A tornado destroyed my house when I was 4. I swore I would not let it happen again.
By Jeff Grabmeier
My first childhood memory is of the night a tornado tore apart my family home as my brother and I lay on the hallway floor, pinned beneath our terrified parents. I was 4 years old.
It was April 11, 1965, the day the infamous Palm Sunday tornado swaggered through my Toledo, Ohio, neighborhood, killing 15 and injuring 208, and 47 twisters raised hell throughout the Midwest, taking 256 lives.
This was long before a “Doppler Radar Storm Team” interrupted TV shows with breathless tornado warnings. My Mom and Dad were sitting around the kitchen table about 9:30 p.m. when they heard a terrific boom followed by a gathering roar. That was their first and only warning of the coming catastrophe. My father opened the back door and saw, etched by the near-constant lightning, the mad dance of the twister less than a half-mile away. As an adult, I can now imagine the fear of my parents, barely in their mid-20s with two young children and a new house, seeing a tornado bearing down on them.
Asleep in my bed, I heard the boom too, and it woke me up. When my parents rushed in for my 2-year-old brother Joe and me, I was sitting on the edge of my bed, confused and scared. Just as Mom grabbed Joe, the window above his crib shattered. The lights flickered and went off.
We didn’t have a basement, so Mom and Dad raced for a door in the garage that led to a tiny crawlspace. In the pitch-dark they ran down the hallway, but it was as if a nightmare monster was chasing us and their legs were made of lead. Suddenly, when we were just feet away from the crawlspace door, the creature was over us, ripping off the roof. Dad dropped to the floor, tucking me underneath him for protection. Mom did the same for my brother. Everything we owned whirled above us as if controlled by poltergeists. I closed my eyes tightly, afraid of what would happen when the monster caught us.
But as quickly as he came, he was gone.
As the terrible noise faded, we stood up in silence. Somehow, none of us had suffered anything more than scratches and bruises. We looked up from the rubble that had been our home and into the turbulent sky. The wind had died down and a steady, hard rain fell. Our roof was gone, but a neighbor’s now lay crumpled in our living room. In my bedroom, the tornado’s winds had embedded an asphalt shingle into a wooden closet door.
The rest of the night was a blur. We ended up at my grandparents’ house nearby, where I spent the rest of that sleepless night.
The next day, the local newspaper’s coverage of the tornado included an aerial photo of our devastated street. “Expensive suburban North Toledo houses leveled in storm,” the caption read. A week later, we moved into a mobile home in our backyard while workers cleaned up the debris that was our home and built a new one on the foundation of the old. Each time a storm passed while we lived in the trailer, I nervously eyed the sky. Even the clatter of rain on the metal roof sounded menacing. I was obsessed with the weather, trying to make sense of what happened. I wanted to know how I could trust a world where even a fluffy cloud could blacken and metastasize, transforming into a hideous twister.
I began to daydream about being a superhero. I didn’t want to be Batman or Spiderman or even Superman. I wanted to be Weather Boy, with super vision that could spot a malevolent cloud from miles away. I’d have a special sense that would tingle when the barometric pressure dropped too quickly. My best superpower? I would control a force field that not even an F5 tornado could penetrate. My family would be forever safe.
As I grew older, my dreams changed. I knew I would never have superpowers that controlled storms. But maybe Weather Boy could be the world’s greatest meteorologist. Even if I couldn’t deflect tornados with a force field, maybe I could at least give us the warning that we never had on that Palm Sunday.
When I was 12 years old, I persuaded my parents to buy me a weather kit — a Mr. Wizard-type setup with a rain collector, wind-speed gauge, barometer and thermometer and a booklet on forecasting. The kit made forecasting weather seem easy; all I needed to know was a little about the clouds, the barometric pressure, and the wind direction and speed and I could tell what the weather would be tomorrow. I couldn’t have been happier if Dad had given me a genuine National Weather Service Laboratory. I felt more powerful. In control. I was a Weather Boy with tools, like Batman with his utility belt.
For the next few days, I pored over the kit’s forecasting book. I thrilled at learning about the different cloud formations and specialized meteorological terms. Soon I was the only 12-year-old around who dropped terms like “occluded front” and “temperature inversion” into everyday conversation. After a week of intensive study, I was sure I had what it took to forecast the weather, so I set up my equipment in the backyard and launched my new career. Twice each day, I carefully recorded in a small notebook the barometric pressure, wind speed and direction, cloud formations, rainfall, and current conditions. The book taught me what to look for, like high, wispy cirrus clouds that are indicators of good weather, or cumulus clouds in the summertime that can morph quickly into thunderheads. Rising barometric pressure signaled good weather; falling pressure could mean rain or storms. Each evening, I wrote out my forecast, and my parents proudly displayed it on the refrigerator door next to my spelling tests and artwork from school.
