It was the first year of the elegant ‘eighties’ on April the 18th, to be exact, that Springfield and the surrounding regions experienced a violent and destructive tornado. The storm, which organized near the village of Ozark, passed up the James riverbed through Greene County and on to Marshfield, leaving in its wake devastation and death. Not since the floods of 1876 had such waste and suffering been chalked up against the region. Houses were lifted from their foundations and carried away: trees stripped of the foliage; business blocks reduced to kindling wood and scores of lives lost.
The day had been a sultry one and supper over, Father and Mother wandered about the yard inspecting the flowers and shrubbery. Mother was a natural gardener. She had the proverbial green finger that made anything grow for her. Roses were her especial delight and most of her free moments were spent digging and cultivating tea roses that filled the air with their delicate odors. Tonight all the spring scents seemed blended in the still air as the light took on a curious storm color. Severe storms were frequent in Missouri, and cyclones not unknown.
About eight o’clock in the evening Mother and Father walked silently toward the street, their eyes carefully appraising the curious-shaped cloud that menacingly drew near the horizon.
“It’s a funnel-shaped Sade. I don’t like the look of it,” Father said resting his hand on the board fence that bordered our property on State street.
We had no cyclone cellar – one of those grass covered, man-sized anthills that so deface a lawn. I imagine that Father disliked their untidy appearance yet many Springfieldians owned them and when severe electric storms descended, diligently herded their families under their protective custody. We had ample space for one and as Father and Mother walked toward the house I imagine he felt improvident in not having foreseen this contingency.
Our cellar was merely a dugout. It didn’t even extend under all the house. The walls and floor were gravelly and its chief virtue was as a cool place in which to keep foods from spoiling. From the floor above and directly in front of the stairs which were outside the house, a hanging shelf was suspended on wires, and on this Mother stacked preserved fruits each year.
An unusual stillness settled over the earth.
“Come children, we’re better off in the house,” said Mother, and suiting the action to her words she hustled us into the front room where there was no view of the ugly cloud that disturbed us.
“Why don’t you play Casino?” she suggested. Casino was our indoor timekiller. Once on a Sunday morning when Mary and I were up too early for the family’s comfort, we had played twenty-seven games before breakfast was served, and when we bragged about it Mother reminded us that it was Sunday. We were not allowed to play games on Sunday. It was wicked, and I remember I thought the Lord might strike us dead for our heresy, but he didn’t
We found the cards and arranged ourselves on the floor around Mother’s lap-board. This curious pseudo-table was for sewing purposes and was probably three feet by two with a curved part removed so that it fitted around the torso of the one holding it. We were not allowed to use the center table excepting when our parents played with us.
This gorgeous table, without which no lady could aesthetically keep house, had a base somewhat like a yucca plant and on its top supported a Chinese lamp which Mother lighted to cheer the room and scatter the fears.
The entire episode could have consumed many minutes but time in such an experience is “measured by sensations and each moment is an hour.” We had many of them and our game was just well under way when a rap at the door broke the silence. Father answered while we children looked up from the floor. In times of stress Mother was calmer than Father. She was now as she stared through the open door where a young man with a baby in his arms stood silhouetted against the weird sky.
“Good evening Strangers,” he said and as Father returned the greeting added, “Can I leave my baby here for a spell?” As Father hesitated, he added: “I want to find my wife.”
“Your wife?” Father repeated.
“Yessir. She left the baby with me while she walked a piece with a neighbor downtown.”
Father reached out somewhat awkwardly to take the baby in his arms and as Mother stepped forward he handed the baby to her.
“Where were you when you separated?” Father (always the lawyer) inquired.
“On the city lot. I was hunting a hitching place,” the visitor replied.
“That cloud sure looks bad,” he suggested.
“It does indeed,” said Father.
“We have no storm cellar so you are taking a chance in leaving your baby with us.”
“I guess there ain’t no such thing as safety anywhere,” the man said, “and I’m sure obliged for your kindness. The baby’s name is Petunia and she’s partial to children.”
“And what is your name Sir?” Father asked.
“Copeland. Frank Copeland,” the man called as he hurried out the gate where his horse was tied.
His arrival had put an end to our game with a bang, and we crowded around Mother to get a look at the baby caller. Babies were a great diversion to us. I was the last in the family and I was thrilled at the prospect of holding one. Mother let us take turns and the baby was friendly and didn’t seem to mind.
Father had followed the visitor outdoors to make a new inspection of the storm which had about covered its allotted time and was due to strike. As he walked to the gate a man driving a team of horses hitched to a wagon galloped past.
