Tomorrow, April 10th, 2014 will mark the 35th anniversary of an event that changed my life forever.
When as many as 38 confirmed tornadoes danced the Red River Valley. More destruction from the same weather cell would spill into the next day, affecting parts of Arkansas and Missouri for a total of 59 tornadoes confirmed.
Photograph of the Seymour, TX tornado of 10 April 1979. (Wiki commons)
They later called it Terrible Tuesday. Many remember that a mile wide path was carved through Wichita Falls, TX, killing 42 people. But another tornado also came up through the edge of my hometown of Lawton, OK a few hours before. And we lost 3 people too.
I remember it being called an F4 or F5 long ago, but it seems that time has downgraded it in the records to an F3.
They say that particular tornado split into two, possibly three tornadoes after it hit town.
I believe it happened at my house.
I always get emotional when I remember that day. I was 7 and a half, and I remember the day like last week’s trauma. The jewel green look of the sky when we were at the Safeway grocery store on Ft. Sill Blvd. The way the air tasted, tingly like a weak 9 volt battery playing in the back of your mouth. The way everyone ignored the weather in Oklahoma and went about their business.
You gotta understand. Tornadoes were no unusual thing. However, usually they were small. Maybe they take out a barn or something. Maybe they never touch the ground. Maybe we get a little excitement, but rarely was it that big of a deal.
People ignored tornado “warnings” all the time back then.
I remember standing at the back glass door, staring at the heavy rain when we got home. Watching the hail come down and get louder and larger.
My mother worked for the American Red Cross at the time. She helped train folks in disaster preparedness. I’d watched every film our local chapter had to offer at the time. We knew well that the safest place in the home was as close to the center as you could get and away from windows. And we had regular drills at school, filing into the hallways, crouching on our knees with our heads face-down towards the floor and wall, our open textbooks held to cover our necks and heads.
On Monday night before, there was a PTA meeting at Will Rogers Elementary School – the school I attended and lived across the street from. Mom and her director gave a presentation to our school and parents about tornadoes, what to look for, where to go, what to expect. The biggest thing I remembered from that meeting was the Red Cross director talking about hail and rain. He held strings of white beads in front of a poster to represent hail as he described the pattern progression of a storm.
He said, “It’s not the rain and hail you need to be afraid of. It’s when it suddenly stops.”
It’s because a tornado sucks everything up.
I stood at our back door, watching the rain and hail get harder and larger. Suddenly it was like a switch had been flicked and there was a stunning moment of silence against the jewel green sky. My mom hung up the phone and yelled “Kids, hit the hallway!”
The hallway in our antique home, a house old enough that it still had some of the gas pipes for lighting in the walls, was a tiny 4-5 foot circle that our bedrooms opened to before spilling into the living room. I grabbed my cat Taffy and my little brother’s hand and we sat down low. There was just enough room for us and mom. She managed to flip the breaker before the first crash.
They say a tornado sounds like a freight train….
But I never heard it.
I heard my swing set crash through my bedroom window. Nearly every window in the house broke. The sound of glass and boards flying through our home filled my ears. As did the sounds of my little 5 year old brother screaming as he writhed in my hand and tried to get away to run.
“Hang on to him!”
Of course he was scared. I tightened my grip on my brother’s wrist, and suddenly my cat bolted from my arms.
And somewhere, in the middle of all the crashing noises, there was a sudden pounding on our front door, just maybe 20 feet away. Mom got to the door to let my friend Francis in, along with her brother and sister, from across the street. We didn’t get to play real often, and she was a little younger than me, but Francis was one of my best friends. Her father was in the army and her mother was at work, so the kids were home alone that afternoon.
I heard Francis’ sister say over and over, “The table fell on me. The table fell on me!”
One of them was barefoot (or was it two?). And somehow, they made it through the storm and across the street to our house before their home collapsed like a pile of cards.
And then, as they huddled into the tiny circle of our hallway with us, it was over. And somehow, our home filled with debris, none of us were hurt.
“There is no tornado. There is no tornado.”
