On the day that President Roosevelt died, a tornado hit Boggy, Oklahoma, and wiped it off the face of the earth. My Uncle Granvil was away working on the railroad when his rented house vanished into splinters, his wife and baby girl sucked skyward. They were found later alive, and survived, but they suffered lasting wounds. Aunt Eula had been thrown against a rock wall; she awoke with broken ribs, a broken leg, an unconscious, bleeding baby, and a newly born terror of storms that would haunt her to the end of her days. Her eleven-month-old daughter, my cousin Wanda Ruth, got “knocked in the head” as the family called it, though who could say by what. She remained in a coma in the hospital, hovering between life and death, for weeks.
But three neighbor children had died because of the storm—the little Prince children, Thelma and James, were killed outright; the Smith boy died a few days later from blood poisoning that set in when a two-by-four went through his leg—and so the Sides family counted themselves lucky.
They were marked by it, though, Granvil and Eula and Wanda Ruth. My mother, who just missed the twister, was marked by it, and her sister Daphne, who got caught in it, and my grandfather, Tommy Sides, who watched it from the porch of his sharecropper house a mile away in Boggy Holler: all the survivors of that little obliterated community were marked. Even I was marked, and I hadn’t been born yet. The story of that tornado forged my earliest notions of God, fear, fate, weather, my sense of an unfathomable cosmic orchestration, my understanding of the very nature of story itself.
I never heard it called anything but The Tornado That Hit Boggy, though in fact it was one of a whole spate of twisters that struck the nation’s midsection that day, a Thursday, April 12, 1945. Storms raged all through the afternoon and evening, dozens of funnels cutting deadly swaths from Oklahoma to Arkansas to Missouri to Illinois. A hundred and two people died in Oklahoma, twenty- two in Arkansas, seven in Missouri. The number of injured: one thousand and one. Most of downtown Antlers, Oklahoma, was demolished. Sixty-nine people died in that little town alone.
But the community of Boggy—which wasn’t even a town, really, just a dozen or so houses, an elementary school, a teacherage, a cemetery, a church—that tiny crossroads farming community five miles north of Red Oak was swept away. It happened not even an hour after Franklin Roosevelt suffered a massive brain hemorrhage in Warm Spring, Georgia, and died. A short while later, halfway around the world, on the island of New Caledonia in the South Pacific, my G.I. father lay on his cot listening to the radio. The Commander-in-Chief is dead, the radio announcer said. He also reported, almost as a postscript, the news of the tornados in America: the many deaths in Oklahoma, the several towns that had been hit, including Boggy, just five miles north of Red Oak, my daddy’s hometown.
Well, there’s your omniscience. There’s your orchestration. I learned it first from my daddy repeating his part in the story. It’s hardly wondrous, now, to learn of events at home from half a world away, but in 1945, to my father, hearing the name Boggy spoken through the crackling airwaves across the vast South Pacific was a wonder beyond wonders. It remained so to me in the 1960s when I heard this part as a girl—all the more so because I knew that at that time my mother and father, who were two years apart in school, hadn’t yet met
Mostly, though, it’s my mother’s voice that I hear telling the story. She was there as witness, although peripherally, and when she tells it, she adds all the significant details: her sister’s red coat, the schoolteacher in the outhouse, the milk goat hurled up into a tree. From her I learned that it’s sensory details that paint the picture, and also that one needn’t be present to bear witness—it’s enough to have heard the story told vividly from the living witness’s mouth.
My mother was seventeen then, on her way home on the school bus, which was not in fact a bus but an old touring car outfitted to hold the country kids who traveled into Red Oak to the high school because the Boggy school only went to eighth grade. When they passed through Boggy going home, my mother says, the sky looked like it was getting ready to storm: massive dark clouds swirling, that ominous green tint to the air, the strange electric smell. The bus driver had his lights on. It was a little after four o’clock.
By the time the driver let my mother out a mile away in Boggy Holler, turned around, and drove back through the crossroads, Boggy itself, for the most part, was gone. The schoolhouse had vanished. The teacherage next door, where Granvil and Eula lived, had disappeared. The Speights place, the Smiths, the Cutlers, Bernice Davis’s house: all blown away. What was left, then? Stunned chaos. Weird silence. The dead goat, speared through by a sharpened tree branch, hanging dead in a naked elm tree. Sheets of tin embedded in postoak trunks sliced open like cake. Sticks and boards. Bricks and splinters. The moans and cries of the wounded beginning to sound.
