On May 4, 1977, a category four (max. wind speeds 207-260 mph) tornado tore through Pleasant Hill, Missouri, injuring five people and causing between $500,000 and $5,000,000 in damages.
I remember that day so well. My family had moved into our little white house on Lexington Road just two weeks prior. I was eight years old and in the second grade. My brother would have been six years old and in kindergarten. That day must have really done a number on me mentally and emotionally, as I can honestly say I have no real memories of life before that day. I have seen pictures of my first day of Kindergarten, and first grade, with my little envelope pinned to the front of my dress for whatever teacher I had (that’s the way we did it back then, I guess). Sure I have random glimpses of certain memories, but for the most part early childhood memories seem to be pretty much non existent prior to the day of the tornadoes. It’s a scary enough thing being in a new school, I remember I was in Miss Comstock’s class, and my memories of her are nothing but good, she was the only person I really remember being nice to me and making me feel welcome that year at school.
I don’t really remember that morning too well, I remember it had been an unusually warm day, and being on the playground alone during recess, shortly after coming back in to class, I remember looking out the window and noticing all the lights were on outside, and thinking to myself that it looked like night out there, the sky was so black and ominous looking. This was probably about eleven AM, and I think we were doing our reading, but it could have been math, or anything else really. It was just one of those moments where I got distracted by some unknown force that made me look out the window. Never having a memory of or really encountering bad weather, in my innocence, I had no real concept of the severity of the dark skies, or that I should in any way at all be worried. I just remember being amazed that it was dark as a moonless night at such an early hour and wondering why that would be.
Soon thereafter, we were all shuffled into the storm shelter in the basement, walking past the windows the skies now held a very eerie greenish hue and all seemed frighteningly still outside. All lined up in the storm shelter, sitting indian style on the floor, I still really had no concept I should be afraid. This was just another new experience for me. New to the school, I really had no idea that this little exercise was something out of the norm. For all I knew this was a monthly thing. I remember other kids around me on that floor being afraid, and teachers singing to try to ease some of the fright.
I am not sure how long we sat there. It could have been two minutes or two hours. I still was unafraid, and for the life of me did not understand why so many others were in such a state. Then we were told to put our heads down, and to cover up. I think it was at this point, with our heads down, crouching together on that floor in the storm shelter that I realized I should have some sort of fear. Strangely, I still seemed immune. It was when I heard crying, and my fellow classmates around me sobbing and praying for their families and pets to please be safe, and to not die, that I started to feel an inkling of fear. I remember thinking to myself, I best pray for my family too. I prayed for my brother, and my parents, and our dog, just a simple prayer, “Please God, let them be ok. I don’t know what I would do without them, please don’t let them die”.
Then the tornado hit the school. Yes, I can tell you that a tornado does in fact sound just like a freight train coming through. Strangely, while I knew I should be fearful, I had yet to really feel it full force. When I heard that sound, I looked up. It was as if everything was in slow motion, everyone, including the teachers had their heads down, sitting indian style in rows on the floor. The air above our heads seemed to me to be almost like a fog, the dust and whatnot were stirred up so much, I have memory of the double doors to the room we were in shaking and rattling and generally making banging noises. The lights began to flicker, then went out, plunging us into darkness. That was when my fear kicked in full force, but only because I am to this day deathly afraid of the pitch black darkness. For a bit things are a blur for me. A lot of fear form those around me, talk of another tornado coming, looking for my brother, in general really not knowing what to think or do, other than obey the teachers, and do as I was told.
The next thing I remember was coming up and out of the storm shelter, still now knowing exactly what a tornado was, or how extremely devastating it could be. I remember walking past the kindergarten classroom and seeing that all the glass was broken out and gone, wondering where my brother was. The skies were once again bright, rain was pouring in on us through the roof, and there were ceiling tiles haphazardly hanging down in random places. I couldn’t find my brother, and we were loaded on buses to over full capacity and transported to the First Baptist Church. Upon arrival at the church I remember water standing on the floor. I didn’t understand this at the time, as the church had not been hit. I now know it was water dripping off all the students clothes from the soaking rain. It seemed I waited for hours for my mother to come, I still never found my brother. All the other kids parents were picking them up, everyone seemed in a combined state of fear, anxiety, worry, and eventually relief when they were reunited with their loved ones.
I am not really sure how long I was there at the church, but it was there that I fully understood the reason to fear tornadoes. I was waiting and waiting for my mother, and watching and watching. Despite my searching, I still had not found my little brother. I began to fear that they were no longer with us, that I might never see them again. Finally I was taken home by one of our neighbors who lived across the street from us. I do remember the feeling of almost shock that I felt upon exiting the church, the sun was shining, and the skies were blue, it was as though this horrific weather event had not occurred at all.
To this day I honestly can’t remember being reunited with my momma. I later learned that she and my grandmother had gone out of town to do a little shopping and while on their way back home my mother noticed the grass laying flat on the ground all along the roadway. She mentioned to my grandmother that the only time she had seen that happen was after a tornado. Upon arrival at the outskirts of town, they were stopped by the highway patrol, who had the entire road blocked, and were not going to let her in, as she did not have a city sticker on her car yet. I can only imagine the frantic explaining we had just moved there, and had not had a chance to get the city stickers yet. Eventually of course, I guess her panicked explanation in combination with the tears, and a mother’s urgency to find her children finally got her through the check point. She went to the church and found my brother, who despite all my searching I could not find. And upon arrival at the house, found me safe and sound across the road.
That day ended the school year, and I remember being happy to have summer break start early. In the days, weeks and months afterward, I remember stories of such strangeness I could not even imagine. One of someone who had gone to the school to clean up and finding one of the rooms that seemed completely untouched, the books on the desks turned to the page the students were studying at the time of evacuation. One of the tornado itself having three tails and the kids in the high school essentially “dodging” it as it went through. That the kids in the shop room at the high school had not heard the sirens with all the equipment running, and just made it out in the nick of time. A car being deposited on the roof of the high school, and seeing a piece of twine embedded a good ten inches deep in a very old oak tree. The story of a house on Country Club who’s roof had been lifted off and the curtains were hanging on the outside and the roof sat back down. There was also a house who’s owner had a vine plant hanging in her kitchen who’s final resting place was between the roof and the wall on the outside.
That day began my extreme fear of severe weather. While I did not feel it at the time, the aftermath clearly opened my eyes to exactly how devastating such weather can be. It does not discriminate, and can totally destroy an entire home and leave a simple single item standing as if untouched.