My First Tornado

Most “What is your first/favorite/worst/best…?” type themes that spread around Facebook go ignored by me, but one definitely warrants a response: “What was your first tornado?”. For those not on that forum, and for those who are but desire the full story, I’ll share it here.

My first tornado was in childhood, 26 May 1976, glimpsed between trees and houses from my front yard in east Dallas, looking NW (then NNW after some chasing-on-foot). I already was a serious tornado enthusiast and had been since before any memories. Seeing one was a dream come true, and accelerated an already deep thirst to experience a lifetime full of them!

The photos of the tornado below were culled from the NOAA library, and were taken closer than I. My view was more monochromatic, distant and silhouetted–not to mention brief, given all the obstructions.



Below is a snippet of my more detailed account from an essay about return flow entitled “Nights of Wind, Days of Darkness“.

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On the night of May 25-26, 1976, as on many nights before, a warm, moist wind gusted through the tall pecan trees behind my duplex. The low-pitched whooshes carried my sleepy, barely nine-year-old mind away into one of the many fascinating thunderstorm or tornado dreams that I had as a child…pleasant dreams about violent weather which repeat themselves to this day.

Eighteen hours later, while tossing a football onto the roof and catching it (a favorite way to play for hours at that age), I noticed the sticky feel and fresh smell of the wind’s moisture were each a little stronger than usual. Off to the west-northwest and beyond all the low clouds racing northward, the hue of the sky became gray and grew dimmer. Within the pall, distant thunder rumbled and lightning flickered faintly, then more vividly as time passed. The game of “roof football” was forgotten somewhere in the hypnotic call of the darkening skies.

I stood enraptured in my front yard, as a degree of atmospheric power I had never seen slowly unfolded through all my senses. On that late afternoon, the light of day only came from the southeast, an eerie effect of the approaching storm. The old wood-frame houses and deep green trees took on a surreal glow, stark against a menacing backdrop
of steely gray-blue that just kept getting impossibly darker. Every few minutes, a blazing, forked, staccato stroke of lightning pierced the gloom, launching an explosive report of thunder across the skies like a rifle shot. I knew this had to be special!

Our TV was busted; so I went inside to flip on the radio. The high-pitched buzz of the Emergency Broadcast System went off immediately, followed by the DJ reading the tornado warning for Dallas County. A funnel cloud had been reported in Irving, near Texas Stadium. I was intimately familiar with Dallas geography even at that age. The tornado definitely lurked somewhere in that thundering wall of blackness to the west-northwest, hidden beyond the tall sycamores and pecans that lined Concho Street. Before the DJ was done, I began to hear the low pitch of the Civil Defense siren activating a block away to the northeast in Tietze Park. The siren grew louder, then softer, then louder again, echoing through the neighborhood. It stopped, then started again. Not a soul was on the streets. The only noises were the gusty southeast wind, occasional booms of thunder, and the haunting wail of the siren. This was for real!

The tornado was moving east, they said — toward North Dallas, away from my location. I knew we were probably safe; so, disobeying my mom’s command to stay inside, I went back out front to watch. A thin, horizontal band of daylight showed up under the dark storm base, low to the horizon and visible only between a couple of houses to my
northwest. After a few minutes, a low-hanging, unmistakable silhouette appeared from behind a house. The stubby, cone-shaped funnel moved east, its bottom slowly pulsating. For a second, it lit up from beneath in a blue-green flash that I knew was not lightning. The funnel briefly narrowed and stretched its tip below my line of sight; then I lost it behind more trees and houses. For several minutes, I couldn’t see the tornado at all, generating an intense new form of frustration that I wouldn’t experience again until several adult storm chases!

By this time, my mom was at our screen door, screaming at me to get inside. I screamed back that it wasn’t going to hit us, then ran half a block east to Skillman — a wide, four-lane artery which gave me a good view to the north. My next and last sighting was the ropy gray funnel a few miles to the north-northwest, tilted westward and barely visible against an only slightly darker gray background. [By then, the damage had already stopped.] The Dallas tornado of 26 May 1976 wasn’t a killer and only caused F2 damage; but for a kid already fascinated by tornadoes, it was the highlight of a lifetime. And it all began with that breezy lullaby the night before.



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