If the principal hadn’t let school out early, my mother says, there would have been many more deaths. That sturdy brick building was flattened to the foundation. They didn’t measure tornados in those days, but surely, by the completeness of the destruction, the one that hit Boggy was an EF4 or 5. And yet, there were the usual strange twists: the little clapboard church next to the cemetery was untouched, the gravestones left standing. The schoolteacher, Helen Jones, was in the outhouse behind her home. The wooden privy was lifted away from around her, all the hairpins were sucked right out of her hair, but Mrs. Jones suffered not a bruise or a scratch. Her chickens were plucked naked. This is what goes with tornados—capriciousness, their peculiar little quirks. Accident. Orchestration. The mystery of if only. If only one man had made one decision differently, everything could have gone so much differently—and, in this case, so much worse.
But Mr. Allen did turn out school, and the children scattered, running toward their homes through the rain and hail and wind. My mother’s sister, Daphne Sides, called Sissy by the family, ran next door to the teacherage her brother Granvil rented. She was fourteen, a slender, brown-eyed girl, the youngest sister in a family of mostly male siblings. She’d worn her new red coat to school that day—a special Christmas present from her parents, a rarity, a treasure in that poor sharecropping family living out the dregs of the Depression.
As Sissy ran toward Granvil’s front porch, an awful stillness settled, the breath seemingly sucked out of her lungs; there was a strange, eerie silence. Then she heard the great freight train roar. Just as she reached for the door handle, the house exploded around her, and Sissy was wrenched backwards, tumbling toward the three-foot-high rock wall surrounding the yard. Her red coat was suctioned straight off her back. She felt herself being lifted up, up, the funnel pulling her skyward, until, at the last second, she grabbed hold of the single strand of barbed wire anchored along the top of the wall to keep livestock out.
She held on, the steel barbs cutting her palms, the wind whipping her over the fence one way, back over the fence the other direction, back and forth, back and forth, the funnel roaring, her skin stinging, the splinters and pieces of Boggy sailing through the air around her, and Sissy held on. The funnel passed quickly, it was all over in a twinkling, but to my young aunt clinging to that barbed wire, being whipped from one side of the rock wall to the other, it seemed to go on and on.
Up in Boggy Holler, my grandfather, Tommy Sides, stood on the porch looking east into the valley; he’d seen the funnel appear at the peak of Smallwood mountain off to his right, saw it crest the ridge and roar down toward the crossroads, and Papa Sides was helpless, helpless; he cried out maybe, raised his hands to God, but the tornado rode down the mountain toward Boggy. Tornados are not supposed to scale mountains—it’s an old belief in tornado country that a mountain will offer protection—but I promise you, a tornado will dance over a mountain, because the scar stayed there for decades. As a kid I always looked up to see it whenever we went to decorate the graves at Boggy: that treeless swath down the side of the mountain, a jagged, pale, untimbered streak validating all the old stories. The scar is gone now, the timber has grown up and covered it, as the earth will always cover herself, but I remember.
When Papa Sides saw the black funnel churning toward the Boggy school where his youngest girl was supposed to be in class, he ran to the barn for his plow horse; he didn’t pause to saddle her but just grabbed the halter and took off down the hill toward the crossroad, and my mother said that people said that the closer Papa got to Boggy and the more he saw of the devastation—the schoolhouse gone, his son Granvil’s house gone, the community scoured to sticks and brickle and dead livestock hanging in trees—he started hollering. The nearer he got, my mother said, the louder he yelled. “What did he yell?” I asked her one time. “I don’t know,” she said. “They just said he was hollering, yelling a bloodcurdling yell.” Hollering his grief and fear, is what I think now. His son Warren, my mother’s favorite brother, had been killed in the Philippines two months before. His sons Darrel and Harlan were still fighting in Europe. Papa could not bear any more losses. Not one more.
I don’t know what happened when he got there, how he found Sissy, who carried Eula and Wanda Ruth to the hospital. I know there was a steady stream of vehicles pouring north from Red Oak, rushing back south toward the highway, traveling fast, taking the wounded to the hospitals in Poteau and McAlester, more than an hour away. I know one of those vehicles belonged to my other grandfather, Allie Askew, my dad’s dad, who helped ferry the wounded—that’s a part of the story I learned long years later—but how and when and by what means Papa Sides on his unsaddled horse brought his baby girl home, I don’t know. I just know that Sissy slept in the bed with Mama and Papa Sides that night, though she was a big old grown girl, slept shaking, trembling, afraid.. They had to give her hair five good washings to get the mud and debris out of her scalp. Mama Sides kept going to the well to draw water to heat on the wood cookstove for more baths. Someone found Sissy’s red coat under a pile of shattered boards, but the filth pounded into it by the tornado could not be scrubbed out, and they had to throw the coat away. Sissy kept her terror of storms a long time, my mother says. But not nearly as long as Eula.
