by Lois Fowler Barrett
As featured in Marion Living Magazine
I distinctly remember pressing my face against a window, staring into blackness, trying with all my might to see the house across Reeves Street in Marion, Illinois on that dreadful – world falling apart – day, in 1940. I can’t personally remember what day or month it was, but one child survivor remembered there was another month of school after.
“I cain’t see Deaton’s!” I shouted. My going-on-seven -years brother, Lyndel, was in the room. No memory exists of whether I said anything more. I held my doll tightly as I watched hail bounce off the ground. It was strange and unusual weather. Noise and blinding lightening blacked out visibility across the street.
My mother, Lois Barnes, answered with a command from the kitchen: “Pauline, get away from the window!” My father, Luther, wasn’t home.
Lyn, two years older, remembers that Mom yelled “It’s coming!” before the house began to roll from west to east. He said he could hear gravel hitting – could it have been hail – as we started to roll.
It’s important to know the layout of houses where we lived and played. Our grandparents’ house rested on land across an alley to the east. My uncle’s family lived a few hundred yards to the north of our house on the west side of the alley. The rest was open field. Grandparents Irl and Allie Radcliffe owned that oversized “block,” with a narrow alley separating two parcels.
Aside from this , my strongest memory is one of confusion, in the aftermath of the tornado, as my body hung high in the air on upright bed springs against a wall. A blue dress and red coat supported my weight. Lyn strongly remembers the red coat with a collar. I remember crying later because my dress tore.
Suspended there, I could see my brother lying on the floor – or what had been the ceiling – with a coal stove leg pressing against his head. I had no concept of death at that tender age. Thank God, he survived, and at seventy-two, sports a scar on the side of his head. I notice it, and the scene floods my mind. He tells me now that he didn’t know he was injured.
Also, Lyn tells me that he tried valiantly to drag me off the bed springs, but couldn’t, so left me hanging there. Memory does not serve me as to how long I hung there. Also I don’t remember my mother lifting me down, but he remembers.
While I was rescued, he was directed to “get help!” and climbed over debris toward what should have been my grandparents house. It was on fire.
A definite story is that my mother was pinned down by a cabinet and kerosene from a five gallon can pouring onto her. Apparently, she managed to free herself and save me. That explains the story of her clothing “glued “to her body. My oldest brother, Luther, said the doctor had to remove rice from inside her ears. The rice probably poured into her ears from the cabinet.
While I hung there, my brother lying in the floor, and my mother pinned in the kitchen, the story goes that my uncle, Lawrence Radcliffe, with his home gone, anxiously sought shelter for his family. On the way – and before he attempted to rescue anyone – my uncle encountered insensitive, heartless looters only minutes after the tornado’s invasion. They were angrily chased away, as reported by my cousin, Kathy, who learned from an oft repeated story. The house was on fire with his parents pinned inside! If he used any strong language, it was not repeated.
It’s common family talk that my grandmother was pinned between a fallen chiff-a-robe and a wood burning stove, fully in danger of burning alive. Our home rolled east across the alley onto their house. My Uncle Lawrence – after safely depositing his wife and daughter in a neighbor’s house – along with my older brother, successfully ripped aside everything to rescue her. He was inside when the tornado struck.
It was time to find Grandpa! They discovered him pinned down on a bed by the roof, attempting to raise it up with sheer strength, cracked ribs and all. Underneath, or at least by his side, was my baby sister, Jeannette. Grandpa was in the process of laying her on the bed when the cyclone struck. Luther – a frequent visitor – said Grandpa yelled, “Tornado!” as he headed for the bed. He spent so much time with Grandpa, he can be counted as a credible witness.
Here, two stories unfold. Lyn remembers that a decision had to be made – due to the fire – on which person to save. It was quickly decided that Grandpa would be the one – he was Lawrence’s father, after all – so they grabbed his legs and pulled him free. He had an arm wrapped around Jeannette and she was pulled free also.
Older brother Luther said she was unconscious and turning blue, and that the shape of her head was imprinted in my grandfather’s chest, crushing his ribs. “Well, even with broken ribs,” Lyn laughs, “once out of the danger, pushed his beloved pickup free of the fire area.”
The rescued ones were taken across the street, where Mrs. Deaton – I wish I could remember her first name – rose to the occasion and blew into my sister’s mouth to revive her. “It was old time CPR, ” Luther laughs. My mother, my grandfather, my sister, and my brother, Lyn, were taken to the doctor. Lyn said he wasn’t hurt that he knew of, but didn’t want to be left behind. The doctor found his head wound . I imagine strong-willed Grandma didn’t let them go without her. I don’t know if Luther went along.
The Deaton residence was only about forty feet from our homes, and though turned slightly crosswise on the foundation, sufficed as a temporary shelter for survivors of the disaster.
Earlier, when Uncle Lawrence sought shelter there for his wife and baby girl, Kathy, Mrs. Deaton was reluctant to allow anyone inside. Upon my uncle’s strong insistence – he had already boldly dealt with looters – she changed that attitude. Whether she was apprehensive because of looters, or whatever reason, my uncle became frustrated enough to shout at the neighbor until she admitted them. My aunt had already risked drowning by falling into a water-filled ditch. She wasn’t the only one who ended up in a ditch, Lyn says.
I cannot, for the life of me, remember arriving at Mrs. Deaton’s house, or how long I was housed there, but I vividly recall Mrs. Deaton owned a pug-nosed bulldog – a protective little animal – who zealously, and viciously, guarded his mistress if we dared go near her.
My eighty-four- year-old aunt, Aileen Radcliffe, confirmed stories of how her family was saved. Wisely, my Uncle Lawrence gathered them on their bed – a family of three at that time – where the head and foot supports served as a barrier between them and the roof as it blew away. I was later told that he calmly sitting in a chair reading, and my aunt was rocking Kathy when the weather became danger. They decided on the bed as the safest place.
My brothers also remembered that the woods to the east of our homes was flattened as though mowed down by a giant lawnmower – typical of tornados.
Although uprooted, our house did not burn, and was salvaged by my uncle. He rebuilt it northeast of my grandfather’s land, across another alley from his original house. My aunt lives there still, on what is now named Radcliffe Street.
My father moved us to a rental house on North Vicksburg Street in Marion. Red Cross provided my grandparents a new, two room house several yards east of the destroyed one. That house is there yet, at the corner of Radcliffe and Reeves Streets.
I vaguely remember following Grandma through the burned-out remains of her house, searching for melted change – money brought home over night from their downtown café, The Farmer’s Lunchroom – located on The Hitch Rack.
She picked up shiny lumps of metal I presume to have been pennies, quarters, nickels, and dimes. I think I remember a look of pain on her face as she rolled the lumps around, and then allowed me to hold them. Was she thinking how to operate their business without cash ? Where would they live?
Thank God, no one died in that dreadful event, but the memories, and for some the fears, never fade. Ask any survivor in our family.
Now, when the weather sirens blow in Marion, do people pay attention to the sound? Do they seek shelter? They would if they knew the trauma.