by James W. Nelson

It was July 2, 1955. I was ten. Cool that morning but the afternoon turned sweltering. My nephew, Curtis, five, my very best friend at that time and who I considered almost my brother, and I, had been cleaning out the south side of the tar paper-covered garage. The plan is to set up a table or two for our farms and toy soldiers. It was a good plan.

By five-thirty we had finished sweeping the dirt floor. Mother calls supper. We head in. Huge thunderheads are rising over tall spruce trees in the southwest yard. Rain sprinkles. Sunrays make brittle contrast against the white house and dark clouds. Nothing about the changing weather seems really serious but we hurry faster anyway. We’ll be safe inside.

But my dog, Pal, very small, somewhat Collie-like, stops, whines softly, then turns and lopes in the opposite direction, toward her refuge under the hoghouse, where she has raised several litters, and, as a puppy herself, hid on the day of her arrival to the farm.

But it has rained before and Pal has not gone to the hoghouse. (Did she already detect the changing barometric pressure? Or was it the sixth sense that some animals, and some people, have?) To Curtis and me, nothing seems serious. Nothing at all.

We slip through the east porch door and are greeted by the squeal of 13-month-old Celi, my niece and a jabbering bundle of smiles. She sees us and, propelling herself with crossed legs and feet, comes scooting over the floor on her bottom.

From the corner of the porch floor, with crayons and paper, three-year-old Becky, another niece, a beautiful and intelligent child with reddish-brown hair and bright blue eyes, asks my mother, Lois, “I’m so hot, Grandma, can I take my dress off?” Without waiting for an answer she snatches the hemline and peels it over her head. She does look more refreshed in just panties, so Curtis and I remove our shirts.

Later, all of us, including my dad, Russell, and sister, Gerry, 16, sit to eat. A special affair tonight for Mother has just returned from a Ladies’ aid bake sale.

Supper is mostly finished by twenty to seven. Anxious to console Pal, probably still cowering under the hoghouse, and also to move my toys into the garage, I am first to leave the table. But upon reaching the porch I see a yellow glow outside. Unexplainable dread stops me.

The barn is about thirty feet high and sixty feet long. Beyond its peaked roof the sky is pale blue. The barn is bright red against the blue; its silver cupola is gleaming. The yellow glow fades. Outside begins to darken, fast, yet the sky beyond the barn remains friendly-looking mid-summer blue. Fears stabs at me as I hurry back to the kitchen.

Everybody is already up, standing silently at the double kitchen windows facing north, toward where darkness is spreading, covering the farthest treetops quickly, as if a sky monster is swallowing the sun. It is so quiet. Nobody is talking, and outside not even the sound of a bird. Nothing. The quiet is so intense it’s becoming a pressure beginning to hurt my ears.

A roar is becoming apparent from the west, like a distant freight train, usually a pleasant sound but now insidious, rumbling, approaching nearer and nearer, faster. From where there is no railroad.

“Boy, we’re going to get an awful hailstorm,” Mother announces, “Hear that roar?”

“I think so too,” Dad agrees.

But it’s more than a roar. It’s a sound I’ve never heard, nor imagined, and it’s beginning to terrify me.

It’s terrifying all of us. We keep staring at the silence and calm right outside, at the green of our farmyard, at the blue sky where ragged fingers of black cloud are finally edging into view, looming over our thought secure, tree-surrounded farmstead.

From the floor, Celi, sensing terror from the rest of us, begins to whimper. Gerry immediately kneels and gathers the usually happy baby into her arms.

“What’s a hailstorm, Grandpa?” Curtis asks.


The crash is the east porch door, flung open. But there is no wind. Outside is still absolute silence, stillness except for the intensifying roar. Everybody gapes. Nobody knows what to do. Time is passing too quickly to be able to do anything. Dad heads for the porch door. Everybody watches him. Eyes wide, Curtis follows, “Grandpa, look at your car!”

We press against the kitchen windows. Outside the house yard fence the car is bouncing up and down. But it’s so calm outside.

We couldn’t know that fluctuating pressure preceding the storm is making strange things happen seemingly without substance. Dad didn’t know. Mother didn’t. Much too early in the century. The media blitz has not yet hit, consumer weather forecasting is still in infancy. Our communications is a radio not listened to during meals, a hand-powered telephone not ringing.

But nobody in the community yet knew either, for the storm had first formed several miles west in uninhabited pasture, then the tornado that came from it had hopped and skipped causing little damage, to escalate a mile west of our farm. There would be no warning. No time to get to the cellar. One entrance outside, another under linoleum in the kitchen. And still we have no realization we even need better shelter.

