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When I sat down at my computer this morning, I was startled to notice that it’s April 10th and that it’s a Tuesday. Yeah, I know — this “phenomenon” happens every seven years. But another “phenomenon” occurred on this day back in 1979 that makes Tuesday, April 10th forever known to me as Terrible Tuesday.

At that time I lived with my family in Wichita Falls, Texas, a town of about 100,000 two-and-a-half hours north of Dallas. I’ve mentioned before that my Father was a machinist, and our little house in Wichita Falls is where he got started. After retiring from the Air Force, he attended a local trade school and went back to work at Sheppard Air Force Base as a machinist. Not long after that, he made a deal with the school to repair 20+ broken metal lathes, accepting three of them as payment. He got two of those running, and thus began his home metal shop.

What I remember the most about the lathe repair deal, though, was that one part of the repair involved bolting the motor assembly back into each lathe’s casing — a task that required two people, one to hold the motor in place inside and another on the outside to install the bolts. Dad could’ve just said, “Put those bolts on,” but instead he cut me in on the deal: he paid me a quarter each, or just shy of $5 for the whole job. You can imagine how much money that was to an eight-year-old in ’79.

Later he added a Bridgeport mill to the shop, and he’d already built a pretty well-thought-out wood shop with a radial-arm saw, joiner, belt/disc sander, band saw, and a whole bunch of other things I can’t remember now — all in our little two-car garage.

But in April, things changed a bit.

April 10th started out like any spring day in Texas — with the threat of severe weather. The sky was relatively dark, and we heard reports of severe thunderstorms in outlying areas. Later in the day those storms were affecting us directly, delivering heavy rain and even some hail.

I remember playing in our living room as the rain came down. My Mother was in the kitchen, and Dad was at work out at the base. The TV was on in the background as local channel three was breaking in to regular programming on and off to cover the weather situation. Per our normal drill for tornado watches, we’d removed the small child’s mattress from my bed and placed it in the house’s central hallway — the area farthest from outer walls and windows.

The first time the sirens sounded for a tornado warning, we looked outside, saw nothing, and waited. Channel three’s weather man interrupted to say that they’d noticed indications of a tornado by radar, but spotters hadn’t seen one yet. The sirens sounded a few more times in the next fifteen minutes or so.

The last time they sounded, the weatherman again broke in to programming, and this time he looked scared. He very bluntly said that spotters had confirmed a massive tornado moving into the city proper and suggested we take cover immediately. The power clicked off. The heavy rain (with some hail) we’d been receiving for the last half hour or so stopped like someone turned it off with a switch. My mother walked outside to look, and I followed her. I barely made it onto our porch before my Mother grabbed me and pulled me back into the house, but I clearly remember what I saw.

What I saw looked a lot like the picture at the front of this post, but the tornado was more wedge shaped by then, and was partially obscured by other houses. I could see debris in it. It was moving directly toward us.

We hid under the mattress as the tornado passed directly over our house. I remember a couple of things about the experience: I remember that at first my mother was concerned about the tornado “sucking” the mattress off of us, but it actually pushed down on us instead. I peeked from under the mattress briefly and saw the house coming apart with insulation in the air like static on a TV. A board — a rafter, probably — slid toward us and bumped me softly, and I hid back under the mattress. We could distinctly feel the passage “front” side of the tornado, a small drop in wind velocity in the “center,” and the passage of the “back” side.

We stayed under the mattress until we heard sirens and other man-made sounds for ten or fifteen minutes; why blow such good fortune by getting killed if the tornado turned around?

When we came out, the devastation was incredible. The roof was entirely gone from our house, and about half the ceiling went with it. It looked like someone put the house in a blender. To give you an idea of how psychologically difficult this kind of thing is to accept, we spent a good ten minutes clearing crap away to open the front door to exit the house when we could have easily walked out through a gaping hole in the front wall. The whole street looked like a war zone.

