Tornado Day: May 15th, 1968 is one of those dates which divides history, in my hometown of Charles City, Iowa. Those of us who experienced the tornado of May 15th, for years to come, have described events in our lives as either happening “before” the tornado or “after” the tornado.
Here is the famous photo take by our Sheriff, Mr. L.L. Lane that afternoon. He was standing west of town out by the County Fair Grounds, looking east.
In 1968 I was in 6th grade and we had only about 2.5 weeks left in the school year. May 15th was a Wednesday, unseasonably hot, humid and windy. This was a special day at school. We were having a city wide track meet between the five elementary schools. Jefferson, Central, Washington, Lincoln and McKinley . We were the Jefferson Jets, the newest school in town built in 1961, and I was one of the fastest girl runners in my class.
That afternoon of May 15th was extra special, since we were having a picnic lunch. I remember it was a treat for me that my mother had packed my lunch with a small bag a Frito chips along with my baloney white bread sandwich, and also included a Hostess Chocolate Cupcake for dessert. I loved those cupcakes with my cold carton of milk.
We ate outside under the big old Elm tree which was located on the north side of the school, which happened to be just over the fence of my home’s backyard. After lunch we then went across town to attend the track meet. I do remember it being very windy that afternoon, since I had to run into the wind during the relay race. I think I won a ribbon, but I must admit that most of my memories of the track meet itself have been lost, probably overpowered by what was to come at 4:50 PM that afternoon. We were back at home at that time, which was often repeated as a blessing…. “ Thank goodness the children were home from school when the tornado hit”, since only Jefferson and Lincoln elementary schools survived intact.
After the track meet, I remember playing across the street at the neighbor’s house that afternoon with Bobby, Jim and Cathy, and not even really noticing that the skies were turning black, until Mom came over to retrieve me back home. Mom had the radio on to the local station KCHA and I was watching TV with my sister, Jan. We were watching Bart's Club House, a local show from the Mason City TV station which played cartoons. In those days, there were no radar reports on TV and none of the warnings like we have today. Jan and I were fairly oblivious at the time.
We lived on the west side of town in a new housing addition, so we had a good view out our west windows. As it began to rain, then hail, the sky turned a green color in the west and the temperature dropped abruptly. The radio had reported that a funnel cloud had been spotted near Greene Iowa, just SW of Charles City. I became more alert of the situation and gathered up our cat, Tippy and made her go to the basement.
One of my clearest memories was when Mother, sounding very casual at the time, as she was looking out the west window, said- “girls come look, there’s the funnel”…. And we looked, and for some strange reason I wasn’t afraid at that time. We did move quickly into the kitchen and we were looking south out the window towards the school and we began to see debris swirling on the other side of the school. The radio went dead and this is when the three of us, ran down the steps to the basement.
Our ears were popping with the strong change in air pressure and the sound was like that of a train, along with the noises our house was making rattling in the wind. My sister was crying some and mother was comforting her. (That is my recollection, my sister’s might be different)…. I was quiet, probably just in shock, but not too worried since I knew my beloved cat was in the basement with me. Dad on the other hand, was out of town with the High School Golf team. Time passed in slow motion and what felt like an eternity in the basement was in reality only a minute or two.
I remember preparing myself to walk up the stairs, still in slow motion. I was visualizing the house flatten. I was a "worst case scenario" person even as a child!…. So much to my surprise, when we opened the basement door, all was intact expect for one broken window, and one tree in the back yard had some damage. As neighbors emerged and gathered together in the street we felt the adrenaline excitement of our experience, and felt great relief, but this was soon short lived when we were overcome by worry of others. Where was my Dad? Was Grandpa who lived across town OK? Was the nursing home where Grandma lived hit?
Sorry.......Too long of post… will continue tomorrow!