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1980 twisters reached as far as West Coast

I forget what I was doing 20 years ago today. I might have been working -- it was a Tuesday -- but I could have spent the day at the beach and then taken in a movie in Hollywood. Or maybe I motored up Doheny Drive to Michél Richard's for a dessert and an espresso and then headed for the hills to see the lights of Los Angeles from Mulholland. Or maybe I just stayed home and watched Z Channel movies.

I really don't remember.

I do know exactly what I did 20 years ago tomorrow.

I spent much of it on the phone. That's because my mother spent 20 years ago this evening under a chair in her basement reading a book by flashlight. And because my wife's mother and father were taking refuge with two houseguests in a closet and a bathroom. And because my aunt and cousin were crawling across their floor amid glass from blown-in windows while tornadic winds were roaring above, trying to suck them skyward from their living room.

The 1980 tornadoes, whose 20th anniversary has been the subject of stories this week and a special edition today in The Independent, created pockets of sustained worry across the face of the globe for those of us living elsewhere but who had friends and family here among the rubble that Grand Island awoke to on June 4, 1980.

Compounding our concern was an inability to call into the city, the dramatic footage we kept seeing on television and the insistence of early reports from national news that 35 people had died. It was a long day.

Surreal, silent, horrid

My wife, Jacalyn, and I had lived in Los Angeles since August, she in graduate school, me thinking (erroneously) a career in the motion picture or television industry was a good choice. On June 4, Jacalyn left early for the UCLA campus, where she encountered a classmate from Omaha, itself a civic veteran of a devastating tornado in 1975. Having seen early reports on TV, he told her, repeating the indelicate words of television, that her hometown had been "wiped out."

She immediately called me but not before her sister, Denice, had called from outstate Nebraska to report to me the same jarring information. The television news was little help with inaccurate death tolls and footage that, although painfully surreal to survivors and rescue workers here, seemed like a silent, horrid made-for-TV-movie on a 17-inch box 1,500 miles away.

Your mind races when reporters repeat the "wiped out" phrase. Where was my mother? Where was my wife's family? Had our friends survived? Was the entire town flattened like so much nightmare-like television news footage?

The phones didn't work. Other friends and relatives, themselves in distant parts, called but were of little comfort. You eventually fall into a routine. You talk about it, saying the same things over and over, searching for updates on TV, scouring sound bites for solace in word or picture or information. Your phone works, but the ring jangles your skittish nerves. For loved ones waiting for word, the all-clear comes to them last.

An outsider

But it came, sweetly and gently. My sister-in-law had finally reached her parents, who were fine and assured her my mother had also ridden out the savage roar from above.

Our families' stories were replayed in thousands of homes stretching from Los Angeles to Lincoln, Seattle to Sarasota and on continents far distant from the rotating beasts who visited Grand Island 20 years ago today -- our communal angst about the same, our unified relief genuine. Of course, for five families and hundreds of their friends, that relief never came.

Like spectators at sports championships or observers of war, I've always felt like a June 3 outsider, connected but never really a part of the 1980 tornadoes. It was my hometown at stake and my family and friends whose lives were on the line, but having not experienced the night's terrible fury and fear, my bond is from a distance, like soundless lightning playing on a far horizon.

That was clear several years after the tornadoes when my mother and I were driving down South Locust, still riddled and pockmarked from the F4 that danced its awful dance from north to south. I remarked how long it takes to rebuild. She said that, after experiencing a night of twisters, it takes a long time to rebuild in your mind as well, to dispense with the dull ache that set in the next day and that was Grand Island's constant companion as it bravely dug itself out of tragedy.

That's something one never forgets.

George Ayoub is a columnist at The Independent.