Saturday, June 6, 2015

Grandma Said Goodbye

Aftermath of Ruskin Heights Tornado May 20, 1957

We were settled into Albuquerque by then. It was just beginning to dawn on me we were not moving anytime soon. All my aunts and uncles (but one), my father's mother and stepfather, and those cousins I knew were still in the Kansas City area. My baby sister still very much a baby.

There were three networks on TV. One was not CNN. There was no 24/7 news coverage. NBC, CBS and ABC had sign off times and sign on times with test patterns. And between test patterns just snow.

Mother found me in front of the test pattern that May 21st, 1957 when she woke up to get the day going for the family.

"Turn that off," she said handing me my baby sister nodding off in my arms. "Help me with breakfast. What are you watching that for anyway."

"I am waiting for the news," I said, as I put my sister down in the play pen. I had just that year, as part of social studies, developed an interest in the news. We no longer had to duck and cover under our desks at school but the neighbors were still discussing bomb shelters. I heard the plop of the paper on the front porch and ran to retrieve the solid form of the news. Ours was the Albuquerque Journal.

Typical headline of that day

I laid it in Dad's spot. He doled out the parts of the paper. Mother reading over my shoulder snatched it away.

"Grandmother said to say goodbye," I told her as she alternated stares of horror at first the paper and then at me.

"Shut up. Go wake your bother and get ready for school."

"But Mom, they are looking in the wrong spot. They're in the far field."

She gave me one of her wicked witch of the west stares. I obeyed.

At breakfast it was clear that this was to be one of Mother's secrets for as long as she could manage it. It was to be breakfast as usual until we were all scurrying out to school. Of course on the walk to school (yes, we walked in those days) The Tornado was all anyone could talk about. The midwest had been having awful weather. We now call it the May 1957 Central Plains tornado outbreak sequence of which the May 20th Ruskin Heights tornado, an F5 a total of 71 miles long, would be the largest and deadliest. It would take the communities of Ottawa and Spring Hill, Kansas, and Martin City, Grandview, Hickman Mills, and Ruskin Heights, Missouri.

Just before noon, Mrs. Hill told me to gather up my school books and come with her. My father waited outside the barracks, which was the upper grades part of Eubank Elementary School. He walked me silently to the car all packed with everything, including brother and baby sister, for the trip to Kansas City across the Kansas plains.

"She told me to say goodbye to you especially," I whispered. He squeezed my shoulders.

Nobody had to tell me why we were going. I knew. I knew before they knew. I had never unpacked my book bag that day.

I put the book bag on the back shelf behind the seats, reached over the front seat and grabbed the maps. I was as always the navigator. It was in those days what was. No seat belts, no car seat for my sister, no GPS, no in cab DVD for entertainment. Gary slept, I worked out mileage and watched the route. Dad drove. The whole car was strangely silent for the 12 hour trip. We even managed filling stations and meal breaks with just the necessary exchanges. I have often wondered if other families would have talked about it. Spent quality time in a sealed environment. But we all knew our jobs in times of trouble and we did them. Silently.

I could not and still cannot get the image of Grandma in the field holding hands with her husband. The field was a mile from where their house had been and was no more.


  1. Replies
    1. Powerful is a good word for this. I am confused by the sentence before the last one. My mind filled in the words "out of my mind". Or does the child have the knowledge without the image? Is this memory or fiction or both?


  2. It is a memory. I had dreamed of her death. In my dream I saw them in the field. My family has a lot of such memories. I lost the ability for a while but oddly my head injury brought the ability back.


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