Tuesday, May 18, 2010

My recollection of May 20, 1957

by Rick Hempy

It was sometime after dinner, and we kids had been out playing in the front yard. Our house on Oakland faced west. The sun was going down, but it's light was still clearly visible on Western horizon, between the rooftops and and a growing line of green clouds.

My dad had come out to the front yard to survey the sky; something he alway did when things didn't look just right. I think my sister had gone inside, but I stayed with my dad, and we were joined shortly by our neighbor to the North, George Teeter. I believe they were making some small talk about the odd color of the sky when one or the other of them first spotted the funnel approaching. I stood next to them looking for whatever it was the grownups were seeing in the sky. I remember clearly, George saying to my father, "Roy, I believe that's a tornado". We watched as the thing grew ever more distinct... a black tube extending from the green clouds and disappearing behind the rootops of the houses across the street. My dad was confirming George's suspicions about the time, (I believe ), the tornado reached Ruskin Shopping Center. All I know for sure is, we saw debris fill the sky. My mother was screaming from the door for us to get inside, and George made a beeline for home.

Once inside we were ordered into the bathtub. Five of us huddled there as the freight train roared by. It was instantly black in our little bathroom, and I don't really remember being scared. Things were happening fast, and I was just following orders at that point. My memory of how much time passed is pretty foggy at this point, but I know that is was not too awfully long before my dad was reassuring us that it was over, and we knew we had been spared.

My mom was not convinced, and was afraid the thing might return. We did not have a basement, like so many others, but my aunt and uncle did. They lived on 108th, just a block from the high school. My mom determined that our best bet was to head for the Tanner's basement. I believe my dad tried to convince her that we should stay put, but apparently she wasn't having any of that, and won out, because the next thing I recall is piling in the old Ford and heading off toward what we thought was safe haven in my aunt and uncle's basement. The route took us directly the through the path of destruction. It seemed like it took forever to make the few blocks between us. It was less than a mile, but we stopped continually, as my dad got out and tried to clear a path for us to pick our way through. It was very dark by then, and it was impossible to tell where the road was for the most part. I think we just went where ever we were able.

The houses at the school end of 108th had been leveled, but, like us, the Tanners had been spared, and we were ushered into the basement, which was crowded with people... others seeking shelter in one of the few basements in the area. I recall being issued an army blanket, and we were told to cover our heads to protect us from flying glass if there was another blow. My dad and my Uncle Bud left to go see if they could help at the shopping center. We stayed there under that army blanket for, what, I can only remember as, a very long time. In retrospect, I'm sure the impact of what had just happened had not registered me, but I will continue my tale of the tornado when I post the video of some of what we encountered when the sun rose on the 21st of May.


  1. Rick. You paint a picture which goes directly to the canvas in my mind. Stopping to clear the way so the car could make the few blocks to the Tanner's. Five people in a bathtub. All of it--awesome, in the true sense of the word.

  2. Reading about all those people in the basement made me think of the bomb shelters of the 60s...so glad we didn't have to use them.

    I'll be back to view the vid.

  3. Wow. Well, the one good thing about tornadoes is that they pass by quickly. Hurricanes go on for hours, sometimes even days. Wow.

    Glad all of you were spared.

  4. Rick, you have a great story of details here! Your father helping at the grocery store reminded me of my father sending us off to go house to house with a neighbor checking for people and also to turn off gas mains. My father realized LATER that he had just sent his entire family off in a car with a stranger....but it worked out!

    The tub - I don't know if you remember Judy Jones(married Ron Heckadon)? Her mother was giving her a bath and stopped for a minute to check the sky conditions from the living room window.....and it hit. Mothers have incredible strength - the second she could stand, she RAN down the hall to find an overturned bathtub. She PUSHED that tub over to find Judy happily playing - TOTALLY protected from debris/boards/etc. by that tub.
    I am looking forward to your video, and thanks for your memories!

  5. Rick, your post has a familiar ring to it...all of us confused and anxious, though not exactly sure why. One thing IS for sure, we ALL knew when to "just take orders" didn't we?

    Nancy, that story about the Jones family is incredible. wow.


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