roaring spiral—not a funnel but a column

1-Tornado__Scottsbluff_Nebraska_airport-001

1955 – Official Weather Bureau photo from the bureau office at the Scottsbluff  airport on the east side of the city.

Anyone who ever, as a child, watched an EF-4 tornado from a (presumably) safe distance surely has the image seared in their consciousness ineradicably. The tornado that circled around our small city on June 27, 1955, was called for many years “the most photographed tornado on record.” Somewhere in my father’s remembrances are, I’m sure, the batch of pictures he took that day.

A friend of my family was injured as he drove (foolishly?) north of the city in a radio station vehicle reporting on the storm. A school friend was seriously injured. Bernie Heiter’s enormously popular western-style restaurant was flattened, and a couple of years later my mother was gifted one of the few items that survived — a clothes dryer for our new Baptist parsonage.

Tornadoes are, I think, the most alarming of natural phenomena. Hurricanes, nor’easters, earthquakes, volcanoes — all have more widespread power and are more destructive by factors of 10, 100, 1000? But the condensed, intense, short-lived power of a tornado is (how I wish this word had not been clichéd) awesome, that is “profoundly reverential.” One must bow in reverence (or get the hell out of its way).

My poetic take on my memory of the 1955 tornado written about five years ago:

Tornado, June 27, 1955
Do not hold the terrorized child in contempt. He plays his part.

First the wall cloud, the dark mass lowering, turning slowly,
a dance, strange and elegant like an old ballerina warming up,
legs and spine turning, bending, dipping low, a fragmentary stretch.
She longs to remember disciplined, expressive movement
from choreographies past,
her rotation relaxed, her motion gentle, anticipating the moment—
the moment of inspiration, the flash of remembered genius,
the frenzy of rehearsals realized, the dance begun,
the sudden pirouette—the twist, spin, balance, bend.
The child, the children, mesmerized by the sudden motion—
this bizarre, freakish, appalling swirl of cloud and dust—
cannot run to safety, but must stand and watch,
must shriek in terror and delight as children do,
the mother calling, “Come in! Come in! Come in!”
As strange as the roaring spiral—not a funnel but a column—
is the father coming home, agitated,
mid-afternoon and not yet time for dinner.
Is he frightened, too?
 
We’ve heard the fearsome word before.
We now know the fearsome sight.
The pillar of cloud writhes across the eastern horizon,
bringing the horizon close—inside the town—dominating the sky, the world.
In its wake, trees bend nearly double—the corps de ballet
fawning, bowing, acquiescing to the prima ballerina,
and terrorized children stand frozen against the wind,
mute, necessary to the scene, but directed not to move,
absurdly ecstatic in their fear.
One last bend, bow, dip from her waist,
a perfect temps lié sur les pointes and she is gone,
her exit, stage left, as mysterious as her entrance, stage right,
we supernumeraries frozen still—forever—awaiting the curtain’s fall.
   © Harold A. Knight, 2013
For sixty-three years I have alternately rejoiced in and hoped to excise the vision of the Tornado of 1955 from my mind. I rejoice in the beauty, in the terrifying splendor. Watching from the sidelines — from the sidelines, mind you — a homo sapiens can hardly imagine any sight more perfectly “other.” We cannot make a tornado, and we cannot stop it. And it is momentary, a flash in the pan. In that moment, it can change the lives of an entire town forever.

I’ve never seen a nuclear bomb blast. It is horrifying, destructive, deadly — and not a part of the natural world over which we have no control, like everything else we humans do or make.

As a finite creature, I want to excise the vision of the Tornado of 1955 because it reminds me — daily — that I am part of those natural forces. I am here for a moment, perhaps beautiful, perhaps destructive. But I am, as the children in my poem, awaiting the curtain’s fall, and all of the pirouettes, all of the expressive and beautiful creativity I might muster — as well as all the grotesque money I might make or armies of plunder I might create — are simply waiting for the final lié sur les pointes and I will be gone.
Is that knowledge terrifying, grievous, comforting, entertaining . . . ? Perhaps some people figure that out before they are 73 years old. I’ll let you know when I do.

One Response to roaring spiral—not a funnel but a column

  1. Mary Kalen Romju says:

    Strange thing, I was on a trip with my parents when that tornado struck Scottsbluff. We were with former Scottsbluff neighbors in Salt Lake City. The news got to us through someone in Scottsbluff notifiying our host through the Amateur Radio Operator’s network that it had hit and that there was one fatality. It triggers many memories because the person that died was my classmate, Jimmy (James) Karabus. We struggled to get home right away because we really did not know just how much damage there was and how my grandfather was, he was at our home. We lived fairly close to the river and we had heard that there was flooding. When we got to the Ft. Laramie area we had to take a detour and the road was riddled with deep grooves where the water had washed most of the road away. We drove over that OLD Bridge and then had no more real trouble getting home. I remember well the story of Chris driving in his pick-up close to the Tri-state Ditch (the route that the tornado took and where Jimmy was killed, Jimmy crawled down into the ditch because he thought it would be safer). I remember Mom talking about the tornado picking up Chris’ pick-up and setting it down a little later. He suffered blisters on his body but was otherwise unhurt. It did give him a new attitude about life and he really changed the way he lived his life.
    Even though I did not see that tornado, there were plenty of others and they are not easly to forget.

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