First it can help to know that we had tornado watches and warnings all the time, and this is how they'd usually go.
Now, a watch simply means that conditions are right for a tornado to form but none has actually materialized. Watches are annoying to us, since they don’t really tell you anything you don’t already know in April, and they result in an annoying crawl along the bottom of thescreen while you’re watching “Hee-Haw” on Saturday night and waiting for your dad to pick up the babysitter so he and your mom can go for steaks at Fats McBride’s and two-stepping after.
A tornado warning I remember this way. There has been a tornado watch all day, all week, all month, who knows. But this one is different because the air is a little bit still and and metallic and yellowish-green on the walk home from school, and the rain starts heavya s soon as we get in the door and is almost horizontal by the time “That’s Incredible” comes on. The scattering of hail starts with a blast against the skylights. Golfball-sized hail from the sound of it. The weatherman confirms this a minute later. We’ve got the police scanner on just for extra news. It’s crackling and mumbling to itself in sheriff-speak on the end table by Dad’s recliner.
The watch is widening, the bottom of the screen scroll lengthening ascounty names are added: Archer, Baylor, Clay, Commanche, Cotton, Jefferson, Montague, Wichita, Wilbarger. I learned my regional geography from weather maps and lists of counties on tornado watch. We go about our evening mostly as usual because it might just be asevere thunderstorm like any other—-maybe the roof will lose a shingle or two, and the extra car will suffer some hail damage—-but the scanner stays on because you never know.
Then, the sirens sound. That’s the signal that it’s not just a drill, someone somewhere in the county has spotted the funnel cloud and we probably ought to take shelter. There are two options.
One: we could gather up some blankets and the dogs and a flashlight and a radio, maybe even some cookies or something, and retreat to the confines of mysister’s closet, which is the only suitable small place in the house with no windows and all interior walls, and which we keep reasonably cleaned out for this purpose.
Two: we could bodily pick up those same squirming overfed dogs and struggle across the rain-slicked street tothe well-appointed storm cellar in the Stilleys’ yard.
Thinking back I’m not sure how we usually determined which choice to make. It could have been dependent on how close we heard the tornado was and therefore how much time we thought we’d have to take shelter. Or maybe we would have called the Stilleys up to see if they were headed out to the cellar. More likely it depended on whether or not wewere dressed and ready enough to scramble outside in the weather.
So we'd be out there in the cellar for a while, listening to the scanner and waiting for the all clear. The weatherman begins repeating himself and changes the projected ending time of the warning from 11:30 to 11:15 to 11:00. Promising, but we’re not off the hook yet.
Then we hear on the scanner—the farmer who first called in the funnel cloud sighting has confirmed that the twister has faded from a funnel to a wisp to nothingness, that he’s on his way out to check the damage to the barn, and that we citydwellers can all go back to bed. We gratefully burst back out into the sweet smelling rainy night laughingwith relief and calling our goodbyes to the neighbors. At home, the scanner continues to crackle, and the tornado watch continues to scroll along below the Johnny Carson Show, but nothing else is different beyond a few lost shingles and some new dents in the neighbor boy’s already battered hand me down pickup truck.
At least that was how it usually happened. There was one exception and it was a big one. Terrible Tuesday, it was called locally. Weather professionals call it the Red River Cluster of 1979. It was the worst tornado most people in Texoma ever saw or ever hoped to see, and it changed everything.
For me it started the way the other tornadoes I described earlier did, with the tornado watch and the rain and yellowish sickly air and thehail. I was spending the night at the Burgers’ house. Frank and Anita had two girls. Kelsey was a year older than me,and Valerie was my sister Amy’s age. Amy and Valerie were best friends. Kelsey and I didn’t get along quite as well; I think that each of us thought that the other was too bossy. But we still hung out, and often we kids would trade houses for the night, so this particular evening I was staying with Kelsey and Valerie was staying with Amy at our house.
The night of the tornado I remember sitting on their couch, watching Kelsey on the other couch watching the TV scroll warning about the bad weather. After that I don’t remember anything else until the tornado wasalready coming through. We must have all heard the sirens and Frank must have taken the mattress off the bed, because we were under it, Frank and Anita and Kelsey and me all together in the hallway. It was dark, and the wind was loud and there were tapping and whistling and banging noises outside, debris I guess hitting the walls and the neighbors’ walls. We were saying the rosary. I remember feeling ashamed because I couldn’t remember the prayers. I knew them, my dad and the Sunday school teacher had taught me the Hail Mary as soon as I could talk, but I must’ve been scared because I couldn’t remember. ButI do remember Frank and Anita’s voices saying it over and over, Hail Mary full of grace the Lord is with thee…
The Burgers’ house wasn’t hit. Our house wasn’t hit. I don’t know how long we huddled under that mattress with its blue stripes and buttons that I still remember almost 30 years later. The next thing I can call up in my mind is a car ride home. The air smelled like mud and tinfoil and fresh cut wood. I think Frank drove the car, and I think Kelsey came with us. I know I was more terrified right then thanI had been under the mattress, because I felt so exposed out there in the strangely clean quiet air with the splinters and shingles and branches and glass in the yards and on the sidewalks. I had visions ofthe tornado coming back and the windows of the car bursting in on us. I don’t even know how I knew to be afraid of something like that having never been in a tornado before. I couldn’t have known at the time how devastating this storm had been. It wasn’t until a day later that any of us knew.
Here’s Wikipedia on the topic. And here's a map of the three tornadoes' paths.
With the paths marked in that dark red, they look like open wounds to me, like clawmarks.
And here are pictures of the tornado itself, which don't even do justice to how huge it was.
Finally, some damage pictures.
I remember walking around days after and seeing sights like these. Especially the mall, we shopped there all the time and it was pretty torn up. The one above the mall is from McNeil Junior High School.
It was very frightening to me as a young child. Later, at slumber parties, we kids would tell gruesome ghost stories, like all kids do, but ours were always adapted to be about people who had died in the tornado, who had been crushed or cut or decapitated. I think now that ghost stories and urban legends like this are often ways for children to try to deal psychologically with scary occurences like tornadoes or floods or car crashes or whatever.
Fifty six people died, and 1,916 were injured. I didn't personally know any of the dead at the time, but Ronald Dale Harbour was the father of a boy that I later went to high school with at Rider, which was rebuilt after being almost destroyed in the tornado.
I also remember something about Kelly and Ember Hull from the list of those who died. Some days after the tornado, there were obituaries for most of the victims in the paper, and I remember looking at the page and being fascinated by the picture of two little girls around the same age as mysister and me. The story I heard about them was that they took shelter with their grandparents in the bathtub of their home (which along with closets and hallways is a recommended place to take shelter if you have no cellar) but the tornado hit their house directly and they were picked up out of the bathtub by the wind and killed by debris in the funnel cloud. I was frightened for years afterward thinking about them.