Like a balloon filled, the pressurized car pushes its weakest point, a poorly latched door, and pops it open.

“Mother, you didn’t get the car door shut,” Dad exclaims, “Now it’ll blow open and break!”

Dad does not leave the house to close the car door, for the unknown fear grips us all, but he does step out slightly, grips the porch door, pulls it shut.


It explodes right open again, harder, seeming to shake the house. The roar now seems right on top of us. The trees north and west of the barn begin straining, leaning east as if a mighty magnet pulls them, yet the house itself still feels no wind. Little Becky stands among us, as in nonthinking awe we watch the trees bending so far as to touch the ground.

Then the barn and other outlying buildings begin leaning east, again as if a magnet pulling, not wind pushing. Everything close is still so quiet. Farther away everything is happening so fast, and it’s so hard to believe, and accept. We still have no full realization of a dangerous wind. No realization we should do anything but stand, watch, in shock believing that nothing so bad as what’s happening could really be happening.

Suddenly the unseen magnet is winning. Everything beyond the house yard gate begins breaking apart, sending boards, shingles, branches flying around and around. The terrible roar now sounds like ten freight trains about to crash into the house. The pressure in my ears feels like I’m going under water.

The car door blows open, then wrenches and twists itself around to the front windshield, then it’s moving on its own across the yard. The 60-foot windmill, like a matchstick, topples east. The barn and granary roofs lift, and are gone, disappeared. The barn, like a stand of dominoes, collapses to the east, its siding and insides erupting like a hail of arrows. Like a cardboard box, the wooden granary rolls across the yard, west, opposite everything else.

An animal, small and dark, hurries across the yard, toward the disintegrating barn, looking for a place to hide. Pal! I know it’s Pal! But my mind cannot concentrate, cannot conceive anything but recognition of my beloved pet. The image of her, small and frightened, ingrains in my mind.

Pal disappears as dirt and other flying objects fill the air. Mindlessly I run for her. Dad grabs me, returns me to where everyone has moved away from the window. We’re now clustered in the center of the room. And still we continue witnessing, dumb-like, the unimaginable disaster occurring outside.

Suddenly the house is shaking, furiously. Dishes are falling from cupboards, clattering, crashing, breaking.

“Everybody into the west bedroom!” Dad shouts, then begins guiding us there. But I glance back. The east porch is breaking away from the house. Wide-eyed Curtis is still there, engraining more memory, then disappears into a curtain of dust and debris.

The rest of us crowd into the small bedroom, my bedroom, where I’ve slept in safety all my life, awakening happily to birthdays and tooth fairy visits. I look back once more. The kitchen linoleum has bubbled halfway to the ceiling. The refrigerator is rocking back and forth as if dancing, crazily. Everything, everywhere, is moving, falling, breaking.

The horrible sound outside is like a brutal sandblaster crunching the walls. The only other real sound is Celi in Gerry’s arms, crying, not in paralyzed shock like the rest of us.

Everything outside the west window is white, all white. The house groans, cracks, moving and twisting beneath our feet.

“Here goes the house.” Dad says it calmly, resigned, for there is nothing he can do to stop it, nothing he could have done. No time. No warning. No prior experience.

The house is actually lifting into the air, doing the impossible...and breaking apart. The west window shrieks as it bursts from its casing, smashes into my back, ending my awareness for I don’t know how long.

* * * * *

The next thing I remember is continuous thunder and lightening. Rain and hail is pouring in cold, terrifyingly-cold, torrents driven by fierce straight wind...and my screaming voice, “God, I don’t want to die!”

From the night-like darkness, sitting though with her back broken, comes my mother’s voice, “Jimmy, you’re not going to die.”

Dad struggles from the ground, pulls me up to sit, then stands, stares at an incinerated landscape, “Everything is gone.”

Not a hole remains where several huge boxelder trees stood south of the house. The now fenceless lawn is bare dirt, scorched, as if a fire has swept by. The few remaining trees on the outskirts of where the thick grove had been are stripped of bark, have a burned appearance. No sign of buildings. Nothing. Only smashed and slivered boards.

The sound of galloping hooves comes from the north. The two black draft horses, Dixie and Daisy, are followed by ten wild-eyed, panting milk cows, running not as fast but bucking, kicking, their flopping udders swelled, unmilked, then are gone, disappearing into the gauze of shock surrounding us.