Mom had grabbed our radio. An announcer emphatically urged the public not to panic, that reports of a tornado were false. “There is no tornado. There is no tornado.”
Dad had seen the tornado from downtown where he worked, just a few miles away. He raced home. Mom said he kicked in the only undamaged door left in the house. My grandma lived a block away. She saw a board come at her through her hallway and managed to get into the hall closet in time. It would be three days before I saw my cat again, thankfully alive.
Stepping out into the world after that was surreal. Destruction and chaos surrounded our still standing home. We lived on a corner diagonally across the street from my school. Surveying the damage, half the school gym was peeled away and gone. On one side across from our corner, a neighbor’s house was missing its entire roof. Francis’ house on the other side across from our corner was a pile of rubble. And the house across from us next to hers had completely vanished.
People used to steal our apples all the time. I guess they won’t anymore.
Trees, rubble and power-lines were everywhere. The neighbor’s old tall tree beside us just missed crashing through my parents’ bedroom. Our old sycamore tree looked shaved on one side. The apple tree didn’t survive.
Bits of someone else’s swing set were in our yard. Unbroken dishes that didn’t belong to us had miraculously shown up inside our house. Even food had been blown around. For decades our neighbor had a saltine cracker framed that was put through their ceiling. I heard that it finally fell out one year when her husband was fixing the roof.
The day took on an even deeper experience as it was also Passover night for our family. We weren’t Jewish, but our church at the time kept Passover services after sundown on April 10th that year. I forget why it was a day earlier than other Passover services. Some sort of argument about the right way to figure the date.
Normally, children were not allowed at these solemn services. But there would be no babysitter in our home that night.
We were late for the service, but I remember the deacons and other volunteers helping us in. My brother went with my father and I with my mother for the foot washing ceremony. I watched as a woman removed my mother’s shoes and washed away the mud and grass from her feet. I watched as the symbolism impressed itself upon her. Tears were in her eyes and suddenly everything felt raw to me.
More tornado sirens would go off that night.
Some of our church members drove up from Texas for the service. I heard that one of the families returned to Texas that night to find their home completely gone. They thanked God they were at services instead. Everyone murmured how we were all indeed “passed over.”
I remember sitting in a little diner that night, mom and dad talking, trying to figure out what to do. We couldn’t go home to sleep and we didn’t really have the money to eat out or get a hotel, but there wasn’t any choice in the matter. I remember hearing mom talk about how the mattresses would have to be replaced, that there’ve been cases of glass being embedded in mattresses by tornadoes. The diner had those little juke boxes on the tables. “Don’t Say Goodnight Tonight” was playing at a table nearby. It was really popular back then, but to this day, that song feels like a haunting to me.
To my knowledge, our neighborhood and school district on the edge of town was the only part of town affected. I’ve often wondered how many people were saved thanks to mom and her director’s lecture at our school the night before.
A lot would change after that.
As the weeks would pass, our community would come together to help each other. I remember the American Red Cross bringing relief bags with food and toiletries and the irony of it. Grandpa came and helped my dad fix our roof. The repairs seemed to go on forever. And I remember how a year later, it still seemed like we’d never recover.
Our neighbor who lost his roof fixed up his house and moved away. I can’t remember his name, but I remember that he had red hair and had been so kind. I liked him and was angry that the tornado took him away from us. The new neighbors never could compare.
Francis and her family also moved away and I never saw her again. Never got an address; don’t even know her last name. It felt like injustice and I’ve always wondered about her ever since. I remember when the cranes came to clear away the rubble of her collapsed house. I kept hoping she’d come back. But it was like a curse had fallen on our neighborhood. Her home’s lot remained empty for a long time. And the empty lot left next to Francis’ home (where the whole house had disappeared) remained empty for the longest.
And for years, my brother and I cringed with every swirl of wind, every time the leaves blew into curls, every time a storm pounded our roof. And for years it was hard on our parents too. It took a long time to balance the trauma we all felt. And the financial blow was no small thing.
I would later grow up and move on. But every once in a while, there’s a look in the sky and a taste in the air that throws me back into the memories of a serious 7 year old child who would never forget.