After the tornado, Papa Sides moved his family to Red Oak, and so did Granvil. My uncle built a four-room house for Eula and Wanda Ruth across the road from Mama and Papa Sides, raised it himself using his own two hands and boards and nails and cinderblocks saved and salvaged and scrimped for. This was also before I was born. Before Granvil came down with the polio that would cause him to wear a leg brace and walk with a cane for the rest of his life.
I never knew my uncle as a hardy workingman who could raise a house with his bare hands. I remember him sitting on the loafers’ bench in Red Oak, wearing pressed overalls and a straw cowboy hat, his crippled leg in its metal brace stretched out in front of him, his two hands resting on the top of the wooden cane somebody had carved for him. I remember the gravel in his voice, his humor, his teasing, his remarkable memory. I remember him telling me, “Two things you can’t build against, Rilla Jo. Fire and wind.”
You cannot build against wind, Granvil knew. But you can dig.
The first thing my uncle did, even before he laid the foundation for the house, he went to the southwest corner of where he’d stepped out the ground plan, and he started to dig. By hand, with pick and shovel, in that rocky, rocky ground, Granvil dug a ten-foot-deep storm cellar for Eula. Because she never got over her fear.
When I was a little girl, my sisters and I would spend the night in that house with our aunt and uncle and our cousins, Wanda Ruth and Carol Sue. We dreaded it, though, if the weather was stormy, because the moment the sky darkened—before the first crack of thunder, before the first round plops of rain started to fall—Aunt Eula would want to head to the storm cellar. Granvil would talk her out of it if he knew the clouds portended nothing more than a regular rainstorm, but if he wasn’t home when the clouds came up, we knew what would happen. Eula would make us come out the back door with her to the grass-covered heap in the yard, like an Indian burial mound, with a gray-painted metal door embedded in one end. She would hoist the heavy door, and down the rickety steps into the dank darkness we’d go—to sit for what seemed like hours on the canvas cots and musty bedding, waiting for the storm to pass. I’ll never forget the thick odor of mildew and kerosene, the cool concrete smell. Rows of home-canned green beans in Mason jars lining the shelves. Cobwebs. Daddy longlegs. Brown, squishy crickets. How I hated going down there. But my own terrors—of the dank, spidery cellar, the dark corners—never trumped Aunt Eula’s own.
Eula has been gone for over two decades, and Uncle Granvil nearly as long. What they knew from surviving the Boggy tornado lives on in me, and what my mother came to know, and my Aunt Sissy. I’ve tried writing it in fiction, but the story won’t bend for me. The details are too fixed, the story at once too confined and too large. Old family stories get distilled to their clearest essence—the red coat, Papa yelling on his horse. Writing fiction, I can intuit how many details are just enough. I can change them. But when the story is true, I can’t seem to find which of the complications to leave out.
For instance, I know, through the gleaned omniscience of research, that on that same day, April 12, 1945, around that same hour, but in Germany—halfway around the world in the opposite direction from where my daddy lay on his cot in the South Pacific—a young Jewish boy named Elie Wiesel was settling into his second night of freedom since Buchenwald had been liberated by Patton’s Third Army the day before. The boy’s guts were cramping, not from starvation now, but from eating the liberators’ food. And that part of the story seems important, the distinction between manmade disasters and ones born of nature—those that legal contracts still call “Acts of God.”
There’s this, too: on that same day, an American reporter toured the camp so that he might tell the world about the horrors the liberators found there: “I pray you to believe what I have said about Buchenwald,” Edward R. Murrow would say in his broadcast three days later. “I reported what I saw and heard, but only part of it. For most of it, I have no words.”