From beneath a section of wall comes Gerry’s cry for help. Though his arm is cracked, Dad lifts it off as if cardboard. Then, strength gone, he sinks to the ground. No grandchildren in sight. Nobody with the strength or even presence of mind to search for them.

“I’ll go get help,” Gerry says, now sitting up.

“You can’t,” Dad answers, “Where would you go?”

Still crying I ask, “Daddy, are we in a dream?”

“No, Son. This is really happening.”

So we lay in the cold and rubble of our farm with unknown injuries and dirt ground into our skin, thinking—if thinking at all—that everybody would be like us, helpless, that there would be no help.

Headlights appear on the road. Always heavy foliage growth had prevented seeing lights except in winter, but now the grove does not exist. We watch the headlights until they stop right in front of us.

“Where are the children?” They ask.

Nobody knows. Three men have arrived. Art Blair, Dad’s cousin, and his visiting sons, Woody and Johnny. They live one mile north, have watched the tornado destroy the farm, and came as soon as it was possible.

They load us. Becky and Celi, covered with dirt, are found almost immediately because the car had barely missed them. But no Curtis. Two men will stay to look. Curtis can’t be seen because of day-darkness and because he is so covered with dirt, but within two hundred feet a frightened little boy is buried in sand to his waist, arm broken in three places, shouting and frantically waving his good arm.

Little talk occurs as we ride up to 100mph toward the nearest hospital at Breckenridge, Minnesota. I sit in front between Woody and Dad, who announces, “I’m freezing to death.”

Mother and Gerry ride in back with baby Celi between them. Becky lies face down on the floor. Mother, unable to move herself, asks Gerry to move Becky off her face.

“No, I can’t.” Gerry holds her neck and head, unaware her neck is broken, “It hurts too bad.”

Neither knows Becky’s head is nearly crushed in several places, worst in back, and that lying on her back might have killed her.

Between them little Celi moves once, takes one breath.

“Little Celi is gone.” Mother speaks with no emotion. There are no tears from anyone.

Six miles from the hospital a rear tire blows out. Passers-by have it changed in minutes. While there a woman announces that bad weather is coming.

“Oh, no!” Gerry cries out, “We can’t go through it again!”

Minor damage did occur in the Breckenridge, Minnesota/Wahpeton, North Dakota area. Whether the same storm cell is unknown.

At the hospital the undertaker pronounces both granddaughters dead and asks Woody to take them to the funeral home.

“No, I can’t. There’s a little boy back there who hasn’t been found, and I’m going back to look for him!” In fact, Curtis had been found and already was at the hospital.

The undertaker, Joseph Vertin, then picks Becky up. When he turns her over in his arms she moans, prompting him to carry her four flights to the emergency room.

Our wounds are attended by Doctor N.R. Kippen, a kind man who continued to attend my parents until they died in 1996 and 1997. Later I hear that wire brushes were used to clean our sand-pitted skin, especially Curtis’ and mine, as we had been without shirts. I remember pain, hearing myself and Curtis screaming, but nothing more during those early hospital hours.

My other sister, Helen, has arrived. A young girl stays by her side throughout that first night. Helen later describes her as a guardian angel, and does not see her again.

Dad is seen by Helen first. His face appears as if a hot iron has rubbed across it. “Helen, we couldn’t find Curtis.”

Mother, lying on her stomach while her deeply gashed hips are worked on, is next. “Helen, your baby is dead.”

Turning to leave, Helen walks past Gerry, who is cut so badly Helen doesn’t recognize her. Gerry sobs helplessly that she had been holding Celi and lost her.

Helen does not see Becky now, but she’s been told Becky is not expected to live until morning. So Curtis and I are next. “Mommy!” Curtis cries out, “Grandma and Jimmy can fly just like birds! Can Grandpa and Grandma come live with us, Mommy? Because they don’t even have a house, everything is gone!”

“Yeah, we’ll figure out something.” Helen does figure out a lot of things in the next weeks and months. She becomes our strength to go on. (I cannot even begin to imagine the pain Helen was feeling as she walked through the hospital learning the fate of her children, and the rest of her family.)

“And then they left me, Mommy. I hollered and hollered to Grandpa but they just drove away.” (My little nephew, Curtis, how he must have felt right then, with Grandpa, and all of us, just leaving him, just breaks my heart.)

Helen consoles her little boy as best she can. “Curtis, your little sister Celi is in heaven, and God might want to take Becky too.”

Curtis thought for a second, “I hope He doesn’t, Mommy, but if He does, we’ll just have to try to understand and be brave.”

