They stood on the knoll of the farmyard—the farmer and his sixteen year old helper, a high school senior—and watched it come in the southwestern sky.
It was early evening on April 3, 1956.
All of nature about the farmyard was suddenly, mysteriously still before the roaring monster approaching a few miles distant. Not a bird chirped; not a cow in the nearby barn uttered a sound or rattled its stanchion; not a leaf on one of the apple trees in the orchard surrounding the farmyard stirred.
An unearthly, ominous, green pallor colored everything—the color of impending death and destruction.
The young man had been milking the twenty cows of the Cliff Tanis Dairy and Fruit Farm, just west of Kenowa Avenue on Burton Street, in the area southwest of Grand Rapids, Michigan known as “Riverbend.” The area was—and is—so named because of the sharp bend there of the Grand River to the west and Lake Michigan. The farmer was eating supper with his family.
The milking would remain unfinished until later that fateful night. For the easy-going farmer ran into the barn, crying as he came, “A tornado!” “A tornado!”
Now the two of them watched it from the farmyard. It had probably just completed its devastation in Hudsonville and was on the way, through what is now Georgetown, to a river-crossing a scant mile northwest of the farmyard where the two stood enthralled.
For years, tornadoes had held a special fascination for the young man. Throughout his grade-school years at the little, country school a couple of miles north of the farmyard, when he had finished his assignments he would wander to the bookshelves at the back of the room. From the set of encyclopedia, he would invariably pick out the volume, “T.” In this volume was the gripping painting of a Kansas farmer and his family fleeing for their storm-shelter before a funnel bearing down on them. The young man had studied this small painting for hours. Fear was on the faces of the family. The painting left doubt whether the terrified couple and their young children could make it to the shelter, or whether they would escape if they did. There was the same sickly green tint to the painting that the young man now saw, not on the page of a book, but in the air. Irresistibly drawing the attention and transfixing the imagination was the looming tornado, falling out of the billowing, black heavens upon a frightened, defenseless earth.
The reality was all the picture suggested, and more—much, much more.
The tornado was huge, monstrously huge. It was not the slender, curved, even graceful cloud of the painting. It was hardly a funnel. Rather, it was an enormous, squat column, nearly as wide at its bottom as at the top. Its top was not high. The reason was the lowering mass of black cloud from which the tornado descended.
Nor was its color the almost attractive gray of the tornado of the painting. Instead, it was a deep and fearsome black—the black of the third horse of the Apocalypse.
One element of the tornado, the painting could not express, and for this the young man was altogether unprepared: the sound. It was a roaring, as though creation had found a voice.
The voice sounded from on high. It reverberated from the earth beneath. It echoed in all directions, especially in that toward which the tornado was moving, which, to the young man, was directly through the farmyard. As creation is vast, so its voice is loud. The volume, unbearable at a distance, increased as the tornado came on. It was the voice of fury and power.
The response of the young man was not so much fear, although he was afraid, as awe— awe as before Jehovah God of Israel come to judge the wicked world in the wrath of His holiness.
He did not cower before it, although he had immediately made up his mind to take flight at high speed. But it captivated him. He marveled at it with a wonder foolishly bordering on admiration. He was determined to hold out on his farmyard vantage-point until the last possible moment—seeing, hearing, feeling.
Fifty years later, the memory is vivid and detailed. The tornado-scene of April 3, 1956 is as distinct as the painting on the page of the encyclopedia. There are the low, red out-buildings to the right; the barn a little farther off; the teenage boy in jeans and tee-shirt, with a container of salve for the chapped teats of the cows in his back pocket; Cliff on his left; the ghastly hue of nature; and the great, black, vertical cloud filling the southwestern sky, coming on inexorably like Death and Destruction.
Although the event would prove that the tornado was to pass the farmyard a little more than a mile to the northwest, on its appointed path to Standale, it seemed to the young man, as it seemed to the unexcitable farmer, that the farmyard was the bulls-eye at which the tornado aimed.
“I’m going down the basement,” Tanis said. “Come with me.”
Hunkering down before the approaching storm appealed to the young man not at all. Deliberate exposure of oneself to this fury and power, basement or no basement, was simply unthinkable.
Flight and escape alone made sense.
The young man had the means at hand. He owned a 1953 Ford hard-top convertible. The stick-shift could do sixty or better in second gear. He knew this, because going sixty in second gear through Grandville recently, in order to let the twin glass-pack mufflers sound off when he let up on the gas pedal, had cost him a hefty fine, as well as a stern lecture from Police Chief Schipper in the presence of the young man’s frowning father. The car was parked in the farmyard.
Tanis ran for house and family. The young man sprinted for his car.
