First Posted: 4/1/2009
Come on lets twist again, like we did last summer … Chubby Checker
Tornadoes are the stuff of a million nightmares. Especially for a child growing up in the Midwest.
Twisters there are as common as dandelions in the spring.
My minds been on tornadoes lately, as I was preparing a story on the 25th anniversary of a band of tornadoes that struck the Carolinas, and because a tornado was spotted north of Lumberton on Friday evening.
As a kid growing up in the Midwest, developing a fear of the evil tornado is common place its part of our very fiber. Michigan averages 16 tornadoes a year, according to the National Weather Service.
And I grew up in the dark and wide shadow of the Beecher tornado, the deadliest in Michigan history and one of the 10 deadliest in U.S. history.
Tornadoes are categorized using the F-scale, based on wind strength and the amount of damage caused. An F0, for instance, carries winds of 40 to 72 mph. On the big bad end of the scale, an F5 tornado stirs winds of 261 to 318 mph.
The deadliest Michigan tornado struck on June 8, 1953. It was rated an F5 that tore across Genesee and Lapeer counties, affecting the communities of Flushing, Flint and Lapeer. When it was over, 115 people had been killed along a 27-mile-long track, according to the National Weather Service. This still ranks as the ninth-deadliest tornado in the country.
An event like the Beecher tornado can affect a generation and beyond. I know. Ive lived through the countless disaster drills of heading into the dirt floor basement under the house when the sky became threatening at least once or twice every spring.
The stories, drills, warnings and remembrances served to spook many a youngster. And those fears were no doubt fueled by repeated viewings of the movie The Wizard of Oz. For a young, impressionable child, that movie can cause some serious head games.
The most scary thing in the movie is not the Wicked Witch of the West, it is the ominous black tornado bearing down on the shabby farmhouse.
Oh, and those freakish flying monkeys theyre pretty scary, too.
I was caught in the path of a ferocious tornado when I was just a boy. At the time I was a student at a small Catholic school in southeast Michigan, along with a neighborhood girl named Marilyn. Her dad always took us to school, and my mom always brought us home.
Just after lunch, the cold air of the morning was quickly replaced by a rush of wet, hot air. Tornado watches were posted, as calls were made to parents. By the time the school began sending kids home, a bonafide twister had been sighted in western Genesee County and was headed our way.
My mom left work and rushed to gather up Marilyn and me. As we pulled away from the school the sky was an ominous aqua. Creepy, really.
By the time wed reached the north end of town, it was raining sideways and a cropping of tall thin trees was bent at a 45 degree angle.
We took shelter at the Farm Bureau office, the only brick building in sight. We all raced downstairs.
It was like a walk-out basement, with a sliding glass door to our left so we still had a way of watching the horizontal rain and blur that was outside.
Marilyn and I dove under a long folding table that was up against the western wall. It was a tight squeeze. Our arms and legs were crammed up against one another.
Marilyn and I always carried a sack lunch, and I remember both of us had some food left over items we didnt like. For me it was a few of those nasty, cardboard-like windmill cookies with the shaved almonds. For her, it was a couple of limp sweet pickles.
These once boring and tasteless items suddenly became gourmet delights as Marilyn and I decided if we tried to eat, we could take our minds off the carnage going on above us.
Since the chewing alone didnt seem enough, Marilyn and I decided to ask for some intervention from The Big Guy Upstairs. With our mouths full of chow, we squeezed our eyes shut and prayed just like Sister Marietta taught us in school (well, minus the chewing).
The tornado was now barreling down upon us.
But as it moved eastward, that twisting and churning freight train that swirling cloud of death and dirt rose off the ground and skipped over the town, touching down several miles to the southeast in farm country.
And just like that, it was over. We had survived.
It was right then and there I decided three things:
1. Marilyn smelled pretty good.
2. Windmill cookies arent so bad.
3. Prayer can be powerful.
That is all.
John Charles Robins can be reached at 272-6122 or [email protected]