other times we reconstruct a scenario together by vote and negotiation, making it even less likely that any of our future tellings will be closer to the original events than to the construction we’ve made of them. Already I’m changing aspects of my story, going forward. Repeatedly, I try to steer my dad to his experience of driving home. He brushes over that in favor of the excitement of being in the tornado and exploring the aftermath. But gradually I piece together that his company had kept them until 5:00 instead of the usual 4:30 closing time due to tornado warnings, which is why he got a late start coming home. He was the driver for his carpool that day and had our blue Ford station wagon; in contrast to my memory, he had sold his little Mustang by this time. As he was dropping off the guys in his carpool, it began to hail those huge hail balls, pummeling his car and leaving what would be permanent dents. He pulled under a tree for a moment with just him and his co-worker Don in the car, but it barely helped, so he decided to keep moving. The roads were slick with hail balls; it was like driving on ice cubes. As he turned toward home after dropping off Don, he first saw the tornado, to his left, running on an almost parallel path to his, both he and it converging on our house. He could see its whole form, with the funnel at the bottom, which was lagging behind the enormous top of it. And his thought at that moment was, just as I’d wondered, that he had to go make sure we were all right; that we might not know it was coming. He floored it on the icy road, ignoring stop signs and stoplights, and passing cars that had skidded off the road out of control. (The power lines were not down yet — the tornado took them down — and that memory of mine was rather a fragment of a story about our neighbor’s uncle trying to get to them after the tornado hit.) Dad arrived just as Mark and I were running into the house — we think — and the tornado hit just a minute or two later. We’re all sure of that. So if his employer had kept them five minutes longer; if he had decided to continue sitting under the tree to avoid the hail; if any of the slightest differences in events or choices had delayed him even by a minute, perhaps he would not have gotten there in time. My mother might still have been opening windows and smoking her cigarettes in the kitchen when it hit. Or he might have pulled into the driveway before the tornado hit, but not by enough, and might not have been able to get out of his car, or get into the basement. It’s mind-boggling. I say to Chris later, it’s like the clichéd Hollywood scene where the victim is always saved at the last possible second. Only it really happened that way. All of a sudden it hits my father too, as we talk, clearly for the first time. “Well.” He is silent. “I guess I got there just in time, huh?”
I don’t know if my father saved us per se. We can’t know for certain what would have happened if he had not gotten there first; we might have stayed in the basement and been fine. But his entire effort, poignant and courageous and truly quite dangerous to himself, was to save us. Emotionally, it all boils down to the same thing. He risked his life to save ours — single-mindedly, egoless, without even considering consequences or alternatives. In my childhood version he was a Steve McQueen dad in a sports coat and sideburns, speeding in his Mustang to coolly save the day, and not even breaking a sweat. In his own version, he was only a suburban dad, pushing the family station wagon to its limit, skidding over ice cubes and past other suburban dads who had run off the road. Whatever details we question, the vulnerability in his version is certainly closer to the truth of the situation. It has been a long time since I have thought about my father in this way, as a hero, and perhaps never in quite this tender way, adult to adult. As with the tornado, I remembered the relationship we had in my childhood but I hadn’t felt it. That was kid stuff, superhero Dad, believing grown-ups were better and stronger than they really are. That was just another naïve perspective I’d lost for the better along the way. I’d thought there was nothing there on both counts — Dad or tornado. It’s strange how digging into one leads into the other. When I looked at the Websites and broke down crying, I was seeing thirty years of living that might not have existed. Stories hide the precariousness of life. We have a story only once the ending has occurred — and the fact that we’re here telling this particular one means it wasn’t tragic. Stories can also lock things, such as relationships, into just one way of being told and understood. But, fortunately as it turns out, there is nothing tidy about a tornado, just as there is nothing tidy about being a father or a daughter. I’m aware of how grateful I am that we’re here now, thirty years later, to sit and reminisce and talk with each other about the way we could have lost our lives once but didn’t. And how grateful I am for the spinning forces that keep bringing us back together, showing us the things we didn’t even know we had all along. 1 (return to text) According to the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, the definitions from the Fujita scale are as follows: “Category F3: Severe tornado (158-206 mph); Severe damage. Roofs and some walls torn off well-constructed houses; trains overturned; most trees in forest uprooted; heavy cars lifted off ground and thrown. Category F4: Devastating tornado (207-260 mph); Devastating damage. Well-constructed houses leveled; structure with weak foundation blown off some distance; cars thrown and large missiles generated. Category F5: Incredible tornado (261-318 mph); Incredible damage. Strong frame houses lifted off foundations and carried considerable distance to disintegrate; automobile sized missiles fly through the air in excess of 100 yards; trees debarked; incredible phenomena will occur.” (Source: publicaffairs.noaa.gov/storms/fujita.html)
Acknowledgements“Finding Oz” won the 2007 William Allen Creative Nonfiction annual literary award, and it appeared in The Journal, Ohio State University, Spring/Summer 2007. thejournalmag.org
“One of the things I admired about ‘Finding Oz’ was its technical control. I also admired the subtle turns in the piece and the way in which it combined research with a personal narrative, how it went from a public/personal disaster to a story about a father/daughter relationship. Really a strong piece!” — Robin Hemley, director of the Creative Nonfiction Program, University of Iowa.