Wednesday, June 27, 2012

'68 Tornado

Many times people ask, “How do you know what to write about?”

My response is always the same. “I mostly write about my personal experiences.”

You cannot “make up” your life’s story. God can use your story to encourage others.

I want to share my own personal story of an event that made our little town in northern Iowa make national news on May 15, 1968.

I was in fifth grade at McKinley Elementary School. Because of some family issues, 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 began on 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 would be demolished. (Central, McKinley and Washington were destroyed. Central and McKinley would never reopen.)

My friend Nancy and I were overjoyed that McKinley had won the track meet. She invited me over to her house for a few hours after the track meet. When my grandmother came to pick me up, she noticed I had lost one of my brand new socks.

I rummaged through my bag. "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 a view of the '68 tornado from the fairgrounds’ corner) 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, 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, my stomach was still in knots. I remember it was difficult to eat and then we were startled when the doorbell rang. 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 has been wiped out!"

My heart beat wildly in my chest. "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. She left all the supper dishes and food on the table. “We’ll clean the supper dishes when we get home. Dixie, go grab some of your favorite books. We might be waiting in the car for a while."

Grandpa was met with a friendly policeman when he stopped his car near the city limits. "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."

When Grandpa turned his car around, found a gravel road, and turned off the ignition. "I’ve got to see if Bobby and Kenny are all right. They might need me.”

I peered through the crack of the car door and watched Grandpa as he laced up his boots.

"John, be careful. You heard what they said about those live wires." Grandma's voice trembled.

"I will.  Let's pray." Grandpa closed his eyes. "Lord, guide my steps. Help me find those boys."

Grandma and I sat in silence watching Grandpa as he trudged 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 building in the right of 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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