They stopped simultaneously, struck by the same thought. Charlie! In a converted chicken coop on the edge of the orchard just beyond the farmyard, in the direction of the tornado, lived Charlie, a sixty year-old drifter, who worked at odd jobs about the farm. His main task was trimming the apple trees during the winter months. That is, Charlie worked when he was not drunk, which was much of the time. He was drunk this evening. Responding to the pounding on his door and the shouts, “Charlie, wake up; a tornado is coming,” the bewildered sot stumbled out of the chicken-coop. His gray hair was matted. The old shirt and pants in which he had been sleeping the sleep of the drunken were wrinkled and spotted. He was barefoot.
In his stupor, Charlie had not the faintest idea of the impending peril. He never looked in the direction of the tornado. But one thing registered through his fog. From the look on the faces and the sound of the voices of his would-be deliverers, it became clear to Charlie that he must take immediate action to avoid real, though unknown, disaster.
At that point, Charlie made his second mistake of the day. He chose to flee with the young man, rather than to seek shelter with the farmer in the basement of his house.
With Charlie in the back seat and the young man’s blond German Shepherd in her accustomed spot on the passenger seat, the young man fled before the roaring tornado, which by now, he was convinced, was heading east on Burton Street behind him, and not very far behind him at that. His route was east on Burton Street, across Kenowa Avenue—the divider between Kent and Ottawa counties—to Wilson Avenue and safety.
Now fear reigned—sheer, naked fear. It commandeered the accelerator. The young man floored it. He was doing fifty when he crossed the intersection of Burton Street and Kenowa Avenue. The intersection had neither yield nor stop sign in those days. Besides, it was a blind intersection. Had another car entered the intersection at that moment, the tornado would have been the cause of several more deaths than those that actually resulted.
As the car raced across Kenowa Avenue, every spring snapped. Neither Burton Street nor Kenowa Avenue was paved in 1956. Both of the gravel roads were deeply rutted. An earlier spring thaw had been followed by freezing temperatures. April 2 had been cold. April 3 saw a dramatic rise in temperature. The thermometer rose rapidly to 80 degrees. This clash of cold and heat explained the tornado, weather-wise.
The breaking of the springs did not slow the car down. But it did make a wild ride wilder as the car leaped from rut to rut.
From the farmyard on Burton Street to Wilson Avenue are half a mile and a couple of minutes. The trip was quicker that evening. When Charlie set out from the farmyard, he was dead drunk. When the car stopped at Wilson Avenue, Charlie was stone-cold sober, if only temporarily. Terror had done it, not of the tornado, but of the ride. When in answer to Charlie’s demand for an explanation of the hair-raising ride the young man said, “tornado,” Charlie responded with what may have been the most heart-felt words he had ever spoken, “D—, I rather die in a tornado.”
Stopping was foolish. If the tornado had been following him, as the young man supposed and as might very well have been the case, it would have caught him there, and Charlie would have had his druthers. In fact, stopping gave the young man his second magnificent view of the tornado.
At the point where Burton Street crosses it, Wilson Avenue is high. It is the top of Johnson Park hill. The spot afforded, and still does afford, an excellent view down its straight length northward, past the muck fields at Hall Street, to the intersection of Wilson Avenue and Lake Michigan Drive, a distance of about three miles. The intersection of Wilson Avenue and Lake Michigan Drive was the western extremity of the little town of Standale, which extended eastward on Lake Michigan Drive a half-mile or so.
From the top of Johnson Park hill, looking about to discover the relationship of the tornado to himself, the young man saw the tornado crossing Wilson Avenue a little south of Lake Michigan Drive. It would make its way virtually down Lake Michigan Drive from west to east through the Standale business district.
It was massive. With the low-lying cloud-bank that was its base, it did not dominate the northern horizon; it obliterated the northern horizon. Almost three miles away and moving away from the young man, it was still threatening—heart-shrinkingly threatening. Strangely, the tornado was gray in color now, even whitish on its fringes. It was not as sharply out-lined as it had been, though it was still unmistakably a tornado. High up its side, debris could be clearly seen—apparently large sections of lumber, indeed whole buildings.
Another man, who had also stopped to view the tornado, remarked, accurately as it turned out, “There goes Standale.”
Then the young man did something that puzzles him to this day. With Charlie in tow, he drove his sagging car south on Wilson Avenue into Grandville. The only conceivable explanation is that an irrational fear of the tornado moved him to put as much distance between it and himself as possible. Irrational, at that point, because he knew that tornadoes in general and this one in particular traveled from southwest to northeast. The tornado was not going to make a U-turn up Wilson Avenue.
No one who saw and heard the tornado at close quarters that evening would have criticized the young man for continuing his flight, or would even have had difficulty understanding his reaction.
The decision to keep running enabled the young man to get his third, clear look at the tornado. He stopped at the intersection of 28th Street and Wilson Avenue in Grandville. Today the intersection is large and busy. Both Wilson Avenue and 28th Street are busy, four-lane streets. The I-196 expressway adds its traffic. In 1956, Wilson Avenue and 28th Street were two-lane roads with little traffic. There was no expressway. On the north side of 28th Street, at the junction with Wilson Avenue, was a little, two-pump Standard Oil station. There, with the attendant and a few others, the young man had another good view of the tornado. By this time, it was north of Grand Rapids, having skirted the city on the west. Likely, it was in the vicinity of Alpine Avenue.
