Monday, January 18, 2010

Tornado Story, Belvidere, IL

I wrote this in 1997, but recently posted it at the "Remembering the 1967 Belvidere Tornado" Facebook page.

‘My Life Was Changed Forever That Spring Afternoon’

by Christopher D. Guerin
Special to the BDR
Published in the Belvidere Daily Republican, Monday, April 21, 1997.

Though I neither saw, nor stood in the path of the tornado that devastated south Belvidere in 1967, like all of ours, my life was changed forever on that spring afternoon.

Though I was fortunate, unlike so many others, not to suffer the loss of a family member or close friend, I did lose, and gain, immeasurably from what happened that day.

At the hour the tornado struck, I was walking home from school. I was 13 years old. Every day I walked from the old high school, then the city’s junior high, to my home on East Lincoln Avenue.

Each day I’d stop at the Hub Cigar Store to check out the newest magazines. That day I bought only a bag of peanuts. It seems an insignificant detail, but to this day there has always seemed to be something transgressive about those peanuts. Perhaps I didn’t really need or want them, or maybe it was the last of my allowance frivolously spent.

As I walked up State Street nearing the corner of State and Lincoln, as the sky went black and the air around me took on a greenish tinge and the wind kicked up, I felt a sense of enormous guilt, as if loitering along munching peanuts was the blackest of sin – sin of waste, of purposelessness, of inattention.

That moment of guilt marked the end of my childhood.

Suddenly, without know why, I dropped those peanuts on the sidewalk and began to run. As I rounded the corner and passed Epp’s Barber Shop, a man in overalls standing in the back of a red pickup truck pointed to the south and shouted, “It’s a twister!”

I did not stop nor turn to look, but only ran faster. To this day I believe I ran the last four blocks home as fast as any thirteen year old ever ran.

I saw my mother standing in the front door as I ran across the lawn. The moment I reached the porch, hail the size of baseballs began to fall. (One would strike and break the arm of a good friend trying to reach home on his bicycle.)

The wind made the trees dance. A large limb falling from the great oak beside the house was my last immediate experience of the storm.

In seconds, my mother, my younger brother Mark and sister Laura, and I were huddled in the southeast corner of the basement with a transistor radio, listening – not to news of the storm, but to rock music. I remember thinking, “Don’t they know what’s happening?”

Yes, later that day, there were the stories. My brother Charlie had run from his car back into the high school at the last moment, returning to find the car windows imploded and the steering wheel pitted as though sandblasted. His car was the only one in the parking lot that hadn’t been tossed around. My father, Dr. John Guerin, had spent much of the evening taking a shard of a coffee cup from a young woman’s thigh.

But, as that day progressed, it was the radio that made the greatest impression. We fretted through anxious hours waiting to hear about our other family members. For all its stunted, frantic reports and updates, the radio gave no clue.

Finally, my brother ran into the house, full of stories of what he’d seen and heard, but able to confirm that our father was okay.

At ten that night, I sat on my bed listening. Beyond a certain point, once the radio announcer had reported countless times what had happened, there was little more to say.

Except to read the names. Again and again, he read the names of the dead. Names I knew. Names we all knew. Even if we didn’t know the person, we knew the name – that of a casual acquaintance, a friend of a friend, a family name, a neighbor’s. Names that were not just names.

By the time I went to sleep, I felt I could recite each and every name from memory. We all could. That was all that was left.

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