Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A view from the pants leg

This is taken from a comprehensive description and chronolgy of the Ruskin Heights Tornado at the National Weather Service Weather Forecast Office for Kansas City/Pleasant Hill at


For maps and charts and much more information, refer to the site.

by Dubby Riley

May 20, 1957 - 7:37 pm LST

"Airline pilot reports funnel cloud 2 miles west of Grandview Airport."

The tornado crosses the Missouri-Kansas state line striking the Martin City area. Twenty-three boys housed at the Ozanam's Boy's home were spared by seeking refuge in the basement. Forty or more celebrants attending a birthday party at a Methodist Church located 135th and Holmes, the current location of the Martin City Melodrama and Vaudeville Company, also were spared by seeking shelter. Virtually every home and building in Martin City was damaged or destroyed, including the popular Jess and Jim's Steakhouse though the owner's parakeet remained unharmed. Unfortunately, by the time the tornado moved northeast of Martin City, 2 more people were dead and 35 were injured.

May 20, 1957 - 7:44 pm LST

"The most severe thunderstorm activity is now to the south and southeast of Greater Kansas City. A funnel has been observed about 2 miles north of Olathe Naval Air Station.

Reports indicate that the funnel observed 2 miles west of the Grandview Air Force Base was also observed from the ground at the Base. There are severe thunderstorms through the area and precautions should be taken by everyone.

Please report radio listeners not to call the Weather Bureau except to report wind storm damage or the sighting of a funnel cloud.

Half-inch hail and heavy rain at 71st and Woodland.

"Weather Warning issued by Weather Bureau Forecast Center, Kansas City, Missouri:"

May 20, 1957 - 7:45 pm LST

"Braniff pilot reports tornado on the ground north of Grandview moving northeast - appears to be headed toward East edge of city."

May 20, 1957 - 7:50 pm LST

"Tornado observed at Holmes Park. Funnel was reaching the ground. This was at 95th and Highway 71."

There were many square blocks of devastation in Hickman Mills and the Ruskin Heights area, in some places the ground was swept clean, while huge trees were toppled or snapped off. The Hickman Mills Bank at 107th and U.S. Highway 71 lost its south wall to the tornado and had to be protected by the National Guard. The Hickman Mills Furniture Company was demolished and the cars on both sides of U.S. Highway 71 were tossed about like toys.

The storm moved into Ruskin Heights, ripping through the shopping center at 111th and Blue Ridge Boulevard, heavily damaging Ruskin Heights High School and cutting through a thickly populated portion of Ruskin Heights. Because of warnings on radio and television, many Ruskin Heights residents were able to take refuge in their basements or with neighbors who had basements. At least fifty people took refuge in one basement, literally lying on top of each other, at East 110th street. The roof was blown off the home, yet no one was injured. Those that did not seek shelter with neighbors gathered family and friends in automobiles and drove out of the storm's path. Sadly, many people did not escape the tornado's fury and 37 lives were lost in the communities of Ruskin Heights and Hickman Mills.

May 20, 1957 - 7:53 pm LST

Tornado lifted, about two miles north of Knobtown, MIssouri. In it's wake, 44 people lost their life and 531 people were injured.

I was four years old. What do you remember from when you were four? I remember that night and I remember my father's pant leg. I remember basement steps and men pointing. I remember women caring for children and ushering organization. I remember telling people for all the years since then that I remember that night and those few details. And I remember my Dad asking, "Do you see it son?"

I don't remember my brothers or my sister and where they were. Were my brothers with the men like I was? Don't know. Was my sister helping my mom with other kids in our neighbor's basement? Blank. Do I remember going down the stairs or anything before my father's pant leg or the question or seeing the funnel cloud? No, not a thing. Not the-day-before or the-day-of or the-day-after. Zip...except these few things.

So here it is. The men were gathered at the top of the basement steps, just outside. It seems you went to the basement from an outside door. And the men were looking at the sky. We lived north and west, if my bearings are right of the damage. On 100th Terrace, where we lived, when we saw the dark cloud (which I remember as much thinner looking than pictures I can find now), it seemed very far off. I know now that the reason I remember my father's pant leg is because I didn't come to much higher than his thigh. My view was of the world from his side. It chokes me now to think about that.

The next time the tornado came back alive to me was the day we moved from Ruskin Heights to Stratford Estates in the summer after 5th grade. There was a boy riding a bike, named Steve and he said something to me about the neighborhood and he lived "right there." Steve was Steve Johnston and with brother Craig, they would become cherished friends as next door neighbors. Really there was a creek between our houses and I see and visit that creek often in my dreams to this day. But the reason the tornado came back alive to me that day is that I learned that Steve and Craig lost their father by that black thin cloud of my memory. It seems they were in a car and running from it. Their car was swept up like a sea shell in a wave and all three landed hundreds of feet apart to the stable hard Earth. Their father passed away on May 20, 1957 and Steve and Craig nearly died too. Craig's ear was all but ripped off and as I recall he had a really cool scar that he liked to show off. He always told everyone he was too young to remember. He was only two when he rode the swirling monster. Steve remembered more, though I kind of recall he didn't like to talk about it. I dare say, his dreams are more than just of our creek.

