This memoire recently appeared in the Prairie Writers Guild 2020 anthology, From the Edge of the Prairie. I am grateful to Connie Kingman for accepting it and for the editorial comments from John D. Groppe. This anthology is not readily available and so I am reprinting it here since I still own the copyright.
I was twelve in 1963 living on a farm with my family in Newton County. My brother, two sisters and I were used to severe thunderstorms in the spring. Our two youngest brothers were likely too small to realize the dangers. Each spring I wondered how bad it would get and hoped for the best. I could sense how serious a storm was by the brightness of the lightning and how loud and how soon afterwards the thunder cracked. Sometimes the power went out, but that power failure didn’t bother me as much as the thunder. What really convinced me of the severity of a storm was whether Mom would light a votive candle near the small statues of Jesus and Mary. I assumed she and Dad knew more than I did and Dad never discouraged any of those prayers. I imagined he was praying as well as he watched the sky for signs of trouble.
The house was old. It was set on cement blocks and shook in the wind. There was a detached root cellar with a dirt floor about two feet below the surface of the surrounding flat farmland. If it were any deeper, I suspect it could have reached the water table and at least seasonally flooded. To keep it cool and further protect it Dad piled earth against its cement block walls. At least once in my memory we used that root cellar as shelter from a storm.
Storms worth worrying about came from the west. Looking west we could see fields and forests and vaguely in the distance a building from a neighbor’s farm perhaps over a quarter mile away. To this day, I don’t know who that neighbor was, but I am sure Dad did. Although there were closer neighbors along County Road 55 on the east side of the house running north and south, some of whom I did know, that distant building was the only one I could see from our farmhouse.
When such storms appeared Mom prayed with us, Dad listened to the radio and watched the skies as long as possible, and our uncle on Dad’s side if he were there might say something like, “If it’s my time to go, it’s my time to go.” Once a storm came while we were having a birthday party. The phone attached to the wall began to smoke with the smell of burning electrical insulation. I remember another uncle swiftly lifting his foot and kicking the phone off the wall.
Such were my childhood adventures of growing up in northwestern Indiana. Although my dreams centered around fighting alongside Flash Gordon as we saved Dale Arden from Ming the Merciless, the real adventures happened on my knees with my brothers and sisters and Mom staying together in case we had to go to the root cellar.
The worst storm that I ever experienced occurred on April 17th 1963.
I didn’t realize that anything was about to happen, but thinking back on it our parents must have been well alerted by weather reports from the radio. They kept us all inside for some reason even though the afternoon appeared bright and calm. Some of us likely wanted to go out. If you looked to the east, it was a nice day. Then Dad rushed inside telling us to get into the car. As the oldest I made sure my brother and sisters moved outside. Mom carried our two youngest brothers.
As we got into the car the clear afternoon sky above us gave me a full view of that contrasting western sky. A tornado, wider than I thought tornados could get, was heading toward the farm. It was coming straight for us. I imagined what might happen next. First the barn and grain shed would be demolished, then the garage, then the chicken house and finally the farmhouse. I supposed the cellar would go as well burying anyone seeking shelter in it.
Dad started the car and we rushed to the end of what seemed at the time a needlessly long lane. Then he had to make a choice. Should he go north or south on 55? He chose south perhaps because the view had fewer trees to block his vision of the approaching winds. We were half a mile away when Mom told him that the tornado had changed direction and was again heading toward us. I remember seeing the side view of his face as he turned to look through her window to confirm this. Whatever he was feeling he appeared alert and focused only on his next move. He braked turning into the entrance of a field, put the car in reverse, backed out, shifted to first, shifted to second, shifted to third. As we drove north I looked back to see the tornado cross 55.
By the time we reached the farmhouse, which was still standing along with all of the other buildings thanks to the change in direction of the storm, hail had begun to fall. Dad parked close to the porch of the house so we could quickly get inside. He continued to watch the hail and the clearing sky for a few minutes longer. I don’t think he was concerned anymore, but he needed solitude to gain composure and express his gratitude.
According to the newspaper report I found in our parents’ album sixteen people were hospitalized and the Gifford area in Jasper County was hit the hardest. There were also a couple of photos of the tornado from that paper, but neither of them compared at all well with my memory of that wide, tall column of darkness full of twisting wind coming through the calm of a peaceful day across open fields toward us.