* * * * *

God didn’t take Becky then, but her head had been badly injured. She was rendered unconscious for seven weeks, to awaken helpless as a newborn and to never fully recover mentally. But thick brunette hair came to cover her scars, and with bright eyes, though one blind, a clean and clear complexion, pretty smile and jolly laugh, she became our beautiful little girl anyway. She loved crafts, the music of CHARLIE PRIDE, and baking chocolate chip cookies for all her favorite men (me included!). She sometimes frustrated our attempts to communicate, but she always gladdened our hearts with her presence, until she died in her sleep in 1983, at 31.

We did get a house to live in, provided by Edwin Overboe of Kindred, North Dakota. Helen lived with us, nursed us, and her working husband, Clayton, joined us every evening. The Red Cross, churches, organizations, hundreds of families and individuals aided us and other storm victims who lost everything, giving food, money, countless hours of labor.

My family and I remember that terror, The Storm, that period in our history where everything else happened either before The Storm, or after. But now we have a comparison point, something to weigh against every other bad thing that could ever happen again. The experience instilled in me that bad things can and do happen, that they can be that bad, so I try not to take good things for granted. For fifty-four years I have experienced only rare days without remembering.

* * * * *

Two weeks after The Storm, after my cuts and bruises were well on their way to healing (I was hurt the least, the worst being a sprained ankle) I would see what was left of the farm.


Rubble. Piles of splintered trees and boards. Unbelievably twisted machinery.

Helen and Clayton brought me. I sat between them in a 1950 Ford Coupe. Never could I have imagined the utter devastation. This place had been my playground, a storybook farm. I buried my face in Helen’s side and cried. For months afterward many things would frighten me, even things unrelated to the weather. I guess I must have thought a tornado lurked around every corner. At the age of ten I knew my home was invulnerable to any threat. Now, fifty-four years later, I know that no home—in fact, nothing—is invulnerable.

Twice, about a mile distant and during stormy weather, I have seen what looked like huge whirlwinds (likely tornadoes that did not fully form) maybe two or three hundred feet high. Both times west of me, so, of course, had it been the real thing it would have came toward me, because vicious weather comes from the west, not the east. And both times they lasted just seconds. Twice more I have seen clouds directly overhead whirling and twirling, boiling, but no tail came down. Twice more I have seen tails hanging in the sky, far, far, up and away (A thousand feet high? Two thousand? More?) and not moving, just hanging there doing nothing, basically, and finally disappearing. Later I learn that they are what are known as cold weather funnels, which can, possibly, grow and become violent. Many more times I have seen clouds rolling and tumbling over and over each other, always from the northwest to the southeast. But never have I seen a live tornado, except on television. I guess I should count myself lucky. But still, whenever storm clouds darken the sky I go outside and watch them, until rain or straight wind forces me inside. (I used to think that rain would mean the violence was over, but I guess that’s not exactly true.)

And when the weather comes at night, if there’s any sign of red or purple on the TV radar, and close to me, I cannot sleep. I keep watching through the window until the thunder and lightening is just distant noise. A few years ago National Geographic Magazine had an article about tornadoes (April 2004). On pages 18-19 there is a map of the US of variously-colored lines showing all known trails of tornadoes since 1950. If you look at North Dakota, notice in the southeastern corner the two straight yellow lines. Yellow means F4 and F5, the biggest and meanest. One I’m sure represents the Fargo tornado in 1957. (One of the most heart-breaking photographs I’ve ever seen appears later in The Forum newspaper: A rescue worker holding the body of a small child, one of six children killed and all in the same family.)

The other yellow line I’m pretty sure represents my tornado: the 1955 Walcott tornado. What I’m trying to get to here is that I’ve watched the formation and dissolution of dozens, maybe hundreds of storms in these years since 1955. And many times I have been frightened—yes, frightened, maybe not terrified but frightened—watching, these, freaks, of nature. So why do I do it? Why don’t I just take shelter and wait it out? I’ll tell you why. Because if one of these freaks of nature is trying to kill me again I want to see the mutherfucker coming!

Neighbors and friends and other volunteers had found and buried the dead livestock, mostly little pigs, some found hanging in trees. No kitties survived. And the cows and horses survived simply because they had been far to the north in the pasture. A friend, Volney Stevens, I heard, found and buried Pal, and marked her grave with the leg from a blue wooden chair. I looked but I never found her grave.