On May 20, 2013, I was walking on my country road in the Catskills, a perfect spring day, the faintest breeze, the cloudless sky a miraculous blue. My husband called my cellphone: “There’s a huge tornado getting ready to hit Moore!” I began walking fast, nearly running, tapping numbers into my phone, my closest friends in Oklahoma, out of breath, talking, walking fast. Connie in Edmond: Yes, we’re safe, we’re in the basement. Anne in Norman: Yes, we’re watching, we’re in a sheltered place across the street from the library. My folks in Red Oak, miles away from the tornado: Are you watching? Yes, we’re watching, it’s terrible, isn’t it? Hurrying home on my road fifteen hundred miles away to watch in real time, helpless, like Papa Sides from his porch in Boggy Holler, as the mile-wide debris cloud roiled over that misfortunate town.
We all watched together, the same images shared by all of us, because the networks and cable news were all live-streaming Channel 4 in Oklahoma City. A different kind of omniscience, lived in real time: just as, in real time on a different, jeweled Catskill morning, my husband and I watched, as the whole country watched, the second plane hit the tower, watched the World Trade Center crumble in real time, and then again in replay, and again, and again.
Just so, we all—friends and family in Oklahoma, New York, Boston, California—watched in real time as the wide, black sweep bore down upon Moore, watched it plow over the town and pull away, growing smaller, smaller and whiter, ribboning out until it vanished in the sky; then we watched the helicopter’s first view of the flattened grade school, saying to ourselves, along with the newscasters, Oh my God, oh my God.
A few weeks later I drove into that devastated area. I’d waited until the rescue effort had died down to the long, slow recovery, waited till evening when I thought the workers and gawkers might be gone. It was deep dusk, a quarter moon hanging low in the west. No wind, no sound, except, far in the distance, the hum of a scoop shovel, working by generator lights, dipping its long arm, scooping debris, pivoting, dumping it into a dumpster. But that was blocks away. Well, no, not blocks. There was nothing that looked like a city block. It’s true what they say, that photographs cannot do it justice, the force of the devastation, the miles and miles of sticks and splinters, mangled metal, concrete slabs and curved driveways ending in. . . nothing. Desolation. Tiny nails and shards. Here and there that which is so acutely recognizable: an upside-down washing machine. A bicycle handlebar. A crushed car. But it was the silence that most choked me, and the knowledge that, although there was desolation and destruction as far as I could see, and the lights of Moore were just there, on the outer rim, I really had only barely entered the eastern edge. There were seventeen more miles of it, stretching west. No way even to pass through it. No way to describe it. As Murrow said, trying to bear witness to a different kind of devastation, the manmade kind at Buchenwald: for most of it I have no words.
This is why we have to tell stories. Where we were when the tornado hit. What the sky looked like. The smell, the sound. The choices we made. Earlier that evening I’d been at the Moore library. I’d gone there as a writer to talk about my books, but it was a while before we got around to it, because for the first hour at least, we were telling stories.
The librarian told about hiding with some sixty others in the restrooms in the center of the building as the mile-wide black debris cloud headed straight for them: five and six people to a stall, she said, all crowded on top of one another, and the children placed under the sinks, in case the roof caved in. But the roof did not cave in, because the tornado, in its own private unfathomable capriciousness, skirted the library entirely, arced north, and took out half the town.
One woman had survived three deadly Moore tornados. She told how the 2003 funnel seemed to follow her as she drove frantically home, and how, just as she reached her driveway, the twister lifted the roof off her house, straight up into the air, then dropped it back down exactly square on the walls with a force that busted the windows and crossbeams. She said there’s little correlation between the amount of devastation a person has undergone and their lingering trauma. Some may have lost everything and be out the next day helping their neighbors. Others may have suffered only roof damage, or no damage at all, as they hid in their safe rooms, and yet they emerge terrified, filled with survivor’s guilt.
But then I knew that. I learned that from my family’s stories about the tornado that hit Boggy. Everyone reacts individually to trauma. Everybody carries scars their own way. I want to say that sometimes when I hear people brag about our state’s famed “resilience” in the wake of massive, death-dealing storms. Some folks are resilient, yes. Some are not.
Not long ago I sat in my Aunt Sissy’s living room, listening to her and my mother, both well into their eighties now, talking matter-of-factly about the tornado that hit Boggy sixty-eight years ago. No fear in their voices. Hardly any wonder. They spoke of the red coat. The barbed-wire fence. The mud beat into Sissy’s hair.
In my head I still carry the sound of Eula’s voice, the drawn out nasal oooh she’d offer when the sky darkened, words she said so often they’re burned in my mind like a childhood prayer: “Oooooh, I’m scared of storms.”