May 21, 1957
Shortly After 4pm
St. Francois County, Missouri
I was born and raised in St. Francois County, Missouri. St. Francois County's tornado activity is 58.16% higher than the United States average. I really don't need the statistic; it's here for you, I lived it.
By the time I was ten, I had been taught to read the clouds. Reading the clouds could save your life. When the storm clouds gathered in southeastern Missouri you would find everyone in their yards, their eyes fixed on the heavens. You had to know when to take cover. There were no sirens or tornado alert systems in 1957. That tornado intuition Missourians are born with was all we had to depend on to save our lives; and sometimes even that didn't save us.
It was Tuesday afternoon, May 21, 1957, shortly after three o'clock. I was riding the school bus home with my little sister, Biblio. Mrs. Hill, my fourth grade teacher, had been eyeing the clouds most of the afternoon. She was on edge. We all were. When the final bell rang, she escorted each of us to our waiting bus. Usually she said good-bye to us in the classroom. That day, she didn't.
Our bus driver was Troy Mills, he lived just down the road from us. He was a local dairy farmer for the better part of the day, hard-nosed school bus driver for an hour in the morning and in the early afternoon. He drove a no nonsense school bus. He didn’t talk, nor did we. During the ride home he cricked his neck to look out the window at the very dark clouds forming. When the bus stopped in front of our driveway he instructed Biblio and me to go straight into the house. My sister and I ran sensing the urgency. When I turned to look back Mr. Mills was still standing there in the road, making certain. He had never done that before.
Biblio and I ran. In the kitchen dinner was on the stove, but both my parents and my brothers were out back on the deck. Mom and Dad were looking at the ominous clouds off toward Cantwell and Desloge. My Grandmother, two uncles and an aunt lived in those towns. It was now about 3.50pm.
Dad's Tornado Emergency Disaster Plan was "run for it." He predicated that plan on what I consider to be flawed logic. 1) Our home was on the top of one of Missouri’s rolling hills. We had an almost 360 degree unobstructed view. We could see tornadoes coming and could jump in the car and run for it. This does not take into consideration the dark of night. Tornadoes can’t tell time. 2) Tornadoes do not travel uphill and we lived on a hill. We would always have time to run. This does not take into consideration a tornado forming on the top of a hill and traveling downward, even if the first part were true. He did have a plan, though, and as children we believed in him and were reassured.
I will remember always what I saw and how frightened I was as I stood on the deck. Off toward Desloge the huge outline of a tornado had formed. It swung side to side and was punctuated by what looked like lightning bolts, but were in fact transformers and electric lines exploding. It was shortly after 4.00pm.
My father was yelling, "Get in the Car!" Mother was arguing. Ah, my Mother the fatalist. "If I'm going to die in a tornado, I'm going to die in a tornado. I'm not leaving my home."
I thought I'd have time. I ran out the back door and crawled under the house to grab the kittens and their mother. Just above me, Dad had thrown my Mother over his shoulder, shut off the stove, and deposited her in the car; only to find his oldest daughter was missing.
I couldn't reach the kittens. I stretched and called to the Mother cat, but she wouldn't cooperate. The next thing I knew Dad was dragging me out by my feet. "Animals know how to save themselves in a tornado," he reassured me. Another flawed supposition that saw the light of truth when the neighbor's cow was found the next day pinned to a tree by a two by four.
We were now on the road traveling parallel to the tornado and in a head-on course. It was enormous and an eerily strange greenish color. The tornado did not change its course and we passed it headed in the opposite direction. The direction where moments before it had caused eight deaths, 75 injuries, and millions of dollars in damages. We headed straight to Cantwell and my Grandmother's house.
What we saw when we headed into town will remain with me always. Familiar homes and businesses were nothing more than piles of bricks, in some cases only bare ground. People I knew were wandering around what remained of their homes obviously stunned. What of my grandmother? The tornado had selected a house here, another there, in some cases leaving a house intact next to the rubble that had just moments before been a neighbor's home. There was debris everywhere. A roof, furniture, clothes, the streets were difficult to navigate.
I was hanging onto the back of the front seat staring out the windshield when I saw her. My grandmother! She was standing in the street in front of her home. Yes, she and her home were still standing. She was out checking on the well-being of her neighbors. Most of the homes at the end of her street, which backed-up to a chat dump, were untouched. She ran up to the car urging my father to get to my Aunt's four blocks away to make sure she and her family we unharmed.
I remember the gasps from my mother as we traveled the four blocks. Blocks that in some cases were no longer there. We drove up to my Aunt's house. The house was there, "Thank God," my mother said. As we got closer, we saw my eight-year old Cousin tangled in the chain link fence out front screaming hysterically. My aunt was trying to calm her and open the fists she had made a part of the fence. She would not turn loose.
