Monday, April 25, 2011
ABOVE PICTURE: That's my elementary school, the stone building on the far right.
BELOW PICTURE: McKinley School on the left.
The older I get the more I enjoy taking long strolls down Memory Lane. This past week I heard about tornadoes in North Carolina where my oldest brother and his family live. Somehow it reminded me of the twister that demolished our little Iowa community back in 1968. I was in fifth grade at McKinley Elementary School. Because of some family problems, I was living with my paternal grandparents on their farm. My two older brothers, Bob and Ken, were living at our parents' home in Charles City.
May 15, 1968 was a huge day for the fifth and sixth graders of Charles City. The annual grade school track meet, which started at noon with a picnic, followed by some friendly track competition, was held that day. After the students gobbled down their sack lunch, the track meet would begin at the College Grounds. Five grade schools, Lincoln, Jefferson, Central, McKinley and Washington Elementary were represented. Little did we realize in a few short hours three of those schools were be demolished. (Central, McKinley and Washington were destroyed. Central and McKinley never reopened.) However, I do have a happy memory just a few hours before the tornado hit McKinley won the track meet!
I had been invited to go over to a girlfriend's house for a few hours after the track meet. When my grandmother picked me up, she noticed I had lost one of my brand new socks.
I rummaged through my bag and said, "I must have lost it when I changed into my track clothes!"
Grandma was very frugal and thought we better retrace my steps and see if we couldn't find the mate to my "widowed" sock. We backtracked from my friend's house to the College Grounds, but didn't have any luck in finding the sock.
On the way home,when we got to the fairgrounds corner, (above is actual picture of '68 tornado) I noticed Grandma was very quiet. I thought she was upset with me for losing my sock, but then I noticed she was preoccupied with looking out the car window at the dark sky.
I tried to lighten the mood and jabbered on and on about the track meet and the visit at my friend's house. Grandma stayed focused and picked up speed in an attempt to hurry home.
When we pulled in the driveway, Grandma spoke sternly, "I'm only going to say this once. You go get your dog, head straight to the basement, and sit under the big table in the corner. Don't come up until I call you. Do you understand?"
I nodded my head and started crying. I hopped out of the car and whistled for my dog. Ginger came running and jumped in my arms.
"Get in that basement now!" Grandma ordered.
I galloped down the steps, clutching Ginger tightly. We hid under the table just like Grandma had instructed. I remember crying and praying out loud. "Please keep us all safe. Don't let anything happen to Grandma and Grandpa!"
After a few minutes, Grandma called down the stairs. "The storm has passed. Come on up and help me get ready for supper."
When we sat down to eat, the doorbell rang. Then a neighbor man bolted into the house before Grandma or Grandpa had a chance to answer the door. His voice was frantic, "Charles City has been hit by a tornado! The whole town is wiped out!"
A lump formed in my throat. "What about Mom and Dad? And Bobby and Kenny?"
Grandma looked up at Grandpa and said, "We need to head to town now!"
My grandmother was an immaculate housekeeper. She did something that I'd never seen her do before or again. She left all the supper dishes on the table and cleaned up the kitchen when we returned.
"Dixie, go grab some of your favorite books. We might be waiting in the car for awhile." Grandma handed me a brown grocery sack.
We were met by the police when we arrived at the edge of the city. "Nobody is allowed inside the city limits unless you live there."
Grandpa pointed at me sitting in the back and explained the situation. "Her parents and brothers live in town."
The policeman looked at me. "I'm sorry. But there are live wires down on the ground. People have been killed by the storm. I can't allow you to go any further."
Grandpa made a u-turn and I thought we were headed back to the farm. "I've got an idea. If I park on the edge of town, I can walk around town and see if I can find them."
I peered through the crack of the car door and watched Grandpa lace up his boots.
"John, be careful. You heard what they said about those live wires." Grandma's voice trembled.
"I will. But before I go. Let's say a quick prayer." Grandpa closed his eyes and prayed. "Lord, guide my steps. Help me find those boys."
Grandma and I sat in silence watching Grandpa march toward town. Finally, Grandma said, "Dixie, pick out a book and we'll read it together."
Several hours later, Grandpa returned. "Bobby and Kenny are safe. They hid under a bridge and saw the tornado hit. Our family is safe, but much of the town was gone."
Later I learned that my elementary school (see above photos) was hit and school was dismissed for the rest of the school year.
A violent F5 tornado tore a 1/2 mile wide path through the town from south to north, killing 13 people,injuring 450 others, and caused $30 million damage. In town, 372 homes and 58 businesses were destroyed, 188 homes and 90 businesses sustained major damage, and 356 homes and 46 businesses sustained minor damage. Eight churches, 3 schools were damaged or destroyed, the police station was heavily damaged, and 1250 vehicles were destroyed.
I've never forgotten the day a tornado hit our little town and changed our lives forever.
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