Red Coat and the Rain
I remember it still.
The red coat with a matching red hat. The short, boxy, military-style coat with brass buttons was the best outfit I owned. Such a fine coat and hat would be a treasure to any six-year old. It was especially comforting to me since I had just lost all my favorite possessions----gone with the wind of a twisting tornado.
I remember it still.
It was a school day in mid-March, 1942. Three of my four older brothers had already walked to the small one-room country school a mile down the road from our house. Bill, the oldest, was at high school in Bement, a small rural Illinois village five miles west of our farm. The threat of rain meant no farming for my father; he had left for Decatur—forty miles away, to visit my Uncle Vince, his twin.
A windy, rainy day was developing. Mother was going about her kitchen duties, baking pies; already thinking about the evening meal and how to feed five children and a farmer husband.
I busied myself with my dolls—a baby doll with a pink checked Shirley Temple dress with satin ribbons and a favorite nun doll in a long black dress with rosary beads hanging from her black belt. Nun dolls are just to look at. They are not meant to be dressed up or rocked. Kept home from school with a cold, I was looking forward to a whole day alone with Mother, free from the torment of big brothers.
The heavy rain soon turned my bright play day into a windy and gray day. Even so, I looked forward to Mr. Bloomingdale’s visit. In those days, groceries were regularly delivered to country farms by hucksters, the mobile vendors of the ‘40’s. Mr. Bloomingdale, our huckster, came in his big white van once a week. Brother Bill now says, “I don’t remember that it was a big van.” I was six; it seemed huge to me. Mr. Bloomingdale had a robust figure, always a big smile and eyes that grinned with crinkled corners.
It was early afternoon, when the white van pulled into our long driveway. Furious winds darkened the western sky. Abel’s house, only a quarter of a mile down the oiled road, 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, wet forehead.
Mother wiped the flour from her hands onto her flowered 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. The 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 before. I remember often the pleasure of watching a cool summer rain coming across the fields. In the silent sounds of the country we could actually hear the rain on 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 gray rain flooded the windows. The sky grew dark. In the west front bedroom, unaware of the approaching danger of the storm, my mind was intent on searching for Mother’s purse. The windows suddenly darkened as though black shades were drawn . As I looked up, the west corner of the room cracked open at the ceiling revealing a muddy darkness. I ran back toward my mother’s scream from the kitchen, through the living room and the dining room, blinded by the veil of dirt and darkness. The last thing I felt was Mother’s arms grabbing around me as we met in the doorway of the dining room. A midnight darkness engulfed us.
As suddenly as it began, the angry storm was silenced. Light rain was falling through a warm spring breeze. It was over. A faint glimmer of light creeped into the western sky.
Though we were in the middle of the house when we met in that doorway, we found ourselves outside after the storm, huddled next to the remains of the brick foundation. No sign of the house remained, not a single upright structure. We struggled through the debris in the yard, over broken furniture and glass, bricks and fallen wires, toward the driveway. Mr. Bloomingdale, was walking toward us, blood streaming down his face. A flying brick or a board had struck him as he fled out the back door toward his van. The van was gone---but not far. It had moved 40 feet down the driveway into the barn, as if it had been purposely driven there and parked. The barn, still partially standing, sheltered us.
The yard was strewn with dangerous debris. Leading me by the hand, Mother cautioned, “Don’t step on wires; be careful of broken glass.” Electrical and telephone wires were strewn like tangled spaghetti across the yard and entwined with glass, bricks and boards.
As the storm dissipated, the neighbors and curious strangers gradually began to fill the roadside. The damage was incomprehensible.
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 message he received, “The children are safe at school and Lena has been taken to the hospital to be checked,” only unnerved him more. The message that everyone was safe, Mother in the hospital and the children in school, only caused him alarming anxiety. He knew that I was not in school.
Uncle Vince told many stories of that forty-mile ride from Decatur to our farm. The ’39 Plymouth bounced over the road touching only the tops of the small rises as it flew. Few words were spoken. My father feared that I must be dead and no one wanted to tell him over the telephone.
The farmland of central Illinois is flat---on a normal clear day, you can see for miles. 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. They could see no sign of the tall trees in the distance where our house once stood.
When the twin brothers reached the scene of the disaster, cars were parked zigzag up and down the road making it more difficult to reach our driveway. No one could tell them of my whereabouts. Surveying the devastation, they wondered that anyone could have survived.
At the hospital, they found Mother had a broken collarbone and would need a couple of days to be checked further. Assured, but unconvinced that I was safe at my uncles’ farm, my father’s next trip was to the farm on the hill. At this point, he was only sure that the boys were safe at school.
Upon reaching my Uncle’s farm on the hill, they went into the house and found no one. The tenant farmer’s small home was just yards from the main house. Looking for a sign of hope, they called to Velma, the tenant’s wife, in the little three-room house.
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. Protected, no doubt, by my mother’s arms.
After a few days Mother was out of the hospital. Mr. Bloomingdale suffered a near fatal concussion and brain damage. Released after months of hospitalization and therapy, he was never able to continue his grocery route in the country.
Tornados leave eerie calling cards. Pieces of straw were found driven through telephone poles. A fire was still burning in the round- bellied old stove with the eisenglass front, left setting in the front yard. Bill told me that he found his new galoshes on the remains of the back porch steps, right where he left them. A new icebox, upturned and dented, lay in the driveway. It still worked and lasted another fifteen years.
Even the animals 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. 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 to be seen again. For days, family and friends helped sift through the rubble to salvage whatever could be found whole. 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. A post card to my mother was returned by a farmer in Indiana; who found it in the path to his barn. His address was identical to ours, except for the state.
Even the most traumatic memories can soon be diluted for a six year old. After living in Uncle Will’s basement for a few months, we moved several miles to another country house. There was a new country school and many new friends to meet.
I received lots of different clothes, many hand-me-downs from neighbors. Best of all, I remember one very special little red coat with brass buttons and a matching hat. It was brand new!
The years have faded many of the memories. However, over sixty years later there still exists a worn picture of an awkward six-year old standing proudly wearing new the red coat with brass buttons and matching military hat. The picture, a faded brown tint is only a faint reminder of the trauma of one fearful rainy day, but the red coat with brass buttons is still a strong memory. Each time I rediscover the picture, it brings a smile and a feeling of triumph over trauma.
Maybe the nun doll walked me safely through the March storm.
Ann Weakley was born in Illinois, where she lived nearly a
lifetime. After retiring from a career in education, she and her
husband ventured to Tennessee with no job, no home, no acquaintancesonly
an adventurous spirit. She began a new career as an interior decorator
in Nashville. Now living in Spring Hill, Tennessee, and semi-retired
from decorating, she devotes time to writing personal essays.
Currently, she is working on a memoir and profiles of admirable
women who shared part of her lifetime in Illinois.
Mary Ann Weakley