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June 2024
4min read

On March 18, 1925, at 3:35 P.M. , I was in the thirdfloor classroom of the Crossville, Illinois, Community High School. As I opened the front door to leave for school that morning my mother called from the kitchen, “Wear your sweater.” When I protested that it was too hot for a sweater, she called back, “This is March. Anything can happen on a March day. Wear your sweater.”

By the time I got to school, the air was still and heavy, and my sweater felt uncomfortable. In the afternoon Ol Reiling, the school custodian, burst into our classroom and, ignoring the teacher, said, “Boys, if you’ve never seen a tornado, you’re going to see one now.” In seconds we were crowded at the east windows, looking southward. The teacher was there too. So was Ol.

That morning it would have meant nothing to me if someone had told me that a maritime polar air mass had rolled across the Sierras and the Rockies and invaded the Great Plains, or that a Bermuda high was fighting every foot of its advance with strong moisture-laden winds from the Gulf of Mexico. I would have been interested had I been told that along a line stretching from Texas to Canada cumulonimbus clouds were pushing their anvils fifty to sixty thousand feet above the surface of the earth. Along that line continual flashes of lightning, the screaming of the wind, and the reverberating explosions of thunder reminded people of the artillery duels of the Great War, which had ended nearly seven years earlier. No wonder the scientists of that day had labeled the line between contending air masses a front.

In Arkansas one of those clouds thrust a dark tentacle earthward, withdrew, touched again, and began a mad dance across Arkansas, Missouri, and southern Illinois, leapt the Wabash River, and gave one final vicious kick at Griffin, Indiana, almost demolishing that small community. In the path of that tornado 695 people lay dead, hundreds were maimed or crippled, and thousands were left homeless.

Ol Reiling muttered into my ear, “I’m afraid that Bramlet boy is going to find some damage when he gets home.” The Bramlet home was about a mile away and was clearly visible from my vantage point. That is, part of the house was visible. A section of the roof was flying through the air. There was a dark mass surrounding the house. Had there been a fire? The blackness resembled the smoke from the stack of a locomotive laboring under a heavy load. It couldn’t be a train; the Big Four tracks were a hundred yards to the west. All of a sudden it struck me. That black cloud was a tornado!

Then I saw the funnel—no, the two funnels. As I watched, the tornado split into twin demons of darkness that danced for more than half a mile across the open fields, until they met and merged directly in front of a tall farmhouse less than four hundred yards away. The whirling cloud stopped, stared at the farmhouse. The farmhouse stared back; then slowly, almost gracefully, it rose until its underpinnings were as high above the ground as the roof had been. Segments of the roof and weatherboarding fell to the ground while other segments joined the circling mass of debris. The tornado was now moving northeast along a road with which I am quite familiar.

The farmhouse slowly, almost gracefully, rose until its underpinnings were as high off the ground as its roof had been.

Many times each summer my sister and I had trudged barefoot along that road, watching the geysers of dust squirt between our toes. We had been going to our grandparents’ home, where I would sleep on a fat featherbed. In every house along that road there lived a relative. Yet now I felt no fear, no sadness, no feeling of any kind. It was as if part of my brain had been switched off. I had no realistic concept of the terrible tragedy I had witnessed. Every house was either partially or totally destroyed. Only the log-cabin sections of the two oldest houses escaped damage, and one of them had shifted on its foundation.

In the cellar of that house two of my cousins were sprouting potatoes for spring planting. Annoyed by the noise above, the eldest said, “I’m going up and find out what’s making all that racket.” When he reached the top of the ladder, the cabin shifted on its foundation and his head was severed from his body. The younger brother huddled in the darkness of the cellar, a white leghorn chicken roosting on his shoulder.

Down in the river bottoms, neighbors hunted frantically for a missing woman whose house had been completely destroyed. There was no sign of her body in the wreckage, but they felt certain she had been at home when the storm struck. Eventually one of them saw something white and glistening high up in a tree. As they grew closer, they realized it was the naked body of their neighbor, wedged into the fork of the sycamore.

For the next few days, students picked shingles, pieces of weatherboarding, strips of tin roofing, anything that could smother the tender plants of winter wheat, and carted it all away. We piled debris into two different piles—one from which wood might be salvaged, the other to be burned. We buried dead animals. The most gruesome sight I recall was the body of a Jersey cow that had been run through by a two-by-four.

There were the usual phenomena that accompany such storms—straws driven into oak trees, a pitchfork with the handle pointing skyward, impaled by a single tine on the top of a fence post. On one farm a wire fence had been ripped from its post and rolled into a crude ball in the center of which sat a live chicken, plucked as clean as if the wind had been preparing it for the pot.

The days of the cleanup were hard days, tiring days, but they were good days, and I feel certain that everybody who worked in the field matured considerably.

That was seventy years ago, but I can still close my eyes and see that farmhouse rising slowly into the air. For years a barren strip a half-mile wide marked the path of the tornado. Along the edge an occasional oak or elm or sycamore held out a bone-white stump of an amputated limb in mute testimony of the savagery of the tornado.

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