THE BLOG
05/22/2013 02:45 pm ET Updated Jul 22, 2013

May 20

Carnage and suffering in Oklahoma, for thousands of Americans who have suffered through nature's terrors -- tornadoes, hurricanes, fires, floods, and earthquakes -- is all too common. This is a continent repeatedly attacked, and more so with global warming, by enormous calamities. To this, we have added the calamity of human violence.

But the Moore, OK tragedy has brought back vivid memories of the same day, 56 years ago -- May 20, 1957 -- in Ruskin Heights and Hickman Mills, Missouri, then distant suburbs of Kansas City, MO. What was subsequently graded as an F-5 tornado killed over three dozen people, and would have killed a hundred more had it hit during the school day.

I, then nine years old, was at home with my toddler brother, mother, and father. There were no warnings save for the ominous weather, the hail, and then the quiet. I stood with my father outside in the back yard and then saw the funnel, moving inexorably towards the Ruskin Heights water tower.

As everyone knows who has experienced a huge tornado there is a bizarre train-like sound, first distant and then moving towards you. We stood there transfixed, my father saying in his still somewhat Norwegian accent, "jesus christ" as lightening interspersed with a whirlwind of debris. As it approached we could see -- and I even said to my dad -- "there's a car in the air." When he was sure it was coming our way, he said "basement." Luckily we had one.

My mother and young brother were already there under a sturdy table in the corner. There was a thick blanket over the table covering all of the corners. We huddled there, my father and mother covering us.

The roar was horrendous, the pressure change awful, and the flying debris began to swirl violently.

I cried, mainly thinking that I would loose my baseball card collection.

It lasted perhaps 10 minutes, but everyone in Joplin or Moore or a thousand other places will agree that it seems an eternity.

When the sound abated, my father peered out and said "let's get out."

I wish we had not. The devastation, like now in Moore, was total. Our house had no roof, no windows, and I remember distinctly that the front door had been pierced by a piece of lumber from god knows where. Everything inside the house was either in disarray or had disappeared.

One block away, houses were leveled, dismembered -- just as we've seen from Moore, OK. With no place to go, we all stayed in the basement that night. The next day, my parents' friends came to see us and drove us around a bit to see what happened and to bring us to their home, where we stayed for weeks it seemed. Ruskin Heights High School destroyed, a shopping center leveled, and entire blocks gone.

Tornadoes are a peculiar North American kind of storm -- very rare in other parts of the world. But they certainly seem to have become more frequent and powerful. Joplin and now Oklahoma are just highly visible and tragic examples.

Yet, for some reason beyond my understanding, these storms have been part of (particularly) the American mid-west and south for as long as records go back. People nevertheless rebuild and return, with determination and grit. I admire such a fearless challenge to nature.

I, for one, can never shake the sound of May 20, 1957, the sight of total destruction, and the residual fear of dark skies that I have lived with every since.
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*Daniel N. Nelson is lives in Northern Virginia, and is an international consultant.

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