But believe it or not, these aren’t the primary things I remember about April 10th. When Dad arrived from work and found us OK, the enormity of all this sank in, and I started to cry. My parents told me, “We’re all OK, and things are going to be fine.” What I really remember about April 10th is what happened afterward.

We lived in a government-provided trailer on some land owned by a friend for the next year or so, during which time we stripped the house to its frame. I still remember my Father handing me a crowbar and a hammer and saying, “Son, go tear up your room.” I’m not sure I’ve ever had as much fun. We sold the house for a decent price, and with the insurance money we managed to buy a house in Burkburnett, a “suburb” of Wichita Falls.

Mom and Dad combed the yard — literally, with combs — and found the vast majority of my Mother’s jewelry, most of my toys, and almost all Dad’s tools. We recovered most of our books, too, though they almost universally had tar and insulation in between the pages. About the only thing we really lost was anything in the attic and large furniture.

I learned a whole lot of lessons from the experience, but the ones that really stick with me are:

  • If you’ve got your life, the rest you can rebuild — especially if you’ve got a few tools and know how to use ’em.
  • Always be prepared to help your friends and neighbors when they’re in need. Until you experience the other end of that help, you’ll never know just how incredible and important it is.
  • If you’re going to give money to a disaster charity, make it the Salvation Army. Whether you’re religious or not, they put your money where you’d put your money. After the tornado, the Red Cross took names while the Salvation Army fed people. Guess which helped the most?

And I apologize for spending so much of your time on a personal experience, but it is a big piece of what makes me a Toolmonger. Now back to your regularly-scheduled tool fix…

For the curious:
More Pictures of the 1979 Tornado [National Weather Service]
Lots More About the ’79 Tornado [Google]


6 Responses to 28 Years Ago Today

  1. TimG says:

    Thanks for sharing, always good to learn from other’s experiances.

    I’m glad you guys made it alright and have learned a good deal from that experiance yourself.


  2. Scraper says:

    Thanks for sharing. Hearing a first-hand account always puts a different perspective on things. Glad to know everything worked out in the end.

  3. Jim D says:

    Thank you for sharing. You remind me of the tornado in Edmonton, Alberta about the same time. We were spared but 27 people around us lost their lives. My wife and I spent the next three weeks helping a group started by some welfare recipients collecting and distributing everything from furniture to toilet paper to those who needed help.
    My most vibrant memory is of the Mayor who came in with a photo crew, grabbed a cart from a worker, had his picture taken holding the cart and then left.

  4. Troy says:

    Wow. I am blown away. Thank you for sharing this. I am struck by the level of detail that you are able to convey, I’m sure this will always be a very vivid memory. I’m also inspired by the attitude of your family. The sense of ownership, you didn’t ask for it but it was your trial. Accepting the situation and dealing with it, and from the sound of it making it better. It is very motivating. It’s a wonderful attitude that I feel we are very much lacking in today’s self absorbed America.
    I LOVE THIS SITE, I read it EVERY DAY!!! Thank you.

  5. Slade says:

    Wow! That kind of stuff always happens to other people, right?

    Ummm, so what about the lathes? Did they disappear?

  6. Chuck Cage says:

    Slade: Nope, the lathes and mill were fine, as were most of the large tools. Small items were the most at risk, though many of them were still present — though often tossed into some weird places. Large items were the least likely to get “carried away,” but large furniture tended to end up broken or otherwise damaged.

    One of the big surprises was how much was recoverable with some hard work. Like I mentioned, we recovered almost all our personal items, though we never did find the roof. Everything above the ceiling was gone.

    Troy: Many people share the kind of attitude you’re talking about — we just don’t see it on TV much because it doesn’t make good “news.” We saw a lot of the good and bad side of humanity in the days immediately following the storm. There was looting. Many people slept on their porches with a shotgun to prevent that sort of thing, and everyone quickly learned to a) wear bright clothes, b) don’t go out at night, and c) announce yourself loudly and don’t step on others’ property until you’ve received a response. But we also saw a lot of people helping each other.

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