Tornado memories vivid, traumatic


Injuries from tornadoes can be vicious. The news of the Moore, Okla., tornado in May brought back many memories.

Parents who don’t want children to read accounts of bloodshed and suffering both for humans and animals should not allow them to read my column this week.

In my time with newspapers, I’ve seen more injuries and deaths from tornadoes than I would have ever wanted to see, even out of misplaced curiosity.

Perhaps one of my more vivid experiences was in the early 1970s when I saw the tornado that ravaged Emporia, and covered the damage and the carnage it left in its wake for the Topeka Capital-Journal.

But the most climactic event of my experiences with tornadoes happened June 8, 1966, when a tornado devastated a section of city five to six blocks wide through Topeka.

I was 19, home—a mile and a quarter west of the current Washburn Rural High School near 61st and Urish, then a quarter mile south on Urish—for the summer from Kansas State University to help with farming.

We had come in from evening livestock chores, and my mother was just finishing cooking supper while my father, brother and I took a breather from the day in the living room.

She happened to look out the north kitchen window, and shouted in a voice of amazement and fear, “Oh my God, there’s a tornado!”

My brother and I took her seriously, and were down the basement steps before we realized she and Dad weren’t following. We walked up the basement stairs to join her. Dad had just returned to her after looking other directions from the house to make sure there wasn’t another twister.

The tornado started moving from the west to the east, pale and more difficult to discern at first, but becoming ever more dark and sinister as it picked up debris.

“It looks like it’s at Betty’s and Lyle’s,” my mother said (two and a quarter miles north of us off Crooked Post Road, now called 57th.

“No, it’s farther away than that,” my father replied.

But she was correct. The twister had just wiped out my aunt’s and uncle’s farmstead, including many buildings and hundreds of head of livestock.

To the west of them, on Auburn Road, the tornado had already killed Calvin and Claire, longtime friends of many of our family members who belonged to the same groups and organizations. Cal operated a township road grader.

Claire told her sister on the telephone just before hanging up, “There’s a terrible storm here, lots of wind and rumbling. I want to go to the basement, but Cal’s reading the paper and laughing at me.”

It was figured later that the tornado hit them as she was hanging up the phone. Their bodies were found in a pond across the road from their demolished home with shards of glass driven through both of them.

The tornado left their place, and dropped tons of debris on a half-section of native grass pasture owned by Mrs. Sheets before moving on to my aunt, uncle and cousins.

My father, brother and I picked up the debris for her several days, later throwing dirt-encrusted trash onto a hayrack pulled by a John Deere tractor just as though we were picking up bales of hay, a nasty smelling, grotesque harvest.

On the night of the storm, east from Mrs. Sheets’ pasture, we drove up the road to where my aunt’s and uncle’s farm had been. It was quiet with strange green-yellow light, the smell of ozone in the air, shattered vegetation, buildings and newly killed animals.

There was no sign of our relatives. Their house was gone, leaving its stone foundation, and the mobile home where their son, Garren, lived with his new wife, Loretta, was gone with little trace it had ever been there.

We learned later that Garren and Loretta had been at work in Topeka. Garren was already out shooting severely injured animals to stop their suffering after making sure his parents and sisters were OK.

He was met when he got home by his beloved colt, standing there forlornly on three legs and holding a dangling broken front leg in the air. The colt’s eyeballs were pulled from the sockets, hanging down his cheeks on their cords.

The eyes pulled from the head was a horrific reminder of a tornado’s vacuum force seen over and over again with the farm’s cattle, hogs and even from a cat found on the former walking path from the house to the out-buildings.

The tornado took pigs, and stacked them like firewood in a pasture draw with their backs split open as though done with a saw.

The family dog, Shep, a blonde-brown shepherd-collie was gone, but came home several days later, his hair coat discolored for months by the dirt grit driven into it.

My cousin, Marla, who had blonde hair, had a grit of dirt driven into the individual hairs so deeply that no amount of washing could get rid of it. It had to grow out.

She, her sister Cheryl, and their parents had crawled into a dirt-floored crawl space under the 1800s vintage house, put there to hold the water heater. Betty had been pulled partly into the air by the storm, held barely in place because the water heater pipe had been curled by the forces over her leg.

When the family had extracted themselves, they had walked and run down the road to the grandparents’ farm more than a mile away for refuge, with some added terrifying moments when it looked like the rotating tail of the twister was coming back for them.

I’ll never forget other stories, such as the Burtons near Elevation Hill on Wanamaker Road who had no storm shelter, and tried to hide under their bed. When they came to, they had been deposited by the twister in a neighbor’s basement a quarter-mile away all wrapped up in bed blankets.

Mr. Burton told how he had gone up and down in the tornado, and always added that he was “the first man in Shawnee County to space walk.”

I will stop here with these personal stories, but there are many others from my memory that occurred as the tornado passed over Burnett’s Mound, and into the city.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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