They had taken refuge in the bathtub in the interior first floor bathroom of their two story home. They had no basement. It was the sound, my aunt old us. It had sounded like a freight train. That was followed by the whine of the neighbors homes as they gave up and succumbed to the tornado. Then, dead quiet. It had been more than an eight-year old mind could comprehend. Mother, a nurse, looked at her and determined their was no physical damage.
We moved on to check on my Uncle and his family, a few more blocks away. My Uncle described his experience to the local newspaper:
I remember that shirt. My Aunt took us out back to marvel; not a spot, not a wrinkle. Freshly ironed, the shirt hung on its coat hanger, on a tree branch, as if it had been hung there intentionally. We didn't stay long enough to see the dog reunited with his family. No, we had left our home and my mother wanted to return, to be certain we still had one. When last we had seen the tornado it was headed our direction.
Otis Campbell said he was eating supper when it began to look very bad. He told his wife he was going out and feed the dog before it got too bad. When he went out, he looked up and spotted the tornado forming. He called for his wife and she came out to look. When they saw it was headed in their direction they ran to a neighbor's basement. Mr. Campbell said that when it was all over, it was very calm, but then he began to hear people scream. Mrs. Campbell said that hanging on their cherry tree in their back yard was a shirt freshly ironed and still on a hanger. Also, their dog and dog house were gone. They found the dog house, with the dog inside, one block away. The dog was unhurt.
We took one of the back roads to avoid the downed lines and emergency vehicles. When we topped a small hill we saw what remained of a familiar home and men digging furiously trying to save the people inside. Dad parked the car at the side of the road, on an incline, and jumped out to help. He left the car running in case Mother needed to move it. She stayed with us. Soon Dad yelled for my Mother saying they needed a nurse. She turned off the car and warned us to stay put.
The four of us were watching out the window as my mother was lowered into the rubble. What a frightening image for four small children. As we watched, I realized something was not quite right. The car was moving. We were rolling down the hill. I jumped into the front seat, gripped the steering wheel, and pumped the brake. I could not stop the car. Biblio opened one of the suicide doors and jumped. I yelled at my brothers to stay put. Biblio was now outside in the road screaming. A man standing in the yard saw the danger we were in and chased the car. He opened the door, jumped in, and set the emergency brake. He turned to me and asked where my parents were; crying and unable to talk I pointed at the house. He put Biblio back in the car and left to find my parents. I moved back into the driver's seat and kept my foot on the brake.
My Mother and Father soon returned to the car visibly shaken. They had tried to save the woman in the house, but she was dead. As I remember, so was her husband and perhaps others. Then a stranger told my parents their four children had been passengers in a runaway car and had to be saved themselves.
My Mother could take no more. All she wanted was to know if she still had a home. It wasn't far, just down the road. As we passed the Black Walnut on the fence line above our house we caught a glimpse of it. Home! Still standing, undamaged. We had survived. We had all survived.
The house still stands today never having been the victim of a tornado. Perhaps my father's logic wasn't flawed after all.
Washington state is not known for its tornadoes, yet when storm clouds gather you will find me in the yard, my eyes fixed on the heavens. Old fears are hard to break!
Note: Here is the list of tornadoes that hit southeast Missouri, May 21, 1957:
The F#, location, time of day, path length, deaths
F3 E of Doss Dent , 2100 10.2 miles(16.3 km)
F2 S of Squires Taney, Douglas, 2115 14.5 miles (23.2 km)
F1 NE of Mill Spring Wayne, 2130, 13 miles (20.8 km)
F1 S of Centerville Reynolds, 2145, 0.2 miles (0.32 km)
F3 SW of Sunlight to Desloge Washington, St. Francois, 2145, 22.2 miles (35.5 km), 8 deaths
F4 NE of Fremont Carter, 2153, 9.1 miles (14.6 km), 7 deaths
F2 N of Burfordville Cape Girardeau, 2300, 5.1 miles (8.2 km)
F2 E of Lewistown Lewis, 2330, 7.4 miles (11.8 km)
F1 E of Cardwell to N of Deering Dunklin, Pemiscot, 0545, 23.7 miles (37.9 km)
F2 W of Kennett Dunklin, 0545, 0.1 miles(0.16 km)
The stories of this storm are amazing. More accounts and photographs can be found here.
F3 Tornado. Unknown. Digital Image. 1957. St. Francois County MoGenWeb.
Cantwell. Unknown. Digital Image. 1957. St. Francois County MoGenWeb.