We—Dad, Mother, Gerry, and I—would return in October. We would rebuild in the same spot, with all the buildings just where they had been. Actually the only new building would be the barn. The hog house and granary (looking very much like the ones destroyed) would be found on other farms and moved in. Our house would come from a kind man from Sheldon, North Dakota. (I’m sorry, sir, but I don’t know your name.) Cleanup would go on for years, but we did recreate a storybook farm. I say “storybook” because that farm had everything.

The approximately 10-acre farmstead was located directly on the boundary of east and west. East of the house was the new calf pasture, about three acres of green grass and boxelder trees growing from the roots still left in the ground from the mature grove that had been there. East beyond the calf pasture was flat agricultural field land.

Approximately 100 feet west of the house began the pastures and hay meadows. Native grass, wildflowers, wild animals, and hills.

The new barn became a magic place for me. A bull pen was located in the northwest corner, with a new bull every year. We always had three purebred Holstein bulls, a days-old calf, a yearling, and a two-year-old taking care of the cows. We were slowly developing a purebred dairy herd. The bulls were named after the farmer where we got them. Several were named Frank, one Dell, and one Terry. Dairy breed bulls are known for being mean, but they all respected the whip. They didn’t seem to understand that the little whip we carried would mean nothing if they were to charge. Three calf pens held calves of different ages. An enclosed room held ground oats and corn for feed. Another room held a small machine that separated raw milk into skim milk—which we fed to the young calves, cats and dogs, and piglets—and cream, which we sold.

The south side of the barn held about a dozen stalls, one for each of the milk cows: Red, Knothead, Domino, Snowflake, Cutie-face, Keyhole, Brutus, Sparkle, Mabel, Chief Kickapoo, and Tiny, a dear little Guernsey with horns. Nearly every animal had a name. The cats were Major (a bobcat/domestic cross), Currents, Halloween, Patches, Puff, Frisky, Tommy, and Sylvester. Even some of the pigs had names (but naming forty piglets became a chore).

I had four bottle lambs one year. They were provided by Alder Helling, a dear neighbor. They became bottle lambs either because they were too weak to nurse properly or their mother would reject them. I gave them Indian names from THE SONG OF HIAWATHA by HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW.

No creatures on earth ever gave me so much trouble. Imagine having just two hands but four lambs all wanting to get fed at the same time. Normally I didn’t have help. I don’t remember how I handled it. Because, basically, only one could get fed at one time, because the nipple would not stay on the bottle unless you held it on, and of course the lamb is bunting the bottle (and me), because instinct is telling him/her that bunting will increase the milk flow. And had I and the bottle been its natural mother with an udder then his/her instinct would have been correct. There were several cuss words and much spilled milk. But I loved them.

And they wouldn’t stay in their pen (which was built for the much bigger calves). The instigator was always the black-faced one I called Nokomis. Nokomis was the leader of the lambs and also a leader in the poem of HIAWATHA. But I strongly believe that if Nokomis hadn’t been there one of the others would have led.

And of course there were more dogs: Sport, Tornado, Queenie, King, but no dog to this day has ever taken the place of Pal.

And I kept wild creatures: a horned lark, a great horned owl, a raccoon, a cottontail, white-footed mice, galvanized tubs for aquariums and terrariums. And nature visited our farm: crows, magpies, ducks and geese, great blue herons, minks and weasels, deer, fox, rabbits and squirrels. And right there on the farm I had 160 acres of trees, pastures, shelterbelts, wetlands, to explore. If I wanted to walk west I could go for miles and miles and never see another human being or habitation.

I was happy. I was satisfied. I loved my life. But I guess I wasn’t really learning much about life. Because then teenage confusion set in and a few years later I joined the navy. But that’s another story.

© 2010 by James W. Nelson



About the Author

James W. Nelson was born in a farmhouse a short distance from Walcott, North Dakota in 1944. Some doctors made house calls back in those days. He was living in that same house on the land originally homesteaded by his great grandfather, when that savage tornado hit in 1955. But they rebuilt and his family remained on that land until the early seventies when diversified farming began changing to industrial agribusiness. James spent four years in the US Navy, worked many jobs and finally has settled on a few acres of land exactly two and one half miles straight west of the original farmstead, ironically likely the very spot where the 1955 tornado first struck, which sometimes gives him a spooky feeling.

His memoirs, DYING TO LIVE, can be read at, under biographies and his real name. The tornado story was originally published in 1990, by The Forum, Fargo, ND, then again in North Dakota Horizons Magazine in 1994. He has published two short stories in small press magazines and won three short story contests (Falls Writers Workshop, Ohio). Here will be his first publishing in a national online literary magazine. Reach James at: jennycabin [AT]


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