Tornadoes on TV can’t compare to the real thing

the tornado I sawThe historic tornado outbreak in the South last week captivated my attention as I’m sure it did everyone’s. Watching James Spann of ABC/33–40 in Birmingham cover the storms and keep people safe via Ustream demonstrated his brilliance once again and reminded me of how far we’ve come as broadcasters in our ability to cover storms live. Much has already been written about that, but the coverage also reminded me of something else: how my whole world changed as a 9‑year old boy back home in Michigan when a killer EF‑5 tornado came calling.

We’ve come such a long way in our technology that we can sit in the comfort of our homes and watch incredible videos like the ones we saw last week. When I was a boy, however, that was unthinkable. What we have are memories.

So I did a little searching and found a treasure trove of memories and pictures via the National Weather Service office in Grand Rapids, my old home town. I told Xxxxx that the most amazing thing to me about looking back is how vivid the memories are. This was 55 years ago, and I can remember it like it was last week (Old farts don’t remember anything “like it was yesterday,” not even yesterday).

The date was April 3, 1956. I was in the fourth grade at Oakdale Elementary School in the city’s southeastern section. We lived on a very short street called Alto Avenue. Despite the size of our block, over 40 kids lived there, and we were a very active neighborhood. Much of the activity took place in a large field in back of our house. That field was a buffer between our neighborhood and the C&O Railroad tracks that ran north and south at the far side of the field. In our backyard, the view was due west, and on the other side of the tracks a few hundred yards away was another neighborhood.

My two brothers and I went to school that day like every other morning, although it was exceptionally hot for early April. Everything was normal until the school office announced that the Weather Bureau had issued a tornado watch and that we were going home early. I remember walking home about lunchtime in the sun and heat. We were all pointing at the sky laughing and saying, “There’s a tornado. No, there’s one.” To us, it was a free afternoon off.

the sky I sawMy father came home from work a little after four, and he was talking about the coming storms. We used to have a coal furnace, so we had a small room in the basement in the southwest corner that used to be where we stored coal. It had been transformed into our air raid/storm shelter (a must for the 50s), and that’s where he wanted us to go when the storm came.

We went to the backyard, and I had my first sense of awe and wonderment. The sky was an eerie green color and the clouds looked like they were upside down. It was so quiet, and I was both frightened by it yet drawn to it. Then, the air raid sirens went off. These sirens usually only went off during drills. On top of every school, the howls of their warnings reverberated through neighborhood after neighborhood, as they went round and round and crossed each other’s sound paths in a terrifying signal that all was not well. Green sky. Stillness. Upside down clouds. Sirens.

My mother shuddered. “Get in the basement,” my father ordered.

We all scrambled downstairs and turned on the radio. The tornado was west of us, moving to the northeast. My mother was scared, but I was drawn to the danger. I snuck out of the room and headed back upstairs. I looked out the kitchen window into the backyard, and there was my father, staring to the west. The sky was a very dark green, but bright sunlight was beginning to peer through the very horizon. I pushed the back door open and headed into the back yard.

the tornado I sawWhat I saw is forever etched in my mind. The sky to the west was completely black. We were east-northeast of the storm, so it had the appearance of the whole sky lifting and revealing sunlight as it grew closer. The funnel appeared to be miles across when the sky first began “lifting,” but as it got closer, the wedge was clearly visible, and it moved across the horizon from left to right. We were miles away, but the thing was enormous. I was scared but mesmerized by the thing. Its magnetism froze me in place. Visions of The Wizard of Oz flashed through my mind, as I stood there paralyzed. It was pitch black and revolving with the sunlight beaming in from behind it, as if the curtain of dark clouds had sprung a leak, spilling its contents through this funnel. At that point, I learned later, it was destroying Standale, Michigan, and killing people along the way.

My father turned and saw me and yelled for me to get back to the basement. He was right behind me.

We huddled in the storm cellar, listened to reports on WOOD radio, and waited for the all-clear sirens. When it finally went back into the sky, the tornado had traveled 52 miles on the ground, killing 17 people.

I didn’t sleep very well that night, and a couple of days later, we drove through what used to be Standale. I don’t think much about that trip, for the destruction was too real, but that tornado — that Svengali-like monster — called to me every night for a very long time. The feelings of that day remain with me today. It created the door through which I passed en route to a lifetime in the news business — television news, where I spent many days and nights helping warn people about the very thing that haunted me.

And last week, while watching live video of powerful twisters as they destroyed everything in their paths, there were flashes of being 9‑years old again and in the backyard with my father, participating in something I hope never to do again. Today’s curious 9‑year olders can search YouTube. They can also find the real deal on shows about storm chasers and the like. But I’m not sure video can ever really capture what it’s like to go through one of those things, and I’m grateful for that.

(More great pictures of the April 3, 1956 Michigan tornado via Flickr)


  1. Jim Smith says

    I have a remarkably similar memory from when I was 9 years old: the Palm Sunday tornado of 1965.


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