Friday, December 31, 2010


The tornado outbreak across Missouri reminded me of another time, long ago, when my wife and I lived about ten houses apart in West St. Louis county in a subdivision named Old Farm Estates. The date was January 24, 1967.

It was warm that day...real warm. I remember my mom talking to our neighbor that afternoon, standing in front of the house in the yard. She was telling Mrs Cohen, who had just recently moved into the area, that it wouldn't be unusual for a warm day like that to be the trigger for some big storms. Anybody that lives in the St. Louis area gets used to weird weather, extremes in all directions so we've seen it all before and my Mom was no exemption.

When I was just a couple months old, on February 10, 1959, I experienced my first F-4 tornado. Experienced may be too strong a word because I slept through the whole thing.

Come on, I was just a baby!

I don't know for sure that the temperature was warm on that day but I'd just about put money on it because that's how it always goes. I read some comments on the web today with the usual silly crap about global warming and how it's just incredible that we'd have tornadoes in winter. Sorry to burst your bubble, my friend, but it ain't global warming that causes tornadoes, it's local warming that does it. Always has, always will.

Anyway, back to 1967. We knew there was rain coming. You could smell it in the air and feel the weight of it on your skin. It had that early spring feel without the freshness of the new grass growing. It smelled instead like these strange, warm winter days always smell, kinda' clammy, gray and dead.

The sky had been a battlefield all day, with the sun and the clouds fighting over the prize. About the time my dad got home from work the clouds vanquished the sun, covering it in blankets of heavy gray, full of lumps and points, like mashed potatoes turned on their heads.

These were the days when forecasting was so primitive the weather guys didn't even try to give us advance warning. They generally could only say for sure that a tornado was coming after it had already passed. And that's how it was that day. We were in our family room, doing whatever it was that we usually did. Dad was mixing a drink and mom was cooking dinner. It had been raining at a pretty good clip for 5-10 minutes, a pretty substantial downpour, when suddenly, it stopped, and an eerie quiet wrapped around us. Then the colors changed.

If you've never been in a tornado you've probably never seen the way the colors, not just in the sky but all around you, wash out with a dull and sickening greenish gray pallor, how it washes the look of life from your skin and make you and every one else look like cast members in a bad B-grade horror flick. The clouds in the sky flatten and everything takes on a sort of monochromatic sameness. And the quiet hits you like a lead pipe. Where moments before rain and wind swirled and danced about pounding on the roof and smacking at the windows, lightning roaring through the sky, suddenly, like somebody flipped a switch, it stops. But it's not completely quiet. There was something else, coming from someplace and everyplace, a dull rumbling that we couldn't quite place.

But my parents knew exactly what it was. "Get to the basement, NOW!", hollered my old man and believe me, he didn't have to say it twice. He was a sergeant in the Marine Corp and we were raised to follow orders without question. But that didn't matter because we knew something wasn't right. As we ran I felt my ears pop with pressure, like going up in an elevator. My brother and I hauled our butts down the steps with my mom following and dad bringing up the rear.

Within maybe a minute of getting downstairs the rain started again and the color returned to normal. Dad said that the worst was over now. And it was, for us, anyway. At the other end of our neighborhood, starting about where my future wife, Kathy, lived, hell had been turned lose on our neighbors.

The house I lived in was in a valley, down in the Missouri River bottoms. Kathy lived at the top of a ridge that sloped off to the North and East. The tornado had touched ground about a mile West of our subdivision and torn a path of desolation through Riverbend Estates, a subdivision sitting on high bluffs overlooking the bottoms and about equal in elevation to where Kathy lived.

It skipped off the top of the bluff in Riverbend, jumped over my house and touched down again about 100 feet in front of Kathy's house, destroying the silos from the old dairy farm that had been there and dropping them on her neighbors house. It careened down the slope away from her house into the valley north of her and into the back half of our subdivision. One of the first houses it hit was the home of Jackie Cannady. She was a year or two older than us and I knew her slightly because I knew her brother. They found her body in the street after the storm had passed.

I don't know how many houses were destroyed back there but I know there were more than 100. Everything was flattened to the ground, the occasional section of wall or chimney standing as a stark reminder of the normalcy that had existed only moments before.

My impression of the storm boils down to one thing, sirens. We sat in our bedroom that night and watched all the ambulances and emergency equipment streaming past our house. We knew there'd been a tornado because the radio had warned us of the obvious about ten minutes after it passed. We knew that things were bad in the back of the subdivision but we didn't know how bad 'til the next couple days when we went down to look. Back in those days they didn't restrict access to disaster areas because, well, I suppose there was no reason to do it.

The streets had been cleared but that was the only thing that even resembled anything I'd ever seen before. Between the streets the whole thing looked like a lumber yard that had been organized by a mad man. Studs, joists and trusses were piled everywhere, jutting out into space. Cars lay on their backs, sides and noses, sometimes just barely recognizable under the debris.

And the people, they were everywhere, trying to find some little piece of their lives under the rubble, making small stacks of heirlooms by the street. For the most part, every single thing they owned was somewhere out there, scattered around hundreds of acres of destruction.

That tornado kept going after it tore our neighborhood to pieces and cut a path of destruction on into North S. Louis County, finally spending its fury in Spanish Lake. Three people died and hundreds of houses were destroyed. Over time the scars healed and new houses were built to replace the old. The dead were buried and lives went on.

Sometimes though, years later, when I'd be walking through the woods I'd look up. There, perched high in the branches would be a piece of roofing or some other bits and pieces of a house, reminding me of the night the sirens wailed.


  1. Do you remember in grade school when the weather would get bad and Joan Murray would cry? Kids would make fun of her. She was good friends with the girl who died, and bad weather terrified her. I saw her at the 10 year reunion, and she had become a meteorologist!

  2. That kinda' rings a bell but I gotta be honest and say that I'm lucky to remember the way home half the time so my memories of grade school are somewhat suspect.

  3. There's another tornado coming. We are currently in the midst of the silence before destruction. We are waiting for the other shoe to drop.

    And your "old man" is now the Holy Father. He is saying, ""Get to the basement, NOW!, a chastisement is coming."

  4. And in this case the early warning system is in place and working yet no one seems to pay it any attention.

  5. That last paragraph gives me pause.

  6. Thanks Paul. You know, all the times we'd see bits and pieces scattered about in the woods over the years it never ceased to get us to all start talking about that night. Those of us that went through it will never forget.

    I've been in our right next to 7 tornadoes in my life, most on land and two aboard boats while out in the water (I seem to attract these things). I've never, ever seen anything remotely like it. And the crazy thing is, at least here in Missouri, it can go from sunny and feeling like rain to hell on earth in a matter of minutes, with absolutely no warning. Always keeps those thunderstorms interesting!