Cyclone Fear

It was on the late afternoon of June 5, 1936 when we heard the double blast of the town siren which had been set off by the telephone operator.  This meant that everybody should take shelter because cyclone clouds were in the area.

Grandmother Otwell herded Mother, my baby sister, Alice Melinda, and me into the concrete storm cave a few steps from the back porch of her home.  With her she carried a mysterious looking medium sized suitcase.

Daddy and Granddad soon arrived from town.  Granddad was blind and rather stubborn so he just sat in the living room.  He refused to get in the

“fraidy hole”.  Daddy stood outside the door to the cave, watched the clouds and reported the progress of the weather to us.  I felt secure with Daddy n charge.

In a short while, Daddy climbed into the cave and held onto the rope which was tied to the inside of the slanting door.  All the symptoms of a cyclone were there.  The clouds had turned black and purple.  Heavy hail fell and then we heard a roar that sounded like a train passing by.  Daddy had seen a funnel cloud but luckily it passed over us but did not hit the ground in our area.

We had gone to the storm cellar a couple of times during the year since we had moved in with Mother’s parents in Snyder, a town of 1400 people in southwest Oklahoma.  This agriculture area was called Short Grass Country.  Those trips to the cave had not been as serious and frightening as this experience.

An hour or so after normality settled-in around the house, we heard a strong knock on the front door.  At the door were Grundy and Grace Bush and their two small children, William and Wanda.  We were startled by the forlorn look of horror on their faces and the mud covering much of Grace and the children.

The Bushes lived in Granddad’s farmhouse two miles southwest of town.  Grundy did the farming for Granddad and his partner, Charlie Portwood.

Grundy spit out the words that a tornado had completely destroyed their home and all of the surrounding buildings and killed the animals housed there.

Worst of all, Grundy’s wheel-chair bound brother, Randle, had been blown into the air and was found dead in a pasture about 200 feet from the house foundation.

Mother and Grandmother took the mud-covered survivors to the kitchen and adjoining bathroom to help them get cleaned up and dressed in ill-fitting garments found in our closets.

Grundy explained why he was not covered with mud as the others were.  He had been in a nearby field plowing the wheat stubble.  He saw the whirling wind sending pieces of the buildings and livestock into the air leaving nothing but an old rickety gate standing.   Large mules and hogs were found dead in a ditch five hundred feet from their pens.

Then Grace told the story of how she and the children survived.  She was sitting quietly by a kitchen window darning socks with the children playing on the floor nearby.  She could hear a disturbance, looked out the window and saw the haystack, about a hundred yards away, being tossed high into the air.

She knew that a cyclone was upon them and grabbed the children and ran towards the storm cave.  She found the cave door handle and struggled and tugged on it with the strong wind blowing against it.  She forced it open just in time and threw the kids inside and jumped in herself.  She had to fight to hold the door shut with the rope tied on it.  If the door had come off, they could have been sucked right out of the cave.

The cave was a simple and inadequate one.  It was a hole dug into the ground deep enough for a man to stand and room for about a half dozen people.  Boards had been laid across the opening and it was covered with mounds of dirt. A heavy object landed on top of it tearing a large hole in it, which allowed mud and water to fall on the occupants.

If Grace had been a few seconds later, they would have been killed.

This door handle had been on Bush's farm home. It's virtually all that was left after the cyclone hit. Note the metal plate that was twisted by the cyclone's powerful winds.

This door handle had been on Bush’s farm home. It’s virtually all that was left after the cyclone hit. Note the metal plate that was twisted by the cyclone’s powerful winds.

Grundy’s wheel-bound brother, Randle, was killed.  Tears came to Grace’s eyes as she told of the look of horror on Randle’s face as she ran passed him on the front porch.  There was not time to save him.  Randle was thrown into the air and was found dead in the pasture about two hundred feet from the former home.

The next remembrance I have of the day was that evening in our cave.  There was rumbling from the storm clouds so the women and we kids spent the most of our time sitting in the cave.  A couple of inches of water covered the floor so we propped our feet up on fruit jars which were kept there. A kerosene oil lamp provided light for us.

Granddad was sitting comfortably somewhere in the house.  Daddy and Grundy had accompanied a hearse driver to pick up Randle and look for other dead people.  They did not find anymore bodies but found a family just north of Granddad’s farm who worked on Ed Miller’s farm.  Their small shack had been destroyed and they were staying in their storm cave.  It took several hours for the hearse to make it through the heavy rain and it got stuck on the muddy road several times.

We kids kept very quiet.  We were too bewildered and frightened to utter a word.  Grace repeated the happenings of her day and bemoaned the fact that she could not save Randle.  The look of desperation on his face as she passed by him would haunt her the rest of her life.

The following morning, our family visited the site of destruction and we were amazed how the area had been swept clean except for bits of lumber, metal and other trash scattered throughout.

It was difficult to believe that big mules had been thrown into ditches near the highway many yards away.  Included in the dead animals was a pig that had been purchased for me with money that I had won at the movie theater drawing.  Luckily, the calf I bought was safely grazing in a nearby pasture.

The Bushes remained with us for a couple of weeks until a house about seven miles away owned by Granddad and his partner became available.  People of the surrounding area showered the family with clothes, bedding, furniture and supplies so that they could start life anew.

That day of panic and terror opened my eyes to much of the world around me and to the history of cyclones around Snyder.  This history is why Grandmother took the suitcase to the cave each time she went.  In her bag were supplies that might be needed to help any wounded people.  Primarily, the contents were sheets that could be torn into bandages.

I learned that in 1905, about three years after the town was formed, a gigantic cyclone tore through the northern part of town and no buildings were left standing.  There were about one hundred people killed.  Several bodies were unclaimed and are buried side by side in Snyder’s Fairlawn Cemetery.

Downtown Snyder after the 1905 cyclone. Photo courtesy of the Kiowa County Democrat

Downtown Snyder after the 1905 cyclone. Photo courtesy of the Kiowa County Democrat

In 1928 another cyclone hit town, doing damage but it was mild compared to the one in 1905.  I recall hearing that it destroyed the Presbyterian Church.  Through the years other big storms were reported in the area but did not hit our town.  Snyder is definitely a part of Tornado Alley extending from West Texas through Western Oklahoma and on up into Kansas and Nebraska.

I then knew why the Snyder High School athletic teams were called  “The Cyclones”.  What we called “cyclones” are now called “tornadoes” but I think that cyclones sounds more fierce and proper for the name of the school teams.

The June 5, 1936 experience left me with a fear for spring to arrive when I lived in Oklahoma and I am sure that memory still influences my emotions.

JIM PERSHALL

August 2014

 

COMMENT ABOUT THE CYCLONE FROM ONE OF MY CHILDHOOD NEIGHBORS:

Hi James. This Memoir came through fine. It was a good story. I  remember that cyclone well. Bill and I were at the Beard’s playing and Fay told us to stay near the house because it looked like it might come a storm. We were in the house playing card when he came in and told us the hurry to the cellar because a cyclone was coming. After a while he looked out and said that the cyclone was going across the field toward Ed Miller’s house. Us  boys ran upstairs and looked out the window just in time to see the cyclone hit the Miller house. We heard that Grundy’s brother was killed. When we walked home we went by Mrs.Thrasher house and she was sitting on her back porch shelling black-eyed peas. We told her about the cyclone. She didn’t know there had been a cyclone and had sat through it. Otter creek was overflowing and Bill and I had to swim across it to get home.