On April 27, 1998, my dad passed away. I couldn’t help but think of him this past April 27 and not because that is the anniversary of his death, but because of the storm shelter that he had built for us in 1974. On the stormy night of April 3, 1974 my family and two of our neighbors piled into our 1971 Buick and drove half a mile to sit on Highway 31 underneath the Highway 72 overpass. I was five and my sister three years old. There we sat and listened to whatever radio station we could find and waited on what history would call the "Super Tornado Outbreak" to pass. Weather education now tells us that that was about the dumbest thing we could have done. But it wasn't until that deadly storm that anyone took an interest in learning proper tornado preparedness, and it wasn’t until then that television stations gave weather episodes catchy nicknames.
For the entirety of my life with him, my dad owned a business and drove a truck for that business. He was gone a lot, so it was just us ladies most of the time, especially when I was young as he nurtured the growing business. My mother was/is terrified of storms. After the Super Tornado Outbreak, she told daddy to build us a storm shelter. “I told Tom, ‘I want somewhere I can take these kids,’” she said. My daddy did pretty much everything he needed to do and more for our safety and comfort. So, April 4, 1974, my dad and a neighbor got together to build a storm shelter. They figured they needed a hole and concrete. Daddy had a knack for getting things done, whether he knew how to do it or not. He would say there is always somebody somewhere that knows how to do what you don’t. So, daddy contacted a friend who worked for the transportation department in the city and asked him to build a tornado shelter for us. There was no “Tornado Masters” or “FEMA-design Consultants” then. So, his reasoning was that the man had to have some knowledge of the use of concrete in order to build bridges. They dug a hole in the middle of our backyard and poured the floor, walls and ceiling with no blueprints or example to follow. All they knew was that they wanted some kind of concrete room in the ground with a heavy door.
Many stormy nights my mother would have us lay out clothes and jackets at the foot of our beds, untie and open up our shoes and place them so that we could jump in them at a moment's notice. Even as I write this, I can almost hear and feel the splashing of the grassy puddles as we would run through the backyard in the dark with flashes from lightning and our flashlights going off around us. It was scary and exciting to us as children. Then we would wait in the blowing rain for that big, green wood door with the cinderblock on the end of a pulley to be opened. The shelter was musty, and often had puddles in it. Yet, we slept soundly by candlelight in the homemade bunks on foam mattresses as my parents and neighbors sat on wood benches around the sides. There was a center column and vents out the top, and pretty soon a sump-pump had to be added. The stairs leading to it were just pieces of wood nailed together. They were very steep and narrow and more like a ladder than stairs. As the steps became wet, they were very slippery. I can remember several times, someone falling through the rungs and once a very scary fall. New neighbors had moved in four or five years later. The Poochy Black family who went to church with us was now next door and would come to the shelter. They had a new baby boy, their third son, Andy. Coming into the shelter after us one night, Barbara, the mother, was holding him in her arms and slipped through the rungs. As she fell, she tossed the baby across this concrete room right into my mother’s lap. It was scary and the episode made a mark in my mind. The mornings after a storm, I can remember waking up in that musty, cool bunker. The men would shoulder up that big wood door and let in the sunshine. We would climb out into the warmth.
We moved from that house in 1986. We had nothing at this next house and use to crouch in the closet under the stairs. But, if you pass our first house, you can see the shelter. We lived at the corner of Aster and Bolyn streets that run beside Lowe’s. It’s fun for me to look at it, thinking about running from the backdoor to the shelter. How thankful we were to have that shelter to run to. Though destined from its planning to be imperfect, the shelter provided many years of safety and ease of mind for our neighbors and us.