May 1, 2013-: Ruin–Caught in Mother Nature’s Fury

~by Virginia Rhys Anson, OFS

Photo by Rev. Robert Alexander in Kansas
The tornado that was eventually dubbed The Ruskin Heights Tornado

Five pairs of young eyes joined Mom’s, staring out of the living room window into the back yard. Petrified, we watched nature unfold her worst fury. Five little sets of ears listened as Mom said the rosary pleading with Our Lady to ask God to protect our house and our family from Mother Nature’s fury. The sky darkened to the blackest of black as yet we stared on, fear anchoring us to the couch. The phone interrupted our vigil.

“Hello? It’s headed our way? Bob. Bob!” Mom’s voice cracked as the phone went dead.

“All of you stay close to me and keep praying.” Mom huddled all five of us around her as we quickly picked up on her terror. We listened as Mom intently continued her prayer to Mary and to God.

May 20, 1957 can never be erased from my mind. It is the day that I learned to truly fear tornadoes, to truly fear the Mother Nature that I would grow to love. For on that day, eighteen days after my sixth birthday, at 7:50 in the evening, the deadliest tornado to strike the Kansas City, Missouri area tore through and ravaged my neighborhood as I watched it pass through my back yard.

Although only six, I will never forget the black of that tornado. My back yard became a sea of indigo with bits of paper and debris swirling within. To this day, that is my picture of this deadliest of tornadoes. My brother, Mike, eleven months my minor, said it sounded like a freight train. To this day, I remember no sound—so much was my shock. That sound, forever buried somewhere within my psyche, instilled fear in the residents of our town. Since that tornado, any train that passes through must blow its whistle so that the residents know that it is the train, and not another tornado. To this day, I cannot watch the Wizard of Oz as the opening tornado scene reignites the fear. To my great surprise, almost 52 years after the experience, reading accounts of it elicits great emotion. Mom said it took many years for the five of us to get over the fear of seeing a black sky.

The Ruskin Heights Tornado, as it was dubbed because of the devastation to my neighborhood of Ruskin Heights, was the deadliest in the history of the Kansas City area. By today’s standards, it is said to have been an F5 tornado, the highest rating possible. The Ruskin Heights tornado was born near Williamsburg, Kansas at 6:15 in the evening. It lived for one hour and thirty-eight minutes, traveling seventy-one miles before dying near Knobtown, Kansas at 7:53 P.M. The tornado varied from a destruction width of one-tenth to one-half of a mile (the equivalent of about seven football lengths). It was one of thirty-five tornadoes to hit areas of Colorado, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Missouri that day.

The tornado’s trek across Kansas and into Missouri left many blocks of houses in my Ruskin Heights neighborhood of Hickman Mills, Missouri damaged or destroyed. Some sections of the area looked as if a broom had come along and swept it clean. It left 44 people dead and 531 injured and caused an estimated $2.5 million dollars of damage.

The outer fringes of this deadliest of tornadoes barely missed our house. Our garbage can found its way into our neighbor’s back yard. A few houses down from us, windows were blown out of one of the houses and on farther, one house was demolished. It left a wake of death and destruction, and a tremendous fear that would take years to conquer.

And what of Dad? He was headed home from an origin which escapes his memory when he saw the tornado heading toward our neighborhood. He rushed into a gas station and called Mom to warn her. That is when the phone line went dead. Jumping back into the station wagon, he followed the tornado, traveling so quickly that he said the car became airborne several times over dips in the road. After what must have seemed like eons, he could see from a crest in the road that the tornado had, indeed, passed through the neighborhood, and that our house was left standing. By the time he got home, we had all exited to the porch in the post tornado arena, trying futilely to fathom what had just happened.

After attempting to calm Mom and ensuring that his family was safe, Dad headed out again, but this time to provide community service. In the aftermath of the tornado, Dad, who was an amateur radio operator,—ham as they call themselves–was the first ham operator on the scene offering communication services for the community. He had already contacted the radio station to fill them in on the fact that the tornado had struck our area after he had seen that our house was spared. Dad radioed other hams to assist him in providing communication services for the community. Since telephone lines were out, the hams helped people who were trying to find out the fate of friends and relatives in the area. As a result of this tornado, the hams set up a network of warning for residents in the event of another tornado or bad weather.

In 1957, the advanced warning systems that we enjoy today were nonexistent. Warnings of tornadoes depended upon those who spotted a tornado getting the word to radio stations and law enforcement agencies. The residents of Ruskin Heights essentially had no warning of this tornado.

Those who live in tornado areas learn how to read the sky. Many of us are quite efficient at predicting that there will, at least, be a tornado watch. The sky takes on an eerily gray/black hue with maybe a yellowish tint, and somehow the air feels and sounds different. It is hard to explain, but we know.

Tornadoes leave, likewise, a legacy of irony. After Dad returned from assisting with the communication needs of our shell-shocked community, he drove us around to see what the tornado left behind. There is no logic to a tornado’s path. One house was leveled leaving only a canary sitting in its cage singing. An elderly man who preferred to challenge the tornado by sitting on his porch in a rocker was still sitting on his rocker with his house damaged behind him. By doing exactly what you are not supposed to do in a tornado, he was spared. Ironic.

The junior high and high schools were demolished except for the gymnasium of the high school. We found out later that the school nurse and janitor had been killed, their bodies having been dug out of rubble at the entrance to the high school. The high school’s name was Ruskin Heights High School. Dad has a picture of the post tornado school. The only letters of its name left on the remnant of the front wall became the epitaph for it and for our neighborhood—RUIN. Ruskin Heights has since erected a memorial to the victims of this deadliest of tornadoes.

This experience taught me to absolutely fear tornadoes. Never again would I live in an area that ever experienced even one tornado in its history without a basement. To this day, I feel the fear, although significantly dampened, of a blackened, tornado sky. To this day, I do not remember the sound of that tornado that came so very close to our house. To this day, I am convinced that God spared us because of my saintly mom’s prayerful plea.

That day, May 20, 1957, God surrounded our house with His angels. That day, just as Mary was able to convince Jesus that it was time to start His ministry at the Wedding at Cana, she convinced God that we were a family that needed His protection.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Virginia Anson grew up in the shadows of Sandia Crest in New Mexico. Family camping trips may have sparked her passion for nature. She holds an A.S. in Electronics Technology, a B.A. in Writing, an M.F.A. in Creative Writing, and a certificate in Wildlife/Forestry Conservation. Her book, Mother Earth’s Caretakers, targets middle school youngsters and is published as an e-book for Kindle. Virginia is a Vietnam Era veteran of the U.S. Air Force, and her volunteer endeavors see her as a lector, Eucharistic minister, and sacristan in her parish and as a habitat steward for the National Wildlife Federation. She especially cherishes her life in the Secular Franciscan Order, following in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi.

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