The lightning that evening was extremely intense. Our farmhouse had withstood many a thunder storm. As the storm progressed, the lights went out. Zena grabbed a flashlight. The roar of the storm grew louder. Windowpanes were cracking. Wind was blowing through out living room. Dishes, pots, and paper were flying from the kitchen. Plaster was crumbling away from the walls. My mother Zena, my brother Gordon, and myself were on the first floor of the farmhouse when the tornado hit us. The roar was like a freight train. As the walls collapsed around us, knocking us down, we happened to fall beside the dinning room table. It was an old, wooden farm table and it made a tiny space and barely held the walls from crushing us. My brother Tom was upstairs in his bedroom. He pulled the covers over his head. As the house collapsed, Tom's bed flew and he wound up way in the front yard.
Then it was dark and strangely quiet. It was difficult to breathe, with the three of us being pushed together in that confined space and all the dust. We heard Tom calling. Zena yelled back and remembered the flashlight, flashing it at the cracks so that Tom could see where we were. There was wonderful joy as we found we were all alive.
Tom worked at making an opening in the debris that was our home. It was a relief to smell the fresh air and glimpse a handful of stars. When the opening was large enough, Zena handed 2 1/2 year old Gordon through. It felt strange when Tom disappeared with Gordon. It seemed so long when he was away. Tom was searching for a place to shelter Gordon. The familiar farm buildings and even the trees were smashed and distorted. He spotted our International stake-bed truck. The tornado had spun it around in the opposite direction and a tree had fallen across the cab. Tom set Gordon inside.
Tom came back and enlarged the opening some more. This time I slide out and Tom guides me to the truck. He makes the opening larger and Zena is able to wriggle free. Fifteen-year-old Tom then goes to where the barn was. Some cows are still in their stanchions, mooing with fear. Tom, still bare-footed, frees them. Zena continues bleeding around the head and neck from the flying glass, splinters, and nails. She used her body to shield us. Our father Mike is at work and doesn't yet know anything is wrong. The neighbors were watching the storm from their front porch, a quarter of a mile away. When the lightning flashed and they couldn't see our house and buildings, they drove over to see what happened. They took us to the hospital where we were separated from our mother. Zena went into emergency and Tom got a Tetanus shot because of the punctures on his hands and feet from the nails and shattered wood. A room was found for that night for Tom and me in the South part of Port Huron.
While our house collapsed, our neighbor's farmhouse across the street was pulverized by the flying debris. Thankfully, no one was at home at the time. The next farmhouse in the tornado's path toward Lake Huron, was a half-mile away. That home was spun around on top of its foundation. The kitchen refridgerator and other heavy items were now in the basement.
In an instant we lost most of our belongings. Our home and farm buildings were destroyed. Our cows were injured, our chickens were blinded by flying grit. Our home and farm buildings were destroyed. Our brand-new combine was a total loss. We had no wind insurance, only fire. Trees were toppled. The landscape looked strange and unrecognizable. Our personal things were gone, perhaps into Lake Huron.
Later, lots of dad's co-workers came out and used wood salvaged from our old house to make us a one-room shack and an outhouse. Edison installed a temporary electrical drop to our pump so that we could get water. We spent the summer in the shack while we struggled with our future. We were tempted to leave St. Clair county, but we loved the area and the people. We found another small farm about five miles away and took on a second mortgage. Family and friends gave us furniture. It was fun to have a real mattress and bed again. It took decades to slowly pay off the mortgages and equipment debts. Sometimes we couldn't afford meat for the big meal of the day. Zena would sometimes lament that she never had anything new, everything was second-hand. Zena and Mike worked hard and eventually overcame the financial burden.
It was not only the physical and financial trauma, but the tornado changed us deeply. Zena was not quite the same person as before. Imagine suddenly having your home crumble around you. You're trapped with your children and one child missing. Zena later told us that while she was buried in all that wood, she kept thinking about how we were on top of the furnace. We were blessed that there was no fire.
In the shack that summer, every time there was a rain storm, Zena would make us crawl under the bed until it was over. Even a decade later, when there was a storm, Zena wanted us to go down to the basement until it had passed.
Mike was at work when he got the call from the sheriff that our farm had been destroyed by a tornado. They were unable to tell him our condition. He said it was the worst drive of his life.
Tom was 15 years old when he dug his mother and kid brothers out of the rubble that moments before had been our home. He still is our hero.
Gordon, while too young to comprehend what was happening, still understood our fear and felt our anguish.
And me, I don't like closed-in spaces. When elevator doors close, I get uncomfortable. I've studied tornados, been a volunteer firefighter, and participated in Skywarn. It's good to understand the phenomenon. It helps remove the fear. But I still respect the awesome force and I give thanks that we were survivors.
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