I heard my Granddad tell the story four separate times.
One evening when he was sixteen years old my Granddad, Clarence Acree, (nicknamed Sonny at the time) was at his Uncle Bill’s house in Sayre, Oklahoma. It was late in the day, well after supper, and they were sitting in the main room playing fiddle and guitar. Maybe it was the music that kept them from hearing the twister approach, or maybe the storm just moved so fast that they wouldn’t have heard it coming even if the house had been silent. Either way, they had no warning. In an instant it sounded like a freight train was upon them, and while they sat there, instruments in hand, the roof of the house was pulled clean away. Just like that.
Everyone at Uncle Bill’s house was okay, but the storm moved on and they could hear its continued destruction. After it passed they went out to assess the damage.
Here’s an article from the Sayre, Oklahoma Daily dated October 16th, 1933 about the incident:
AGED COUPLE AND LITTLE BOY DIE IN VIOLENT WIND
“A freak cyclone covering more than one mile in length approxamately 100 yards in width struck south and four miles east of the city after 10 ‘clock (pm) Saturday left death and destruction in its wake. The dead are:
Frank Yandell 77, Mrs. Frank Yandell 72, Luther Lowrence 8 .
A fourth person Nadene Lowrence age 7, with the victims of the violent wind, escaped death. Except for shock she is not thought to be seriously injured. The two youths are the great grandchildren of Mr and Mrs Yandell. They were spending the night at the Yandell home. Mr and Mrs Lowrence live near the cyclone swept area.
Preceding a heavy rain, the storm swept down on the Willis Hawkins farm tearing the roof and porch off the Hawkins home and razzing a windmill. The storm then gained in velocity and traveled in a northeasterly direction hitting the Yandell farm and the spent itself as it the struck the John Edwards farm one mile away. The Yandell home and all the outbuildings were completely demolished. A barn and garage at the John Edwards farm was leveled.
The bodies of the dead were found 175 yards from the wrecked home by Clarence Acree and Willis Hawkins, nearby neighbors.
Seeing the residence demolished they shouted but received no replies.. Checking with nearby neighbors 1/4 mile away they were assured the Landells or the Lowrence children had not escaped.
Walking back in the dark to the demolished residence the boys shouted again and the little girl called to them from a field. An ambulance was summoned and the four were brought to Sayre. The dead were taken to the local mortuary and the little girl was rushed to Tistial Hospital for treatment and examination. She told them Mr Yandell and her brother had gone to bed and she and her great grandmother were getting ready to retire when the cyclone hit the house. She could not remember anything after that.
The bodies of the deal were badly crushed and mutilated. And lacerated. They appeared to have died instantly.”
* * *
It’s funny how we hear stories in the context of our own lives. We grab hold of different parts. We notice different things.
The first time I heard my granddad’s story, it was all about the violent storm, such force I could scarcely imagine. He told about the bald chickens running around the farm the next day, the force of the wind had plucked them clean. He said a nearby bridge had been impaled by a piece of straw.
The second time I heard the story, I thought more about the little girl. My Granddad said they’d given up hope of finding anyone alive and were headed back to Uncle Bill’s house when they heard her. She’d been carried nearly a hundred yards from her great-grandparent’s home, her nightgown had been pulled off in the storm, but she was uninjured. I wondered, how was it to live a life as the one who had been spared? Could she recall my grandfather finding her or was her shock too great to remember that detail? Did she move away from tornado country the way my Granddad did?
The third time I heard the story I fixated on the time in history in which the storm took place. A time when families sat down to play music together instead of huddling in front of a television, a time before tornado warnings and forecasts. I thought about my own family history of fiddle players and Okies. I tried to tie who I am today with the people I came from.
The last time my granddad told me the tornado story he was ninety-one years old. I was back in Colorado for a visit and I asked him to tell me the tale one more time because I knew the time for hearing his stories was running out. Always before when he’d told me the story, he was very matter-of-fact about it—first this and then that. But this time it was different. It was like he was there. He was sixteen again, in rural Oklahoma, with his Uncle Bill. He was walking through the rubble, trying to make sense of the destruction that came through in an instant and changed everything. “We thought they were all dead,” he said. “And then I heard her call out. ‘Sonny,’ she said. ‘What are you doing out here?’” Then he couldn’t tell any more. His blue eyes, still brilliant and as sharp as ever, watered up. He turned his head to the side.
That fourth time, the story was about my Granddad—about the man he was and the boy he’d carried around inside of him for all of those years. It was about time and distance being erased for a while and being young and being old all at the same time. It was about transcendence and remembering and living again and again.
*The vintage photo was taken by Russell Lee, you can learn more about him here. (It’s not actually my granddad in the picture.)
** Also, thanks to Helen McPherson for passing along the newspaper article and for reminding me of a few details of the story.