“Turrible wind in that cloud. I hope it don’t hit here,” he yelled as he urged his horses faster.
The stillness had now vanished and Father could hear a low, humming sound that swelled to a roar. The cloud was moving fast yet in spite of that fact its nearness seemed less ominous, the darkness less awful. People had come out of doors and were walking along the street.
“Heard any news? It must have hit somewheres,” a passerby remarked to Father.
“No, We’ve heard nothing,” he declared and hurried into the house where we children were playing with the baby.
“Sade I’m going downtown,” he said.
“The storm seems to have headed for North Springfield.”
“What about Petunia?” Mother inquired.
“Oh, Copeland will come back as soon as he finds his wife,” Father replied and he was off in the direction of the public square.
I have no idea how long the anxiety or Petunia’s visited lasted. I remember I hoped that Father would forget where he had left her, but he remembered.
The cloud had dropped down and unleashed its fury on the north side of town. Buildings were unroofed and debris sprinkled over the countryside. It was after midnight when Father returned weary and worn, his eyes bloodshot and his tongue unleashed.
“Sade, would you believe that Sam Hungerford found a baby that had been blown two hundred yards, tuck tight in the fork of a tree in North Springfield?” he babbled.
“Dead?” Mother asked.
“No, It didn’t seem hurt at all,” Father said, “but it hadn’t a stitch of clothing on it Sam said.”
“I’ve never heard of such a thing,” Mother exclaimed.
“It’s a little hard to believe.”
“You probably won’t believe that I saw a sapling with a straw driven through it either, but I did just the same,” Father said taking off his coat and dropping wearily into a chair.
“You don’t know what a cyclone can do. I never did until tonight,” he added. They talked on and on. Father simply had to get it out of his system.
One of Father’s friends caught near the James river had climbed from his buggy and dropping to the ground as the storm passed, grabbed hold of the roots of a big tree near the river. The tree was stripped of foliage, and only the bare trunk left standing, and the roots flapped like wings in the fury of the tornado. Wherever the cloud dipped to the earth, a devastated swath marked the spot. Barns were picked up and carried for miles to be set down intact. Trees were uprooted and flung far and wide. Cakes of ice with leaves said to grow only in California embedded within their icy contours were found in the wreckage.
By morning telegraphic reports ticked the rest of the story and every one knew the Marshfield was a shambles. Relief committees were organized and set in motion to care for the injured and homeless. More than sixty were dead and over a thousand required medical attention. Springfield citizens signed checks with prodigal generosity and shared their firesides with the homeless. Nothing else was talked of for days.
Father in his practise travelled about a good deal. Marshfield was a neighboring community and one of its foremost citizens was Judge Fyan whom Father knew well. Judge Fyan was the successful, prominent man of his town and lived in an imposing brick house, very elegant for so small a place. He had a wife and, as an important member of his menage, a small black and tan dog.
At night when the Judge returned home from his office, it was the custom for the black and tan pet to bring him his slippers as the judge settled himself into his comfortable easy-chair. When the cyclone struck Marshfield, the judge was out of town and though there was no radio or telephone in those days, before he reached home he had been notified that his house was demolished and his wife dead. Stunned by the blow and half believing as soon as he reached town he made his way over to the corner on the main street where his proud brick house had had its stand. As he surveyed the wreckage, struggling to overcome his grief and shock, a little form of black and tan picked its way from under a pile of debris. It had a slipper in its mouth and on three legs hopped to where Judge Fyan stood and laid its burden at his feet.
Father told us the story, not neglecting a single tender detail of how the Judge’s frozen emotions steeled to rigidity suddenly thawed as tears of homely grief furrowed his face.
The story added to our experience, and the harrowing episodes that each day were luridly repeated at the supper table, had a powerful effect on me. I felt a sense of utter insecurity. Even God couldn’t be depended on too much, and I wondered what Marshfield had done to be so chastened. Mother’s skirt increased in value and whenever a black cloud darkened the horizon I fled to its protecting folds.
Ordinarily, death was an unpopular subject of conversation at our house and anyone who introduced it was likely to be called to attention by Mother’s warning “pied-guade” – the Welsh words meaning “jiggers.” A disaster that had taken so many lives however, could not be so easily dismissed. Gruesome topics haunted our table talk. Sensational happenings of every type were revived and reviewed. Morbid tales found a ready market as we shuddered with pleasure over things gone eerie. We begged to stay up later and when we were finally tucked into our beds agreed to go to sleep if Mother would only tell us once more the story of the abandoned cemetery.