Later, when my sister was falling in love with a Marine who had returned from Vietnam named John Nielsen, the tornado came alive again. John told the story of his father who stood at the door of the Presbyterian church pulling people in to safety on May 20, 1957. The awful part of the story was about a little girl who was the last to rush in to his hands. The tornado had a grasp better than his and he watched her vanish in to the sky from the tips of his fingers. I suspect that John's father dreamed of dark skies and little girls for his whole life after that.

We all remember yearbook photos and books and articles with lots of pictures. But the tornado came alive to me again at a reunion about five years ago. Stories were being exchanged about what people remembered and I'm pretty sure it was Alice Gowler who told about returning to the rubble of a flattened house. It struck me right then what power there is in the connections we have to place and people.

I don't know for how many years that my eyes were fixated on the TV when the Wizard of Oz would return to the box. I don't think there was ever a connection made as a child to our real devil of a tornado and the one Hollywood made with a stocking and a fan but I know that it is all stirred together in me. Real horror and fantasy. A connectioin to danger and destruction and imagination and story telling.

I can't take credit for where I've lived or even for what I've done, beyond the decisions I've made when being where I am. But for knowing of the Ruskin Tornado, my life seems like it would lack a certain luster.

I'm sorry for Steve and Craig and for John's dad and for the little girl and for Alice's family and all the lives which were turned upside down, literally by a force so unimaginable that it is actually rare in the history of violent storms. But we huddle now to tell stories--and stories are our connection to each other. I'm so appreciative for that.


  1. That tornado is still alive in many ways. So many lives were touched and taken.

  2. I swear that storm had nine lives. And it lives again today!

    Was thinking about Mr. Steck and how he had to climb out from underneath the wreckage.

  3. I'm kind of like you Reya... that storm sure is persistant. When it happened, my mom kept insisting, "what if it comes back". Guess she was right.

  4. Rick, that thing returns everywhere...your mom WAS right....even when I stand in line at airports waiting to board a plane to KC, I often overhear people discussing 'the tornado', and we become instantly bonded - US against THAT.
    Dubby, knowing that Steve and Craig were instantly changed that day just makes me think again how quickly our lives are precious and what a gift we have for such a small period of time. Your brave dad - and you were by his side - and he wanted to share that moment with you from his perspective. Very powerful stuff this fatherly love! I bet there was more of a shock for you, being herded around and not 'knowing'...in my case we were in the basement and waiting - my mom was going to go upstairs because she forgot her purse....but there was no time for that. So in a way, I was preparing for SOMETHING - if I had been swept out like you and Jo were, in a confusing rush I might have been shocked into not remembering more. I can't say I was PREPARED for any of that - and I don't remember the sound. I do remember that I was screaming and could not hear my voice. I remember that for years afterwards, if I heard a train or sirens(and we lived off 115th street and Orchard - RIGHT by that train track that curved behind Burke), I would climb up into my sister's bunkbed! Its funny NOW, but then - my mom said that we were on our way to California during the rebuild, and one place we stayed had a trash pickup service very early in the morning. Well, days after the tornado we 3 kids heard this trash truck 'demolition derby' and it was all my folks could do to keep us from all hyperventilating! So I know the sound was something I could recognize then, but I can't recall it now.
    Thanks for your story and the picture....I remember my dad pointing out the window and all I saw was black....

  5. Dubby, this post has changed the tapestry of my life. Until now, the nameless, faceless man who pulled me into the church that night was nothing more than a possibly-imagined angel.

    Today, you gave him humanity, and with it, affirmation of the nobility of Man.

  6. Nancy, you are so right about the 'not knowing' that we all experienced. It's exactly what I think of when I see the faces of children across the world after a natural disaster. Through their universally dazed expressions, you can see them (like us), struggling to comprehend.

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  9. Jo, I'm glad for that. This exercise demonstrates something Rick had said somewhere. The expression of a sum being greater than the parts may be overused, but not here today on Smiling Hearts.

    Reya wrote the prequel and Rick remembered the actual damage because he followed it. I recounted stories and was grateful for them and you gave us a video view from a three foot child in the back seat watching a tornado in mad pursuit. You also provided the name for the little girl I had heard of from my brother-in-law, whose father's name you needed for a kind of closure.

    As Nancy and others comment, the process continues. It feels like we're dealing with sacred material and I'm humbled, saddened, grateful and amazed.

  10. Truly amazed. The weaving continues.


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