I only kept up my forecasts for a few months. I grew tired of forecasting everyday, run-of the-mill weather. My fantasy was that one day I would be checking the conditions and suddenly realize that another tornado was going to tear through our neighborhood in minutes. In my daydream, I would run door-to-door alerting people just in time for them to seek safety. But the only real service I provided was to warn neighbors of rain in time to whisk laundry off clotheslines. The few flashes of excitement were the occasional summer thunderstorms. I knew that when a tornado is near, the barometric pressure drops dramatically in just minutes, so at the first rumblings of thunder, I raced to my bedroom and sat in front of the barometer, watching closely for signs of coming calamity. But there was no more calamity.
Learning about meteorology helped me cope with my fears to an extent; if I couldn’t stop tornadoes, I at least felt better knowing about hot and cold air masses and all the other forces that caused them. Still, there was something about tornados that seemed otherworldly to me, just beyond the grasp of science. I read about an 1896 twister in St. Louis which thrust a pine two-by-four through a solid iron wall five-eighths of an inch thick. I knew that tornadoes could produce winds of up to 300 miles per hour, but such a terrific feat seemed supernatural.
Twisters sometimes seem to consciously spare people who by all odds should have been injured or killed. A family in Madison, Ind., sought shelter in a bedroom closet when a tornado struck April 3, 1974. Every part of their house was knocked to the ground except the closet where they hid. Some tornadoes seem to have a sense of humor, too. During a twister in El Dorado, Kan., on June 10, 1958, a woman was blown through a window and carried 60 feet. When she safely landed, she found a broken copy of the record “Stormy Weather” next to her. Could science explain these strange happenings?
Despite an adolescence reading about the weather and thinking about it even more, when I was 17 I finally learned that no matter how much I learned about meteorology, I couldn’t guarantee the safety I craved.
I was out on an 18-foot sailboat with my father and brother on Maumee Bay, on the west end of Lake Erie. It started as a beautiful, breezy summer excursion, but after we reached the bay, it became eerily calm. Our sails drooped as we sat bobbing in the water, barely moving. After about an hour, black clouds suddenly appeared in the west and quickly covered the sky as if they had foamed over a boiling pot. The winds picked up, and lightning flashed across the sky. My father quickly headed the boat toward shore, but within minutes the bay transformed into a frothy white frenzy. All around us, sailboats capsized in the strong winds.
We gave up hope of reaching the mainland and headed toward a small island about a half-mile away, but we knew that we had to drop the sails or we too would capsize. With no other choice, my father gave the helm to Joe with instructions to steer toward the island. Leaving the safety of the cockpit, Dad crawled onto the front deck to take down the smaller of the two sails, but he slipped on the rain-slicked deck and fell into the churning water. As he clung to the side of the boat, I struggled to release the cable holding up the large mainsail. Summoning all my adrenaline-fueled strength, I finally pulled the cable free and the sail dropped. By that time we were near the island and Dad was able to walk us through the waist-deep water to shore.
After this second close call with the weather, I began to wonder how many lives I had and how many Mother Nature would take away. For all I had learned, I was still at the mercy of the elements.
* * *
Knowledge is not a superpower, but it is still power. If I can’t always protect myself and my family, at least I can understand what is happening. I think these early experiences with dangerous storms are a big reason why I am a science writer today. Though I first just wanted to understand the weather, I didn’t stop there. Eventually, I wanted to make sense of the whole world.
In the 19th century, scientists hoped to find a set of scientific principles that would allow them to predict everything that would happen. That possibility was dashed in 1927, when the German scientist Werner Heisenberg came up with the Uncertainty Principle. One of the important implications of the principle is that we can exactly predict future events only if we can perfectly measure the present state of all particles in the universe. But of course there is no such perfect measurement.
The weather takes the Uncertainty Principle and dumps it on us like a surprise six-inch snowfall. Weather constantly reminds us that we are subject to random forces beyond our control. The universe was born in chaos and will end that way — billions of years from now, we hope.
People who were closer to nature than modern Americans understood the connection between weather and chaos. One Apache tribe believed that before the world was created, there existed only Darkness, Water and Cyclone. For an Apache, seeing a tornado must have been like seeing the world before the dawn of creation. I know how they felt.
When the tornado hit my house, I had a 4-year-old’s glimpse of the Earth as it was billions of years ago, when life existed only in a primordial soup. Now I can imagine mountains thrusting violently from the surface, seas boiling from the heat of the earth and great storms raging across a desolate, empty landscape. Sometimes I imagine chaos on an even grander scale — black holes sucking all nearby matter, even light, into their cores. Stars bursting into supernovas and spewing debris that will someday form new planets and suns.
Nothing seems simple, or even possible to understand. But despite all that is random and unpredictable, I haven’t lost the yearning of that 12-year-old kid with a weather kit and the dream of being Weather Boy. Something keeps me looking for order in my own little corner of the universe.
Portions of this essay appeared in a different form in the Ohio State Alumni Magazine (1989) and the book Soul of the Sky (1999).