Tornado Scars

Tornado June 1953

Tornado June 1953

When I was too little to remember, or know it was important, a tornado ripped through the neighborhood where Grandpa and Grandma lived.  Grandpa told me all about it when I got bigger.  We sat at Grandma’s kitchen table eating raspberries.

“I was out working on my boat,” he said.  “The sky got dark green, and everything was still as death.”

He stopped looking at me.  I mean his eyes looked toward me, but he was looking somewhere deep down in his memory.

“All of a sudden, it sounded like a train was coming,” he continued.

Grandpa made the chug-a-chug-chug sound come out from deep down in his chest, louder and louder.

“And the wind whipped everything.  Branches flew off the trees.  I got Grandma and your Aunt Annie we headed for the cellar.”

Cellar’s a word old people use instead of basement.  Same way they say ‘icebox’ instead of refrigerator.  I knew what Grandpa meant right off, ‘cuz I spent a lot of time at his house.  His workshop was in the cellar with all his tools and saws and stuff to make titles for his movies and splice different movies together to make one big movie.  I liked it down there with all the smells of wood and sawdust and oil and varnish, mixed in with the smell of bleach and starch and ivory flakes.  Grandma’s laundry stuff was down there, too.  I tried to imagine Grandpa and Grandma being afraid with the wind blowing all around up top like ” The Wizard of Oz.”  Aunt Annie could make a pretty good Dorothy, only with a DA haircut instead of braids, and a pedal-pushers instead of a checked dress.  Aunt Annie was sassy, like Dorothy.

Mom told me that tornado was the worst ever:  Over 100 people got killed, and more than 300 houses turned into kindling.  Dad said, some people got so scared they packed up and moved out and never came back.  Grandpa told me it was 1/2 mile wide, which is the same as from our house all the way to Deanna’s best friend Linda’s house.  That scared the begeezers out of me.  Sometimes I woke up at night thinking I heard a train coming.  I looked out the window and the weeping willow branches weren’t moving I got scareder, and if they were whipping around in the wind, I got even scareder still.

When I got to high school one of the things that scared the begeezers out of me was giving a speech.  Everybody had to do it.  I don’t remember any of the speeches I gave, or any, but one of the speeches my classmates gave.  The one I remember was Susan’s.

Susan was tall, with longish black hair and olive skin.  Tall and dark equaled beautiful in my teenage mind.  Susan got up to give her speech.  She held her notes in her hand, but never looked at them.  She aimed her eyes somewhere out toward the class, but she looked deep inside her memory as she told us about the same tornado Grandpa told me he remembered.  Susan was three years old.  She was outside playing on her swing set; the kind with a glider and swings.  She got hit in the head with a board whirling around in the air before he Mom whisked her into the basement.  Susan pointed to a scar on her forehead as her eyes came back into the classroom.

“This scar is from the tornado,” she said.  “Because of this scar, I get a scholarship to go to college.”

I thought Susan was pretty lucky to get to go to college, just because a storm hit her in the head.  I couldn’t even see the scar, even when she pointed it out to me.  That said, even my jaded teenage mind recognized and remembered that Susan got a scar deep inside her memory that she would always remember; even if she was only three years old.

The storm that Grandpa and Susan retold remains one of the 10 worst tornadoes in America.  It was the last tornado to kill over 100 people.

Last week, a tornado whipped through Washington, Illinois, destroying hundreds of homes and a school my niece’s daughter attended.  Six people were killed.  Perhaps the Illinois tornado will not go down in history.  Juxtaposed next to the devastation of the typhoon that hit the Philippines, the storm in Illinois is miniscule.  Among the people who experienced loss, it is just as devastating.  Future Grandpa’s will look deep in their mind’s eye and tell little girls stories of the storm that destroyed their neighborhood.  The families of the dead and injured will be forever changed.  Little girls will grow up and point to nearly discernible scars that represent a forever changed life.

As rebuilding begins and the weather grows cold in Illinois, perhaps you are wondering how you can help.  My niece, Laura, suggested these links:

Central Illinois Emergency Information Facebook Page:

American Red Cross:

To donate to one of Laura’s students family whose home was destroyed:

The Brownsfield’s home

Some members of my family decided to donate time or dollars in lieu of our gift exchange.  Perhaps the idea will spread.

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