The tragic reports coming out of Joplin, Mo., in the wake of the tornado that struck that city last weekend have served as a terrible reminder – as if we needed such in our neck of the woods – of the terrible devastation such storms can produce.

Those reports have been especially difficult for me and my family, as Joplin has been one of our regular stops whenever traveling between here and Illinois to visit family members over the years. Any time there is some kind of personal connection with a distant city or town – even one as seemingly tenuous as the one between us and the good people of Joplin – there is always a feeling of sadness and loss whenever that locale is stricken by a tragedy such as this one.

Sunday’s storm also brought to mind memories of the one and only time thus far in our lives that the family and I were present at the time of a tornado strike. I have covered the aftermath of several tornadoes here in Johnston County in the 20 years I have lived here, but the only time to date we’ve actually been caught in one ourselves happened while we were traveling – and it happened, ironically, right there in Joplin. 

It was the spring of 1996. Our son William had been born just a month or so earlier, and somehow I managed to finagle a week off of work to drive up the family to Illinois and show off our new baby boy to the nice couple who didn’t shoot me when I married their daughter. It was a fairly quiet, even (to a certain degree) enjoyable visit; the mother-in-law only managed to pick one fight the whole time we were there, and for once it wasn’t with me.

Soon enough it was time to head back home. The original idea was to leave the in-laws’ house as early as possible Saturday morning so that we could get as far as Springfield, Mo. before all the motels there were filled to the brim with Branson revelers. Didn’t happen. There wasn’t an empty motel room for miles around; at least one desk clerk, I remember, seemed unwilling to believe we had the nerve to even ask.

There were five of us crammed into that little car – myself, the wife, two kids and our dear, since-departed friend Ethan the Wonder Dog. We were tired, we were fussy, we were ready to call it a night. But there were no rooms at the inns. 

So we drove another hundred miles or so to Joplin, where we managed to get what may well have been the last available motel room in the state. We unloaded the car, told Ethan to watch the room for us, went out to grab a bite of dinner, then came back and turned in for the night. 

Just before 3 a.m. a storm blew in. Didn’t seem like much at the time, just your ordinary run-of-the-mill spring storm. I might not even have been awake at the time, had it not been for the fact that my wife needed help with the  bottle for William’s feeding.

Then it happened: a distant noise at first, which quickly became a very close, very loud rumbling that shook the entire room; it did indeed feel as if a freight train had gone through the room. I quickly threw on my pants and shoes and rushed out to see what had happened. So did every other man in the place, it seemed.

What we found was a scene of utter chaos. Buildings all around us had been torn apart; one corner of our motel had collapsed. Windows were blown out; several cars in the parking lot were damaged, although ours was somehow untouched. Both driveways leading into the motel were blocked by downed power lines, the wires still dancing and sparking in the rain. 

It didn’t take a degree in meteorology to determine what had happened. But it wasn’t until the sun came up that I realized just how extensive the damage around us was. A warehouse next door to our side of the motel was ripped to shreds; so was the used car lot behind the motel. A video store just up the street from us looked more like the remains of a shelled building from some old World War II movie.

Tornadoes usually follow a particular path. A policeman helping at the scene told me later that if this particular tornado had followed that path, it would have come right through our room instead of jumping to one side to wipe out the car lot. Obviously somebody in that motel was up on their prayer quota for the week; I don’t know that it was me, but you can bet I got caught up in a hurry. 

To the best of my recollection nobody died in that 1996 tornado. But the experience gave me a healthy respect for nature’s fury – as well as a sense of empathy for others who experience it, whether here at home, a few hundred miles up the road or halfway around the world.

Our thoughts and prayers have been with the people of Joplin this week. Please keep them in yours, as well. 

(Copyright © 2011, by John A. Small)