Tornado Alley Trauma

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.


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