Huddled in the Basement

I wrote here recently about the 50th anniversary of my hometown’s high school basketball team winning the state championship—an event I have no memory of. Three weeks after that, however, came the first event of my life on which I can hang a precise date and say yes, that I definitely remember. It will be 50 years tomorrow.

April 11, 1965, was Palm Sunday. We’d been to church and Sunday school, and it’s likely that we little kids were given palm fronds to wave in a procession intended to remind us of the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. So the five-year-old me was likely holding one as we rode from Monroe to Monticello, a little town up the road, for a special Sunday dinner out. I was in the back seat of a strange car, for my parents’ 1957 Ford something-or-other was in the shop and they were driving a loaner. My brother, not quite three, was probably at large in the back seat just like I was: there were no child seats and often no seat belts in those days.

After dinner at the Casino, your basic Wisconsin supper club, with the relish tray that came to your table, the basket of individually wrapped breadsticks and crackers, and the inevitable fried chicken I would have ordered, we drove the 15 minutes or so back home. The radio was on, and as we pulled into the garage, we heard the announcer talk about the possibility of bad weather in the Rockford area. “Where’s Rockford?” I asked. “It’s about 50 miles away,” my mother said. Implicit in her tone: “Don’t worry.”

We went inside and my mother put my brother down for nap. I flicked on the TV, picked up a book, and sat down on the couch.

I am not sure how much time had passed when the TV suddenly snapped off. “Hey!” I said. I saw my father looking out of the kitchen window toward the west. “Head for the cellar!” he cried. My mother’s voice came from down the hall where the bedrooms were. “What?” My father again, more urgent this time: “Grab Danny and head for the cellar!” The four of us hurried down the basement steps, but before we reached the bottom, we heard a crash behind us. We went to the southwest corner and waited. I didn’t know what was happening, and I don’t remember what I heard.

We’d been down there maybe five minutes before Dad declared it was safe to go back up. The crash we had heard was a single window being blown in, but the house was relatively unscathed. However, the roof was partly off our barn, and a machine shed that sat a few feet from the house was destroyed. Up the road, our neighbor’s farm buildings were a pile of rubble and the roof was completely torn off their house.

Those few minutes are remembered in my hometown, and by my family, as the Palm Sunday Tornado. My father had seen the top of the cloud, and we assume the tornado had been on the ground at the neighbors’. He told me years later that as we huddled in the basement, he was sure our roof was going to go, or worse—but the tornado must have hopped back up in the air to pass over our farm before touching down again on the west side of Monroe, where it did extensive damage. (Fortunately, nobody died, at least not in my town.)

Like the electricity, the telephone was out, so my father would have gone to the other side of the farm, where his parents lived, to check on them. It wasn’t long before my maternal grandparents pulled into the driveway from their home 30 minutes away, having heard on the radio that a tornado had struck southwest of Monroe. They were worried when they were unable to get us on the phone.

That night, my father’s cows went unmilked for the only time in his 50-plus years as a dairy farmer. The next morning, he managed to re-jigger the vacuum-powered windshield wipers on his old farm truck to generate enough vacuum to power a single milking machine. That day, we were issued passes to display on our vehicles saying we had the right to be in the area. The idea was to keep gawkers away and discourage looting. Although there was some of the latter (people were seen taking cheese from a damaged factory after the storm on Sunday), the former was a greater problem. Despite appeals to stay away, gawkers clogged Monroe’s main highways and arterial streets on Easter weekend, and extra sheriff’s deputies had to be called in for traffic control.

The machine shed was rebuilt. The barn was re-roofed. Life eventually returned to normal. And now 50 years have passed since that very vivid day.

Coming tomorrow: what happened elsewhere on April 11, 1965.

One response

  1. […] to the election of LBJ to the march on Selma to the personal ones I blogged about in March and April to the many more still to come (the first teach-ins, Dylan goes electric, passage of Medicare and […]

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