It's that time of year again. Tornado season. Monday was the first day of 2008 that eastern Oklahoma was under a tornado watch.
Of course I'm used to Oklahoma's wild spring weather. I grew up here. Some of my earliest memories are of being bundled up in the middle of the night and taken to my grandparents' cellar. We'd spend an hour or two in that small, humid, underground room with its metal door, then go home. My grandmother stored canned vegetables from her garden down there on metal shelves that lined the concrete walls. There were also chairs and a metal cot with an old mattress and heavy handmade quilts. I don't ever remember being scared down there – it was more an anticipation of something that might happen but never really did. I'm sure my grandparents felt something entirely different during those times we were huddled in that cellar. They were remembering an evening in 1950, before the National Weather Service broadcast weather warnings; before towns had tornado sirens.
On April 28, 1950, at 7:05 pm, an F-4 tornado ripped through Holdenville, Oklahoma with no warning. My Dad was 13 years old that year. As he tells the story, he and his parents had been planting corn all day in the adjacent field. There had been a light rain and they had returned to the house to get cleaned up – they were planning to go downtown to eat dinner. By 7:00 pm everyone except my grandfather was ready to go. With only one bathroom, he was the last in line to take a bath. My grandmother and my Dad were in the kitchen, waiting for him, when they heard the sounds of a train. That wasn't an unusual sound for their area, but it was coming from the south. There were no train tracks in that direction. My grandmother and Dad went to the window. First they saw 50 gallon oil drums spinning in the air, then noticed the dark funnel cloud approaching.
Things happened very fast after that. My grandmother screamed for my grandfather, "There's a tornado coming right at us!"
My grandmother and my dad then tried in vain to open the cellar door. It was a trapdoor in the back porch and the metal file that they used to pry up the door was missing.
The sound of wind attacking the house was incredible. My grandmother sent my dad to lock the front door, but he found the living room and the front door gone. By that time my grandfather was dressed – his shoes on the wrong feet. He tried to get everyone into the cellar, but before that could happen, the kitchen roof fell in on top of them.
As suddenly as it came, it was over. My grandmother ended up in the bathtub – no one was ever quite sure why or how. They teased her for years about taking a bath during the tornado.
They stood on the back porch and watched the tornado destroy a pond dam and two more houses before disappearing. Horses from a nearby stockyard were scattered in their pasture – two by fours piercing their bodies, nailing them to the ground.
My grandparents were lucky. They survived the tornado without any injuries. They lost livestock, outbuildings, their barn, and their house. At least five people in Holdenville died that day. Thirty-two were reported injured. I asked my Dad what they did that night after the tornado struck; where did they go? He said they stayed right there. It was their home and they had to keep looters out. The next day they searched for items that had been blown away. He remembers finding his saddle about a half-mile from where the barn used to stand. Their two-car garage was gone, a car and truck that had been parked inside were still there, although slightly smashed together. The four dogs eventually all made it home; one remaining glued to their ankles for the rest of the summer.
My dad's older brother was in the Air Force, stationed in Illinois when the tornado struck. He was allowed to come home to help during those first two weeks; a short time after that he was given a hardship discharge and returned home for good. The National Guard was called in to protect the town.
That summer my grandparents rebuilt their home. First a garage and then an apartment located over it; someplace with a roof to live in while they constructed the new house, barn, and cellar- the cellar I spent so much time in fourteen years later.
I think about that day in 1950 when I hear the weather alerts on the television and the radio. I marvel at how far we've come in predicting when and where tornados will strike.
Like I said, I'm used to Oklahoma's spring weather. I don't get upset. But I do watch the skies.