THE RED COAT AND THE RAIN
By Mary Ann Weakley
I remember it still.
The red coat, a short, boxy, military-style coat, double breasted with brass buttons and
a matching red hat, by far the best outfit I owned—even before the tornado.
I remember it still.
It was a school day in mid-March, 1942. I was home sick from school. My four brothers had already gone; three walked to the small one-room country school a mile down the road. Bill, the oldest, was at high school in the small rural Illinois village five miles west of our farm. The sky threatened rain. There was little prospect of field work; my father had left for Decatur—thirty miles away—to visit Uncle Vince, his twin.
The threat of rain turned into a downpour.
Mother was going about her kitchen duties, baking pies and already thinking about the evening meal and how to feed five children and a farmer husband. I was busy with my dolls—a baby doll wearing a pink checked Shirley Temple dress with satin ribbons and my favorite nun doll dressed in a long black robe; rosary beads hung from her black belt. Nun dolls are just to look at not meant to be dressed up or rocked.
The heavy rain whipped into a windy, gray day.
The driveway was barely visible as I watched for Mr. Bloomingdale’s van pull in the long drive. He was a huckster who delivered groceries once a week. His big white van also delivered candy. Brother Bill now says, “I don’t remember it was a big van.” I was six; it seemed huge to me. Mr. Bloomingdale had a Santa Claus figure, always a big smile and eyes that grinned with crinkled corners.
Furious clouds churned in the western sky.
Though the Abel’s lived only a quarter of a mile down the oiled road, their house was invisible through the heavy rain.
Mr. Bloomingdale dashed onto the back porch and into the kitchen, stumbling over Bill’s new rubber galoshes on the porch steps. “Nasty storm brewing out there,” he said. The rain glistened on his shiny forehead.
Mother wiped the flour from her hands onto her bib apron and handed him her grocery order—the usual staples needed for baking—flour, sugar, vanilla, and spices. We churned our own butter from the milk provided by our cows. Our chickens supplied us with eggs. Mother sent me to get her purse from the bedroom in the front of the house.
Rainstorms had never frightened me. I remember often watching a cool late summer rain coming across the fields. In the silence of the country we could hear the rain pelting the stalks of corn as it grew closer and closer washing the dusty leaves of thirsty corn as it approached.
This day was different. The wind hammered on the side of the house, harder and harder. Waves of muddy rain flooded the windows.
The sky darkened.
In the west front bedroom I was intent on searching for Mother’s purse. The windows suddenly darkened as though black shades were pulled. Startled, I looked up to see the west corner of the room cracked open at the ceiling revealing a sinister darkness. Running back toward mother’s scream from the kitchen, through the living room and the dining room, I was blinded by the blanket of dirt. Mother’s arms grabbed me as we met in the doorway of the dining room.
A freakish blackness engulfed us.
Thunderous noise paralyzed me with fear. Maybe it was minutes or only seconds. As suddenly as it began, the angry storm was silenced. Light rain was falling through a bone-chilling spring breeze. It was over. A faint glimmer of light crept into the western sky.
Though we were in the middle of the house when we met in the doorway, Mother and I found ourselves outside after the storm. We huddled against the remains of the brick foundation. There was no sign of the house, not a single upright structure. We struggled through the debris in the yard—over broken furniture, bricks and fallen wires—toward the driveway.
“Don’t step on wires; be careful of broken glass.” Mother cautioned leading me by the hand. Electrical and telephone wires tangled like spaghetti across the yard.
Mr. Bloomingdale was walking toward us, blood streaming down his face. Flying debris had struck him as he fled out the back door toward his van. The van was no longer on the drive; it had moved forty feet down the driveway into the barn, as if purposely driven and carefully parked. We took shelter in the ravaged and riddled barn and waited for help.
As the storm dissipated, neighbors and curious strangers began to fill the roadside. Many tales of disbelief were told later. The damage was incomprehensible; they expected to find bodies.
Both injured, Mother and Mr. Bloomingdale were taken to the hospital. A neighbor took me to my Uncle Will’s farm, a few miles north. Oblivious to the damages of the storm, classes continued in the one-room country school.
Still in Decatur, my father received word that the tornado had hit our farm.
“The children are safe at school and Lena has been taken to the hospital to be checked,” he was told. The message that everyone was safe—Mother in the hospital and the children in school—caused him alarming anxiety. He knew I had not gone to school that day.
He feared I must be dead and no one wanted to tell him over the telephone.
Uncle Vince told stories of that thirty-mile ride from Decatur, “The 1939 Plymouth bounced over the road touching only the tops of the small rises as it flew. Few words were spoken.”
On a normal clear day, you can see for miles across the flat central Illinois farmland. Only an occasional farm windmill or grain elevator rises on the landscape. As they turned the corner to our road, the Tracy and Abel farms were visible, but there was no sign of the tall trees in the distance where our house once stood.
As the twin brothers reached the scene of the disaster, cars were parked zigzag up and down the road making it difficult to reach the driveway. Surveying the devastation, their worry intensified. No one could tell them of my whereabouts.
At the hospital, they found Mother with a broken collarbone; she would need a couple of days to be checked further. She told them someone took me to Uncle Will’s farm. Another chase over the roads past the farm sections to Uncle Will’s house on the hill where they found no one at home.
The tenant farmer’s small three-room home was just yards from the main house. Searching desperately for a sign of hope, they called to Velma, the tenant’s wife. She opened the door.
In the middle of the kitchen floor, there I sat in a big, round, No. 3 galvanized tub of water, getting a bath and my hair washed by Velma. Not a scratch on me.
Tornados leave eerie calling cards. Pieces of straw were found driven through telephone poles. A fire still burned in the round-bellied old stove with the eisenglass windows left setting in the front yard. A new icebox, upturned and dented, lay in the driveway. It still worked and lasted another fifteen years.
“I found my new galoshes on the remains of the back porch steps, right where I left them.” Bill remembered. “I put them on and used them to slosh through the mud and debris recovering anything I could find.”
Even the animals in the pasture did not escape the freakish storm. A large board was driven into the withers of a workhorse in the pasture as though it were a sliver in a finger. I could no longer identify my pet chicken by her blue feather; the chickens lost their feathers, but not their lives.
The favorite little nun doll clung to the broken branches of a tree, her rosary beads were gone, but otherwise her decorum was intact. Shirley Temple was never seen again. For days, family and friends helped sift through the rubble to salvage whatever could be found. Small discoveries of personal mementoes brought joy—a precious family photo, a favorite dish, or family keepsake. Good Samaritans came from miles away to help pick up debris scattered across the section marking the path of the storm.
Even the most traumatic memories can soon be diluted for a six year old. After living in Uncle Will’s basement for a short time, we moved several miles south to another country house. There was a new country school and new friends to meet.
The years have faded many of the memories. However, more than sixty-five years later there still exists a worn picture of an awkward six-year old standing proudly wearing a new red coat with brass buttons and matching military hat, a benefactor’s gift. The picture, a faded brown tint is but a faint reminder of the trauma of the fearful rainy day, but the red coat and the rain are still technicolor memories.