The tornado was farther away now. In addition, it was framed in a much broader horizon—the entire northern sky, stretching away both to east and west as far as the eye could see. As a result, the tornado appeared smaller. It now had the perfect shape of a funnel. There was even a slight curve to its form. The top of the tornado was much higher in the sky than it had been when first the young man saw it. Once again, the tornado was black. Oddly, its tip seemed not quite to reach the ground.
He watched it out of sight on its way to Rockford. Charlie did not get out of the car.
His fear abated, the young man returned to the farm. The farmer and he had to milk the rest of the now impatient, and noisy, cows by hand, and in the light of a lantern. There was no power.
It was the farmer’s suggestion that they drive into Standale to see the destruction.
In the farmer’s pick-up, they got as far north on Wilson Avenue as a few blocks south of Lake Michigan Drive. There the police had added their barricade to that of felled trees caused by the tornado as it came across the road. Back-tracking, the two turned up O’Brien Road to Cummings Avenue and took Cummings Avenue as far as the wreckage strewn by the tornado allowed. The two then walked through the fields into what had been Standale. They came onto the edge of the little town near the intersection of Cummings Avenue and Lake Michigan Drive. They crawled on hands and knees the last distance to avoid detection.
What met their eyes was utter devastation. Standale was no more. More accurately, Standale was rubble. Here was the effect on man and his works of the fury and power sensed earlier. Adding to the eerie atmosphere of desolation were the sea of flood-lights bathing the ruins and the flashing, multi-colored lights of a fleet of emergency vehicles as men and women went about to recover the dead and rescue the injured.
Standale was rubble with two notable exceptions. These exceptions fixed for the first time in the young man’s mind the problem of divine providence, which, as a Calvinist, he believed as firmly as he now believed the existence of tornadoes.
A little to the west on Lake Michigan Drive from where the two crouched in the underbrush, across Wilson Avenue from each other were two notorious dens of iniquity. One was the Vista Drive-in Theater. The other was a “beer garden.” Among the Dutch Reformed in the Riverbend area in 1956, these two blots on the landscape had roughly the same reputation that the French Quarter during Mardi Gras has with Christians in New Orleans today.
Neither of these blots had been removed. Neither had been touched. The tornado had spared them both. Providence had spared them both. By a few hundred feet!
While honorable grocery stores, department stores, other businesses, and even residences were demolished and scattered, and their upright inhabitants killed or maimed, the Vista Theater and the unsavory tavern were passed by. The denizens of the tavern were as safe and sound as if they had been in a storm cellar in Kansas.
“The vagaries of capricious nature,” explains the naturalist, although the explanation would not have calmed his heart, had he looked left and right, up and down Lake Michigan Drive that dreadful evening.
A severe test of faith for a sixteen-year-old Reformed believer, who had from childhood sung Psalm 104 with all his heart: “He rides on the clouds, the wings of the storm/ The lightning and wind His mission perform.”
On some future April the third, when the grandchildren have grown up a little, around 6 in the evening, the young man, now fifty years older, plans to gather with his grandchildren on the knoll of the farmyard where once he watched the F-5 tornado of 1956. The farmyard remains much as it was then, although Charlie’s chicken coop is gone. He will assemble also as many of his children who fail to escape the call to meet, shamefully using every excuse imaginable to avoid hearing the “tale of the tornado” yet again.
There, on the scene, he will try to describe the indescribable.
He will advise them not to attempt to outrun a tornado, as he himself did, but to find shelter in a basement. His advice, however, will go further (for the problem of providence that troubled him as he lay in the rain and darkness along Lake Michigan Drive fifty years ago by no means destroyed his faith): The ultimate refuge from the wrath of Jehovah God expressed a little in an F-5 tornado is the cross of Jesus Christ.
And the ultimate hope of men and women concerning such violent storms is not earlier detection and warning, although these are much to be desired. Comes the day when the Lord Jesus will say to the creation that now groans and roars in its fury and power, but also in its hope, “Peace, be still.”
The “young man” in the piece is the writer, David J. Engelsma. He is a native of Western Michigan, having been born in Grand Rapids and having grown up in the “Riverbend” area. He resides with his wife and youngest daughter in Grand Rapids.
Hundreds of times over the years, after April 3, 1956, to the present day, when in spring and early summer the dark clouds roll in from the southwest and the air becomes sultry, he has gone outside to scan the skies, dreading to see a funnel. He is glad he saw the tornado of April 3, 1956—three times. He hopes he never sees another.
The painting that fascinated him in childhood is Tornado Over Kansas by John Steurat Curry. The original, he has recently discovered, is at the Muskegon Museum of Art. He intends to see it.
You can see pictures of the tornado at www.crh.noaa.gov/grr/science/10560403/vriesland_trufant/.