A few years before our family moved into what would become the family home a tornado had ripped through the Ruskin Heights area. The tornado was listed, I believe, as a F-5 meaning it was big. It started out in southeast Kansas somewhere and continued on up to the south side of Kansas City. By the time it got to Ruskin it was close to a mile wide and ripping up everything within reach of it's mighty winds. Many people were killed in that tornado. It was before the tools for tracking tornadic activity had been developed very well. Ruskin had not been incorporated by Kansas City at that time and so they were on their own. Martial Law was implemented as the people of the middle class suburb began to clean up and rebuild.
They made a park that still stands today. They took a block of land and dug a huge hole. It was here that they dumped the remains of old Ruskin. The hole was then covered up and buried and grass grew on top of it. It is a huge park and if you stand and let your imagination drift back to 1957 you can almost see the bulldozers digging and dumping trash and rubbish into the hole instead of the nice green grassed park that it is today.
I have a vague memory of walking into our house for the first time. Maybe most of it is false remembrances. The tornado happened in 1957 and the family moved into the house in 1960 I think. It would have to be 1960 to go along with my faded memory. I remember walking into the house behind my father but ahead of my two sisters. Mom brought up the rear holding my little brother in her arms. I remember her saying something like "They have had a tornado here". At that point, and this is where my memory really goes strange, I remember looking down through the openings in the living room to the basement. In that darkened basement I could swear I saw an animal like creature tip-toeing across the basement floor. It looked like a five foot tall owl. (Told you it was strange). For many years after that and sometimes even today when I hear the word "tornado" a flash of that owl walking across the basement floor enters my mind.
The whole area was effected by the 1957 tornado for years to come. Everytime a siren went off the streets cleared as people rushed into their houses and down to their basements. Ruskin would become like a ghost town if an actual tornado warning was issued for anywhere near the area. For the tornado watches it was almost as bad. We would be brought into the houses or at the least brought home to our own yards where we would have quick access to the house if the watch became a tornado warning or an actual tornado.
Every spring flashlights were checked for batteries. Transistor radios were installed with fresh batteries because if you lost electricity during a storm, that AM band on the radio was your only link to the outside world. It was a poor link too. Every time lighting would flash it would disrupt the broadcast of the Am radio with loud static.
The local paper in southern Jackson County, the Advocate, would publish a tornado map every spring. It would be a map of the Kansas City area with circles radiating out from the center and all the little suburbs labeled on the map. You could tell how far off a reported tornado was from the circles on this map and how close the area where the tornado was hitting was from you by comparing suburb names. This map was hung someplace in the house every spring. As I grew older I began posting it in my bedroom so I would have easy access to it.
They say the wind suddenly becomes really still and the sky turns an eerie green when a tornado is about to strike. Again t could be my overactive imagination but it seems to me like I saw a lot of windless green skies while I was growing up.
After the tornado of 1957, the Ruskin Heights area was set in paranoid mode. For years the descriptions that I gave earlier of the streets turning quiet and becoming empty continued. For years, an AM Radio was always at easy reach in case of emergency. And for years I spent a lot of my springs in the basement of house.
I was out getting my hearing checked or going to speech lessons, not sure which, when a tornado was spotted up the block from where the offices mom and I were visiting. I remember being terrified as people came through telling us we had to make our way to a certain spot in the building because of a tornado. We were pushed out into a hallway were it seemed like there were people wall to wall all heading in the same direction to escape the tornado that never came. It might not have made it to the office or it may have been a false alarm but it was on that day that I fully realized how truly scared I was of tornadoes.
Other parts of the city didn't seem to have the same concern about tornadoes that we had in the Ruskin Area. I remember visiting my Aunt Norva one spring day in Overland Park, Kansas. There was a tornado watch posted and I was scared. I stood on the top step of her root cellar waiting for everyone to come rushing in to avoid the monster that was surely on its way. Instead, my dad and Uncle Dale and Uncle Jim along with a couple of cousins stood out in the middle of the back yard looking up at the clouds trying to determine if any of them were funnel clouds. I was terrified that one of those clouds would drop down right on top of us and take my dad away forever. I just wanted everyone to get in that root cellar and be safe, but I was the only person close to the cellar. It was one of the most terrifying two hours I can remember.
Since I have grown I have become a little more tolerant of tornadoes. The technology has improved so much that it is hard for a tornado to sneak up on us anymore. The streets of Ruskin do not clear out like they use to. People go about their business until real threat is broadcast. I have learned how to look at weather maps and determine weather there is a chance for violent weather. I have learned what to look for in the skies when the threat of tornadoes is around and I can stand in my front yard and look at the clouds the way my dad and uncles did on that day so very long ago.
A few years ago in 2007, Ruskin Heights marked the 50th anniversary of that terrible day. Barb and I attended the event and saw a lot of people that were living in Ruskin at the same time that my family was and had the same memories of terror that tornadoes can bring. They had some video shot of the aftermath of the tornado and all the strong brave citizens of Ruskin cleaning up and rebuilding. The video also showed the massive destruction that the storm left in its wake. I saw the tractors and bulldozers filling up the park with debris from houses that were no more. It was an eerie feeling watching those videos.
I won't try to pull one over on you. I still get scared a bit when I hear that a storm with tornadic activity may be heading our way. My stomach gets a little queasy but I keep my cool and I don't go running off to the basement at the mention of the word anymore. Still there is a special horror that the word tornado can bring to the minds of people in the midwest.
And sometimes I still see that owl walking across the basement floor.
Video of Ruskin Tornado