Feb 26 2011

Tornados sound like you’re being run over by a freight train… only scarier.

Category: Memory LaneRandall Kelley @ 12:34

So I don’t have much real childhood memory. I have little flashes of something here and there, and I then I have memories that are more solidly formed that come from later discussions of earlier memories. I find these to be helpful, but I don’t give them a lot of veracity unless I have had them corroborated by others. It seems to me many of the real early ones only come in a flash of emotion as something triggers them, and then often fade to nothing again unless I can get them written down.

One that returns to me distinctly at times, and that is one of those vivid “like you are there” kind, is of the night Wilburton was hit by a really big tornado. One of the reasons it is so distinct is it left me with a strange emotional affliction that persist to this day. That is that I will go to sleep during a loud storm with no problem what so ever, but find myself sitting bolt upright in bed in the middle of the night if it quits and things get too quiet. In fact, I have trouble sleeping on any night if things are just too quiet. I think of this as “reverse Uncle Louis syndrome”.

When I was little I had an Uncle Louis, my mom’s older brother, who only occasionally came to visit, but made a big impression on me as a small child by always giving me a shiny half dollar coin when he arrived. Now it wasn’t just the fact that a half dollar was really something back then, it was, but it was how he could always manage to get it into my hand for me to discover without my realizing it until I opened my hand. He managed this even though I was well aware of what was coming. That memory is as bright and shiny as the coins he handed me each visit.

My other memory of Uncle Louis is not so bright and shiny, in either subject or quality in my mind. It’s one of those things I remember more from the later discussions about it than from vivid memory of the time. I can vaguely recall Uncle Louis being up late at night pacing the floor during any thunderstorms. I’d see his tall slim frame pass back and forth past the doorway in the relative darkness. As I was quite a night owl and tended to be up off and on myself, it always seemed really odd to me that this calm man would be up pacing the floor, and looking afraid. Years later I finally I asked my mom why Uncle Louis had been so afraid of thunder storms, and then I got the real scoop.

Uncle Louis wasn’t afraid of thunderstorms, he was shell shocked from the war. He had been in an action where almost all his fellow soldiers had been killed. They were then hit by artillery fire by the enemy and only he and a few of his men survived. When the enemy arrived, they survived by hiding under the bodies of their dead friends. They stayed there while the enemy passed over, then while they retreated after a counter attack, and then, insult to injury, through the shelling by his own troops as they drove the enemy back. Only finally, when the counter attack reached their position, was he was rescued. The net result was he did not ever sleep when there was thunder, which is a lot of not sleeping where I come from.

My “reverse Uncle Louis syndrome” started on the night that the big twister hit Wilburton. Can a kindergartener get shell shocked? We always ran to the neighbor’s storm shelter about a block and a half down the hill and a block further down the road. Our ranch style house had no basement and no storm shelter, which in my mind is a big oversight in Oklahoma. I would build a storm shelter IN my basement if I built a house there.

We got to our friend’s shelter and there was a pretty big group there, I can remember being annoyed at having to stand as mom didn’t seem to want to sit still and let me sleep on her. It was a very violent storm and very noisy outside. Wind wailing through the trees and fences, hail repeatedly, large hail from the sound. Then it got so quiet it brought all the talking to an abrupt end. You know the way you are talking to someone then the music or TV stops and you are suddenly shouting and you freeze… yeah, like that.

Dead silence, and the weirder part was all the grown ups shut up and didn’t resume talking. They acted like they were waiting for something. Then I heard the train. Then the train got louder. Then I asked my mom where the train was coming from and she told me, “Hush. That’s not a train, it’s a tornado.” It got really loud. Really, really loud. Then it got dead silent again. That’s the part I remember all too distinctly any night I wake up and it’s “too quiet”.

I don’t remember the rest as well, but have had conversations with enough people who did to have the picture. We all came out of the shelter and the adults started checking the radio and calling around to find out what happened. There didn’t seem to be any damage to our area. We were told it hit the middle of town and had destroyed many homes on the South side of the tracks first. It had next taken out several blocks of buildings on Main Street. Then it stayed on the ground all the way across North Hill and had destroyed the school.

One thing I do remember well about the aftermath, my mom freaked out at that point. I tried to calm her down by telling her not to worry because the tornado was gone. She became hysterical but and I didn’t understand at the time, but I do get the reason now. My grandparents house was next to the school, which she knew was “gone” from the reports we had heard. Further she knew it was a stone building and my grandparents place next to it was a flimsy wooden structure with the back half on what amounted to stilts due to the steep slope there.

We headed over to check on them right away, and mom only calmed down a little when she found them standing on the porch of their house, which was entirely intact except for furniture strewn everywhere and the roof being completely missing. Not broken, but missing. That was when I first heard about how they would put the rafters up with only a few toenailed spots keeping it on. If a tornado hit, it should pop off to release the pressure rather than have the whole house explode. Of course, you aren’t supposed to be standing in the living room when it happens, which Mom and Pop (which is what we called my mom’s parents) were doing. My grandma had been nearly lifted up (she was a tiny woman) but my granddad (who is built like me) grabbed her and they both spun around from one room to the next then fell down when it finally let go.

The next day we were all back for a better look at the damage in the daylight. My school was not there. It was a multi story sandstone building and all that remained were a few random blocks scattered among the foundation. I have to tell you I was pretty impressed. I kept on about how my school was gone until finally my mom had to tell me to shut up, as she wasn’t concerned about where I was going to go to school until we figured out where her parents were going to live. But I think that as a good kindergartener, I had my priorities in the right place. Mom and Pop could always stay with us, but where was I going to get another school?

So now, when I do wake up scared, I try to remind myself that there is no rhyme or reason to which building goes, which stays, or who gets killed or who just gets spun around a little. You take your chances, and you see where you end up. Like Pop and Mom in their flimsy wooden house who walked away, or like the family who lived in the house on the other side of the tracks that we had rented just months before this storm. Gone in an instant along with entire house except the concrete porch that stayed behind. Enjoy your life, even when it scares you.

But if you hear a train coming where their ain’t no tracks… find a shelter fast!

2 Responses to “Tornados sound like you’re being run over by a freight train… only scarier.”

  1. Steve Boatwright says:

    Best story I’ve ever heard from you!! But how weird is this? The day before you posted this I had spent hours on the internet looking for information on the May 5, 1960, tornado. It was just on my mind. I was 11 years old at the time and we traveled up there from Carlsbad a day or so later to see Mom & Pop and everyone. The streets had been cleared but destruction was everywhere.
    I’ll write more in a separate email.
    – Your Cousin – Steve.

  2. Randall Kelley says:

    Thanks Steve. Really is weird. I woke up the night before I wrote it thinking about it in a rather vivid flashback. Maybe we were both drinking the same poison? Ha. Please do email. It’s about time we do some catching up again.