Tuesday, May 18, 2010

My First Memory...for Denise


by Jo Floyd Lucas

This post has suddenly become much more difficult to write than I had anticipated. When we Smiling Heart bloggers agreed to commemorate the 53rd anniversary of the 'Ruskin Tornado' which many of us were in, I thought about how I might approach the story. Surely, given my Pollyanna tendencies, it would be a story of survival and hope, of people working together to rebuild. I'd focus on the positive things that came out of the tragedy.

Then, I read Rick's post and Dubby's post.

It all came flooding back like a tidal wave, the experiences of that life-altering event, washing over me in waves of emotion, and I knew that it would be a disservice to gloss over what happened that night. I owe it to Denise to tell my story.

What is your first memory in life? How old were you? Through the years, I've asked many people that question, and the answers are pretty universal. Most people can remember back to age 5 or 6, and a few have earlier memories. For many, it was a special Christmas morning. For others, a birthday party with pony rides, or a vacation to a beautiful place. Not me. Not for many of us who grew up in Ruskin Heights.

My first memory came at the age of 3 years and 8 months on the evening of May 20, 1957 when one of the strongest storms known to mankind decimated my neighborhood, killing 44 people young and old without mercy, and injuring 531.

It was a warm Monday evening, and my mother, who had given birth to my younger brother just 6 weeks earlier, had been invited by some ladies in the neighborhood to escape with them to a drive-in show for a rare treat away from her brood...Court (age 9), Mike (age 5), Joyce & I (age 3), and the baby, Jeff. My father assured her that he could take care of all five of us for the evening, and encouraged her to go. No one could possibly have known how hard it would be for him to keep that promise to her. He was about to save 5 children in a house with no basement from a massive F-5 tornado.

A three year-old has a limited vocabulary (at least I did). I heard words that evening that I didn't understand, and yet the fear and anxiety were palpable. "Tornado." What was that? "Tornado! Get in the car!" Chaos. Yelling. People rushing. My father and Court, carrying the baby, the diaper bag, a bottle of milk, chasing us to the car.

I vividly recall standing in the back seat with Joyce and Mike, looking out the car's back window in awe. The sky was dark, and what I thought was an enormous, ugly black cloud was chasing us. No words. What is it? What's happening? Suddenly, we were at our church, the Ruskin Heights Presybterian Church. Running. Running wildly. Why did we come to church? Many others were running, too. Wind. Rain. What's happening? Where is everyone going? We're at the door to the church now. Doors are being held closed by an unseen force.

"The doors won't open!" Was that Daddy yelling? Suddenly, the doors burst open, and I'm pulled inside by a man. My father pushes us into the church basement and yells for Court to get us under a table by the wall. He turns to help the man pulling others into the church. The door slams. Then, it hits.

I've heard people say it sounded like a freight train. Not from the perspective of a 3 year old. To me, it was an explosion from a bomb. The biggest explosion I've ever heard, and probably ever will hear. "A bomb!" I thought. "Why didn't they say a bomb?" Windows shattering. Glass flying. Children screaming. Thunderous roar. Stillness.

And then, a cartoonish memory of a man standing up and yelling, "Stay down! Another one's coming!" More chaos. more screaming. Terror. Another bomb? What's happening? Where's Mommy? People rising up now, to find each other. I look to my left. My brothers and sister are there. Mike's foot is bleeding. Daddy is here. I look to my right. A group of boy scouts in uniform are standing, dazed, crying. "Oh," I think to myself, "If these big brave Boy Scouts are crying, this must be something awful."

My next memory is standing outside the church, and sitting on top the shoulders of my father's best friend, 'Pinky" Rowe. How did he get there? Joyce was atop Court's shoulders (a 9 yr old!), and my father was carrying Mike and the baby. Where are the streets? The streets are GONE. Why is that car upside down? Why is there a mattress and a rocking chair in the church yard? Where is our house?

My mother and her friends returned from the show to find the neighborhood had been blockaded by the police. Absolutely NO ONE was allowed in, with one exception. Anyone driving a station wagon (which they were in) was let in to serve as ambulance for the injured. They were allowed to enter the devastation, and made their way home, albeit very slowly. At our house, the back half of our home was gone, split down the center lengthwise with knife-like precision by the tornado. In the boys' bedroom, where the bunk beds were, a huge beam from another house had been launched into the room and landing on the top bunk, crushing both beds beneath it. Had my brothers been in their beds when the tornado hit, they surely would have died. Our family was lucky.

Dubby's post tells the incredible story of John Nielsen's father, who was the man at the door of Ruskin Heights Presbyterian Church that night. Reading Dubby's account, I was amazed to have my recollection of this man's presence confirmed, and to learn that the hero who pulled me into the safety of my church had a name. I was overwhelmed. I am overwhelmed.

