It was Palm Sunday and it was hot. The humidity was as close to 100% as it can be without raining. This is the time of year when warm air rushes up the Mississippi Valley from the Gulf of Mexico until it hits cold air from Canada – then all hell breaks loose. There is a good reason they call it tornado alley. The red flags on this map with “4” in them indicate where category 4 tornadoes touched down that night; right where I lived and worked.
I was returning home to Kokomo from a weekend in Angola, where a year or so earlier, I had graduated a second time – this time from business school. By the time I passed Fort Wayne darkness was approaching and I could sense it was going to rain soon, so I pulled off the highway to put up the top on my red, 1963 Chevrolet convertible.
I hesitated for a few minutes to take a closer look at the sky because the radio had been telling me to expect tornadoes. There was enough light to see clearly across the thousands of acres of cornfields in every direction, still covered with last year’s stubble and too wet to plow. Above that was a narrow band of light in the south and west, where the sun was rapidly approaching the horizon. Above that band of light was nothing but solid black. Every few seconds I could see a bulge develop from one of the black clouds and a narrow funnel would shoot down toward the ground. These were not my first tornadoes but I could see they were headed straight toward my home in Kokomo, directly southwest of here.
This is not an actual picture taken at the time but it shows exactly what it looked like that night. My Argus C3, probably loaded with 36 frames of Kodachrome, was in my car but I cannot explain why I never took a single picture through the entire event.
I had been through a tornado as a kid when one tore off part of the roof of our house at the Lake. I have also been close enough to hear the roar, but I had never seen anything like this. “Real” Midwesterners will tell you that when you think one is coming, you rush to the basement – yes, houses in the Midwest have basements. Then you go to the southwest corner, facing the wall, and bend over to put your head between your legs and kiss your ass goodbye.
Ordinarily, when approaching Kokomo across the flattest farmland in the Country, I would see the dim glow of street lights from miles away. Tonight was different – it looked like a circus had come to town. When I hit the US-31 bypass I could see then, what earlier had looked like caravel lights, were flashing fire, police, and ambulance lights, racing in every direction. Everything was wet by this time because the rain had been increasing, making the streets and vehicles act as mirrors, so flashing lights seemed to be coming from everywhere.
I wanted to get home to my little ~30 ft mobile home near Russiaville, a couple of miles from Kokomo, next to a little creek and surrounded by oak and hickory trees. US-31 was not the freeway it is today. As I recall there was only one traffic light and I think that was at the corner of State Road 22, which ran through the center of town. The traffic light was dark of course but there were enough emergency vehicles around that I could see well enough to get through the intersection. I passed the Delco Radio building, where I worked and it was totally dark, as was the Chrysler transmission plant across the road. These recent photos serve as a reminder of why it is such an easy place to forget – the exception of course being for those fond of tornadoes, snowstorms, and union bosses.
When I got to where my mobile home had been, there was nothing – no bushes in the front yard, no trees, no mobile home. Everything I owned except what I had in the trunk of my car was scattered over Ohio and East Central Indiana, never to be seen again.
I had noticed as I passed by the Holiday Inn on the US-31 bypass that there were lights on inside. Having nowhere else to go, I returned to find all the rooms taken of course, and a couple of dozen locals lingering around the lobby. Some were frantically waving their hands and smoking cigarettes, while others just sat quietly on the floor, staring into space. One hysterical lady was questioning how God could have done this to her and a couple of others were attempting to quiet her.
I remembered that I had a nice scotch plaid wool “football blanket” in my car. For those not from the Midwest, a “football blanket’ is not a blanket with a picture of your favorite football hero on it. It’s a real blanket that comes in a pillow-like carrying case with a handle. You sit on it during the game and when it gets cold, you take out the blanket to put over you. It was still early but I found a quiet corner in the lobby with my “football blanket” until the sun came up.
I had fueled up in Angola the previous day so I had enough gas to get back to Fort Wayne, where the radio said there were service stations open. The next stop was Angola, then on to my parent’s place at the Lake in Three Rivers for a brief visit, before venturing on to California. I had been planning that move for a while and the tornadoes simply firmed up my plans and adjusted the timetable a bit.