June 20, 1957. Fargo, North Dakota. An EF5 tornado.
I was there. I was 3 years old. I have just one memory of the event.
Our whole family, in the basement, sitting under the heaviest table we could find, waiting.
No fear. Because I didn't understand what was happening. All I knew was that mommy was making us all hide under the table.
I came through the day unscathed, physically and emotionally. My scathing came later.
My mother, however, did not come through unscathed. A North Dakota native, she'd seen tornadoes before, but never one this big. After the tornado dissipated she got out and saw the destruction. I believe it changed her, made her fearful of the weather, of losing everything, including her family. Because after that day I have multiple memories of being called inside to seek shelter in the southwest corner of the basement. All false alarms. In those days weather radar wasn't even on the radar, so we were sheltered whenever it got daytime dark and looked like tornado weather.
I was never in another tornado, but all that sheltering changed me.
I began having dreams where I would be trapped outside, quivering in terror, with a tornado coming. Or I'd be at the door trying to get into shelter but be paralyzed, unable to move my legs or unable to move at all. My mother's feelings of helplessness before the might of a storm had migrated wholesale into my little psyche.
Those dreams continued, not nightly but frequently, for decades. I'm sure the nuclear shelter mania of the early '60s helped fuel my own internal terrors, but the object of my terror never varied. Tornado.
Eventually, well into adulthood, the dreams became infrequent and finally stopped.
These days, when I see storm news, people with homes destroyed, families lost, those are not the victims I most empathize with. I think about the near-miss children who are too young to understand, whose parents realize how close they came to being wiped out, and who will become over-cautious and hammer their fears into the young, malleable minds of their kids. Kids who will grow up with fears they do not understand from events they don't remember. Who may, or may not, come to terms with those issues after enough time and maybe enough therapy.
Second-hand terrors, boogie men, impressed even by well-meaning parents, suck.