Who can say why things happen as they do? The Floyd family...our father and all five of his offspring...made it through the storm nearly untouched. We were the last family to get to the church door before the tornado ripped through it.

The Woodling family was right behind us. Given another 30 seconds, they would have been safe, too. That precious little girl who was pulled from Mr. Nielsen's arms by the angry storm was exactly my age. Three years old. Her name was Denise Woodling.

Denise's older sister (I believe her name is Diane) was paralyzed as a result of her injuries.

I have thought of Denise often while growing up. Her family attended the Presbyterian church with our family. Would we have become friends as we grew up? Would she have gone through Communicant's Class with me? Maybe we'd be on the Student Council together in high school. I thought of her family the day I graduated from Ruskin High. Did they know she would have graduated that day?

Tomorrow I will tell the story of the bravery and cooperation, generosity and recovery. Many wonderful things happened when the sun came out on May 21, 1957. Today, though, my story is one of the horror of the tornado and the destruction it left behind in its wake. It destroyed property, homes, and businesses. Most of all, it destroyed 44 families, and altered another 531 forever.

And even if our fortunate families remained intact and uninjured, thousands of people had that day etched into their memory banks forever. For some of us, it was our very first memory.


  1. Jo. This story is so sad and so powerful and so authentic. You wrote it beautifully and I can tell how difficult it was for you to pull it out. Thank you for sharing it. I was very very moved by the telling of it and am still nearly trembling in the grip of it.

  2. ...she had a name....that is still making me cry! I am afraid that I won't stop writing once I get started on this subject. I listened to the 20 yr. anniversary archive with the weathermen recounting that day....Walt Bodines Diary of a Disaster (WARNING....this will put you in a blue mood for at least 24 hours) mentions out of 7000 tornados in this country per year ...our tornado would be in the top 10 'power-wise'. H.RoeBartle said - forget that Ruskin Heights is NOT annexed into KC yet...SEND THOSE PEOPLE HELP! (see, all this time I thought he was a HALL, and not a person!). I remember Mike mentioning the line of people running to the building, and taking refuge. Imagine that there was no time to 'think' about anything but saving your family - not even time to 'think' about your mom - just 'do - NOW'! I remember more than I wish I did! I have an email from my mom describing more of her memories after she attended the 50 yr anniversary at Ruskin Heights along with some of the neighbors. This is a very emotional thing to write about, and I am not sure where I would start.

  3. Wow. I'm trying to think of how to respond but I'm not sure what to say, except thank you. News reports about tragedies are always at least two or three steps separate from a sense that what is being reported was real, at least for me. That's why I love blogging so much. It's immediate - and real.

    No wonder we heard all those stories for years afterwards, no wonder.

    Thank god you and yours were kept safe. And for those who were lost to the storm, may they rest in peace.

    All I can say? Wow.

  4. Thank you, all.

    I found this post almost impossible to put down (a first for me!). I would have preferred for the account to stay on the calmer periphery of observation, but Dubby's post brought with it a challenge to honor at least one of the tornado's smallest victims.

    In addition, I should acknowldege that Dubby, knowing how difficult it was for me to confront my memories and post them here, held my hand (virtually) throughout the process. I could never have done it without his help.

  5. Didn't expect to get this emotional this morning when I clicked on this blog. Having been in your fathers shoes with my 4 year old daughter, my young cousin and grandmother in the middle of Mingo Swamp when it hit. I kept my head and stayed focused when all was chaos with my baby praying to God not to let us die. I was relieved that I could maintain and get us to safety but just now I am a crying fool as if it wasn't over 25 years ago and just happened today. Talk about your delayed reaction. lol. I guess it was the day to flush it from my heart through my eyes. Jo, you are one special lady.

  6. Janiece! Your comment humbles me...look who's talking. As strong a woman as I have ever known, saving herself and three others in the midst of disaster, then going on to fight and win so many battles since then. YOU are one special lady!

    I'm glad you found the reliving cathartic.
    Peace, sister.

  7. Like Reya noted in an earlier comment, this is a storm that never tires of returning, from some dark place in our memories. Perhaps, like Pecos Bill, we can finally throw a lasso around it.

  8. That poor family and Denise...just 30 seconds behind you. Not far at all but way too long to escape death and destruction. Powerful post.

  9. I'm putting this here even though his comment appears under Reya's post. His name is Jacob Russell and he was 15 when he heard the same sound Jo described. He too outsped the black devil in a car with his father. Now a writer and a poet and a tornado enthusiast.


    Thanks Jacob.

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  11. Powerful post Jo. I didn't move to K.C. with my family until summer of 1964, so had no idea. Incredible to have experienced such an event at a young age and remember vivid details. Glad you and your family survived and you are able to honor those who didn't so eloquently...


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