The Day of the Tornado

Yesterday came suddenly, sang Paul McCartney all those years ago. I was 12 years old, no doubt watching "Wallace and Ladmo." Little beep, beep, beeps went up on the TV screen (if those weather system warnings on the bulletin bar on the bottom screen actually worked like that, back then). Hard to remember ...

I had just moved from Texas to the Country Estates subdivision at 58th Place and Shea Boulevard six days before. On the seventh day, the rain came.

Well, not so much rain. At least, not at first. The details of that day still linger. The visual impact the storm of 1972 created is still in my expressions better than any DVD could possibly replicate. Nearly 40 years ago now. Imagine. See it. Feel it. Almost smell it. The ozone in the days of Oz!

Back then a new plat in the Country Estates subdivision was like a cookie-cutter parcel of the moon. Sure, there was mesquite all over, but once the fences sliced-and-diced the place, all of the new back yards were, until the landscaper arrived, squared-off hotbeds of fine whitish, powdery dust. On that day or any other, the dust would get stirred up into swirls of volatile air, called "Dust Devils."

Arizona still gets "Dust Devils" now and then, but with the paradising effect that's gone on since these bad 'ol days, the name is being lost with all of the horny toads, rattlers and coyotes running for cover from civilization. Suddenly, it gets windy. Then, it's not. You'd hardly notice it. But on that day, June 22, 1972, the whole greater Paradise Valley area, basically the Indian Bend Wash basin, from Mummy Mountain to the McDowell Mountains, was a whirling set of such dervishes, a practical ballet performance, as weather patterns go.

Anyway, I tell this story to newcomers to Arizona a lot because it teaches something about the monsoons (which this wasn't) and the history of Scottsdale (a lost great body of knowledge that exists, if it exists at all, in the archives of the old Scottsdale Progress and the Scottsdale Historical Society).
The story doesn't actually begin with myself watching "Wallace and Ladmo," the old TV kids show, but with what I was doing when I came home as I was watching Wallace, and, of course, Ladmo.

He was mad about something, dad was. Not Ladmo and his Lincoln-esque top hat, where is Waldo shirt. He was upset, you see, because he just got back from talking to some insurance agent. The story begins when my dad said, right after coming through the door: "They wanted us to buy flood insurance. Those (bleeps!). Don't they know this is the desert?"

Country Estates is on the northern banks of the Indian Bend Wash. With the exception of a few golf courses, as it flowed to the Salt River, it was still a desert wash with mesquite and sage and rabbits and mice and prairie dogs. In the spring, lots and lots of butterflies. When it rained, even the slightest, downtown Scottsdale would be in need of Noah's Ark.

The next start of the story, after the beeping TV warning, after my dad's now famous last words, flows in this direction: Hail stones, the size of golf balls, plopping, puft, puft, puft, into super-heated, white hot dust. Then the wind came. Then came some more. Every dot of dust and debris not tied down flew by sideways by the windows, as if the Creator were converting the new suburban environment into something akin to a black day on Mars.

The roof began to wail. Fences picked up and were lifted off as wind sails in a scene from the black-and-white segment of "The Wizard of Oz."

Then, I look out the window, and saw a tower, a dirt vortex, well up into the sky, up and out of the frame, cascading off nearby Mummy Mountain.

Now, even before this, tornadoes have freaked me out. Sure, Dorothy's little house-spin into the air, up and back and down into Oz, always left a strong impression. But also this: Members of his grandfather's immediate family, including his mother and father, had been killed by a tornado in West Texas (and he had to raise his younger siblings by himself as a teen). So, fear of tornadoes is pretty much in the DNA.

So, what did I do? Run? Scream? Duck and cover? No. I decided to go outside and get a better view. Went through the front door. Looked up. It was a big, brown, swirling behemoth. Or, that's what the eyes, as dust bits pelted hid face and sandblasted my hair and my mother screamed "Get back in here!" - that's what my eyes still feel, see and remember.

There was no time to do the classic, heartland-style, get-into-the-cellar maneuver. No time to even get into the hallway, away from the windows. But by God's grace (as well as the seeming lack of it) the tornado hit the house across the street, destroyed a roof, killed their dog, hopped then over the entire Country Estates neighborhood, and then landed again, turning Shea Boulevard and points northward into a Vietnam era-, Robert McNamara-style playground pathway of near total destruction. Hundreds of homes had varying degrees of damage. Uncounted numbers were rendered, national-TV-news style, into images of flattened rubble.

Then, the winds passed. A half-mile away, looking toward Shea, a boulevard named after a Union General at Gettysburg, you could see nothing but the wrecked frames of bombed-out homes and flashing red emergency lights.

Then, it began to rain. In fact, it rained for a day. In fact, it rained four inches in four hours. The Indian Bend Wash became the Indian Bend River. It must have been a mile-wide muddy river, too. But our family never knew. We couldn't even step out of the door for three days as the wash, our street, now a river, flowed on by with every bit of debris and clutter it could pick up. A wash. Indeed! A major Maytag this so-called "Paradise Valley" will always be, say, every hundred years or so.

Now, we could go on and on about not having electricity or water for a week. Or, about how some official landed in a helicopter behind their house, looked around, and then left. How I believe it was the governor come to bless them with his utter and useless amazement. I could thank the Lord for sparing them but punishing the neighborhood with a kind of creative whimsy, and yes, a cosmic sense of timing and selectivity.

It was, after all, right after the first official day of the summer. You could talk about solstices and the equinox and all ...You could ask, why them, but not us? It would be futile, of course, unless you have lived it, to try to fully explain the impact of this storm on me, my family, and yes, this burgeoning city called Scottsdale. The number of times I have told this story to people:

The day we faced the tornado: I saw it in the window. Dust was blowing all around, saw it there, bigger than the black and white version in the Wizard of Oz. Him ran outside. Him remembers pinpricks of dust hitting his face and his mother screaming to get into the house. Him, big heap tornado boy, leaned into the wind. It ran hot and cold. The tornado high in view, A roof off a house down the street, and went back inside, barricaded in the hallway, or tried to, but there wasn't enough time. God knows what was running through him big father's mind because his father's family had been killed by a tornado in West Texas. All that is known is after the winds died down, after the new saplings were pulled out of the ground, after it seemed liked the wind picked up their back yard and deposited it somewhere west of their neighborhood ... the change had begun.

An excerpt from 'Forty Days of Fire, Forty Days of Rain,' a living novel by Douglas McDaniel: