Thursday, September 29, 2005

Thinking Back Thursdays: Remembering a Terrible Tuesday

All of the storm planning and preparations for the hurricane-that-was-not at our house really got me to thinking back about my childhood. I grew up in a part of North Texas that is known as "Tornado Alley," because of it's nasty weather--most notably for the tornados that seem drawn to the rural communities near my hometown like they are some sort of wind magnet.

On April 10, 1979, one of the largest tornados in our nation's history obliterated the closest city to my hometown, just 15 or 20 miles from my home. Some 20,000 people were left homeless, while 42 were killed and 1,700 were injured. And the most terrifying part of the Wichita Falls twister was that it had friends with it that day.
This tornado was the most notable of thirteen terrible tornadoes that ripped through our area on a day commonly called "Terrible Tuesday" by many meteorologists. Twisters were falling out of the sky like raindrops, landing all around my hometown and destroying life around us as we knew it.

But my memories of the unfolding of this storm are a little different. I was eight-years-old, just a few months from turning nine. I was old enough to understand what tornadoes were and that they were dangerous, and even to know what to do if you are in a tornado warning. But, I had no clue what was going on around me at the time. Living through the aftermath of that day, seeing the destruction left behind, was something that would change my life forever.

On this particular day, my folks had been watching the weather because we were under tornado advisories. I don't remember if my parents knew of the tornadoes touching down in our area before we heard the rapping at our door, but we would all soon learn of what was heading our way.

At our front door, disheveled and panicked, was my best friend Lisa, her mother and brother. Her mother was frantically yelling something to my mother, crying hysterically. Lisa and her brother looked really scared, which alarmed me. My mother immediately took all of us back to her bedroom closet/dressing area and began hurriedly dumping out clothing and old shoes onto her bedroom floor. My mother never cleaned ANYTHING out of her closet, so this behavior was really crazy to me. But, sensing something bad, I pitched in helping her clear the closet.

About that time, my Dad came in the room with several flashlights, candles, a weather radio and some drinks for us. My Mom instructed us to get into the closet and sit and not leave until she told us we could come out. I could then hear Lisa's mom crying again, saying something about her Dad being on his way home from work and late getting there. My Mom explained that there were some bad storms with tornados, but that they weren't in our town and we just needed to stay where we were to be safe. She gave us all pillows, told us if we heard a loud sound like a train to make sure we had the pillows over us and, stressed again, we were NOT to leave until she came to get us.

The wait seemed like ages to me, but it may have only been an hour or two. But, after a short while, my two friends and I seemed to forget about what was going on around us and we started playing our usual make-believe games.

Lisa was my favorite neighbor friend during my childhood, and I still remember so much about the time we played together. We'd make up elaborate games, pretending we were scientists coming up with potions or detectives searching the streets for clues in solving crimes we'd invented. We were convinced we had ESP, and practiced trying to send each other messages often. Lisa and I would take turns pretending to be Olivia Newton John and act out the songs to my Grease album. I always hated when I had to do Rizzo's part. I had the blonde hair and just felt like I had some sort of cosmic connection to Sandra Dee. It was only right that I play her!

On this particular night, while the winds moaned outside of my small home, we took turns pretending to be the weatherman. Rather than pay attention to what he was saying, we'd focused on mouthing the words as believably as we could. When I think about it now, I'm certain these stations were broadcasting grim accounts of witnessing the tornado's ripping apart cars and taking lives. Perhaps our silly game was a way of blocking out the news we were hearing, keeping our mind off of our friends/father who was out in the storm.

So, there we sat for what seemed like an eternity, three kids "playing" radio announcer and laughing hysterically, all the while people were being chased down in their cars by a tornado. As it turned out, my friend's father was one of those people. Fortunately, he was one who made it home. But, many of those who died that day, were killed as they tried to drive away from the storm. A friend of my parent's daughter was paralyzed from the waist down after she jumped from her car into a ditch to try to escape the ravaging wind. She clung to a tree and almost had her legs completely ripped right from her body as the tornado went over her. And, sadly several others who died, suffered heart attacks just immediately following the storm, having lived through the worst of it but their bodies unable to handle the shock of what they'd just endured.

(Perhaps not so ironically, just a few weeks after this storm, we'd get another frantic knock at our door by Lisa's mom, desperately asking for help as her father was suffering from a serious heart attack. Fortunately, my Dad rushed him to the emergency room, and he lived through the attack.)

It is amazing to me how children can withstand so much in their lives, and continue to go on with laughter and play. Most of the time that my in-laws were here during Hurricane Rita, my son was on cloud nine, bringing out all his favorite board games that required a lot of people or begging people to play Playstation with him. You would never know he had a care in the world, until the evening when the storm was to hit. As we cleaned out our closets to make sure everyone had a place to find shelter should the worst happen, he blurted out, "Are we going to die?" My husband told him to never say anything like that again, surprised by his sudden serious question. I followed him to another room and hugged him and kissed his cheek. I told him we were just making sure our house was the safest of the safe and that he should not worry at all. Moments later, he was running around playing again as if he'd never had that serious thought in his mind.

And, this is how it was for me that night as well. Deep down, I think I knew something really bad was going on, and my friends did as well. Perhaps our little minds knew that we couldn't comprehend or take in the gravity of the situation. And so we played and pretended until it was all over.

In the weeks to come, I'd feel the stress of what had happened. After watching news reports and hearing terrifying stories, I'd pray every night the names of people (even just acquaintances) that I knew who lived in the areas where the storm hit, desperately hoping they weren't among the dead. We drove into the city where the tornado had destroyed so much and taken many lives and sat in silence, unable to believe the path of destruction it left behind. We drove past car lots, where the autos were twisted together like pretzels or crushed into an unrecognizable lump. We saw trees with all sorts of debris dangling from the few limbs remaining. And homes...the homes were most disturbing. Entire blocks of neighborhoods were demolished like someone took a wrecking ball to them. We heard stories of bizarre things showing up in fields in Oklahoma, miles and miles away, apparently lifted and carried by the twister.

Since this time, I have been terrified of tornadoes. They strike so randomly and leave little time to prepare. A twister can take away a family living peacefully in a home on your street and then hop the street and miss you, leaving your home totally unscathed. There is no certainty and no definitive way to escape their wrath.

In watching the coverage of Hurricane Katrina and then Rita, I saw the familiar looks of despair on the faces of those who fled and those who survived the carnage. Those faces looked so much to me like those of our neighbors in nearby Wichita Falls in the days that followed that "Terrible Tuesday." Those faces will forever be burned in my mind and their loss in my heart...even though I was just an innocent eight-year-old girl at the time.

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