IOWA - May 1938
“Esther, don't get too close to the street,” Carol Bingham warned her four year old daughter running barefoot across the grassy yard, her doll carefully wrapped in her arms.
Helen Kirby, walking along the sidewalk that bordered the street, laughed. She stopped when she reached the footpath that lead to the Bingham's house. “Goodness, Carol, the poor child isn't any where close to the street.”
Carol sighed. “I know. I just worry. Come, please, join me in the shade.”
“And that's why you're such a good mother,” Helen said, approaching the porch's steps.
Carol smiled, acknowledging the compliment. “Beautiful day,” she said looking up at the clear sky. “Do sit down,” she inclined her head, gesturing toward the empty end of the bench while her hands continued to work on a bowl of fresh pea pods in her lap— her fingers deftly removing peas from the pods.
“Thank you.” Helen settled onto the wooden surface, glad to be off her feet. Much older than her neighbor, she wasn't unwilling to admit that walking the few blocks to and from the market took most of her energy. “Days like this make me want to forget how much my bones ache,” she said as she bent over to rub her ankles.
“Do you need to put that in the ice box?” Carol asked of the small sack of food items Helen carried.
“No, but I thank you for the offer. None of it will spoil and I don't plan to visit long,” Helen said as she sat back in the chair. “I take it business is good at the store.”
Carol grinned. “Yes. Paul was so pleased when he brought the ice box home last week.” Her husband had opened a small appliance store the year before. “I know it's seems extravagant.”
“Only extravagant if you can't afford it,” Helen observed. “I don't take you for being the kind to spend what you don't have.”
“No, Paul won't allow that. Not even if it would make things easier. I told him he should have used the money to buy a car. I wish Cedarwood was a little larger, he could have opened the store here instead.”
“Cedarwood is growing,” Helen said with a wry smile. “And Kalona is only ten or so miles away.”
“Yes, but having to take the bus to and from Kalona means his days are that much longer. But he said the ice box was more important. Now I don't have to go to the market every morning to buy milk for Esther. Paul said he'll just work that much harder to save the money for a car.”
“He is a hard worker.”
Carol looked at her daughter who was playing with the doll her father had brought home for her birthday a few months earlier— another unexpected purchase. “Esther misses him.”
“She best get used to that,” Helen said pushing herself up from the chair. “Menfolk go out and work all day and us women stay home and work all day. It's the way of the world. Now, I best be getting back before my Howard starts to wonder if I forgot the way home.” She picked up her sack and stepped across the porch to the steps then down them to the footpath. Stopping when she reached the sidewalk, she turned to face the porch. “Seems like the day isn't planning to stay so nice. Looks to be a storm brewing in the west. You best get Esther inside before long.”
Carol turned her head to see what was causing her neighbor's concern but the wall of the house blocked her view. “I'll just finish up these peas,” she said as she set the bowl onto the bench. “Thank you for the visit,” she added, standing up.
With a wave of her hand, Helen turned and started her walk back home.
Carol placed her hands on the porch railing and leaned over it to look past the house to see what Helen was concerned about. After such a nice morning, she was startled to see the bank of rain clouds building in the west. As she peered at the darkening clouds, a gust of wind washed down the side of the house and over her. “Come on, Esther, time to go inside,” Carol called to her daughter. “The wind is picking up.” She pulled back from the railing and turned around. Relieved to see Esther running across the yard to the porch, she bent to retrieve the bowl of peas and pods. “Seems Helen was right about a storm this afternoon.”
“Mommy, will Daddy be all right?” Esther asked as she bounced up the porch steps.
“Of course, he will,” Carol assured her daughter. “But he'll probably get wet standing at the bus stop. And he'll be hungry like always, so it's time we got started on his supper.” She held out her hand, smiling when her daughter reached for it.
“What about Miss Helen?”
Carol looked up the street, noting again how unremarkable the neighborhood was. Unique only as to the different shades of color their plaster walls were painted, the houses were of similarly design—square, single story with an attic room; its dormer window overlooked the roof of the covered front porch that stretched the width of the house. The other walls were unbroken except for a set of steps on either side of the house; some led directly into the kitchen while others, like their house, led to a small landing in front of the kitchen door. On the back side of the kitchen steps, a heavy wood door was set at an angle near the ground. It covered the opening to the steep concrete steps leading down under the house to a storm cellar.
The Bingham's yard was unadorned. Like many of the families new to the neighborhood, they did not have the funds to plant trees, bushes, or flower beds and made do with the grass planted as seed and nurtured into a patchy lawn. Yet, in the yards of the families that had occupied the neighborhood for many years, like Helen and her husband, tall shade trees stood surrounding by lush lawns, and gardens softened the stark walls of the houses.
“She's home now,” Carol told Esther as she watched Helen turn up the path in front of her house. “Come on, let's go inside.” A gust of wind ushered them into the house. “Take this into the kitchen,” she said passing the bowl to her daughter. Then she pushed the door shut and made sure it was securely latched before following Esther through the sitting room. Walking toward the cabinet that held her neatly arranged canned goods, she glanced at the kitchen door hearing the loud squeak the knob always made when being turned. “Esther, you have to stay in the house now.”
“Mommy, I left Dolly outside,” Esther explained as she pulled the door open.
“Don't be long.”
Esther was already out the door and halfway down the steps when she called back to her mother. “I'll run.” And she did. Across the yard to where she had left her doll. Gathering Dolly up, Esther turned to run back to the kitchen where her mother waited. But what she saw approaching from the west froze her in place. She had never seen the sky looking so dark and angry. And as she watched, the sky grew even darker.
A bolt of lightening blazed across the sky, immediately followed by a crashing rumble of thunder.
“Esther, what's taking you so long?” Carol called out as she hurried across the kitchen to the door. She quickened her steps when she heard her daughter scream.
Esther cried out when something whipped against her leg with enough force to cut the skin. “Mommy!” she screamed as she tried to stop the blood flowing down her thigh.
Carol ran out the door only to have a gust of wind nearly blow her right off the porch. She grabbed for the doorjamb. “Esther!” she screamed against the wind. Momentarily, gaining her footing, she leaped off the porch and ran for her daughter huddled in the front yard. Scooping Esther into her arms, she turned back to the house. “Oh my…,” she gasped seeing the sky of roiling clouds.
But it was the swirling funnel stretching down from the clouds that truly frightened her.
The wind was gaining strength and Carol fought to maintain her balance as she struggled against it to reach the storm cellar. In the minutes it took to carry Esther back across the yard, the tornado had tripled in size and strength. And speed. “Don't move,” she yelled over the roar of the wind as she set Esther down next to the storm door. It took all her strength to pull the heavy door open. Digging her heels into the ground, she strained to hold onto the door as it was buffeted by the wind. “Inside, Esther. Run!” she screamed.
Esther couldn't run, the steps down to the cellar were too steep for her short legs. But she moved as quickly as she could, sitting on each step then scooting down to the next. The sounds from the tornado were so loud that she wanted to cover her ears but the wind whipped down the stairwell and she had to use her hands to steady herself as she descended. Finally, she reached the cellar floor. At that same moment, the door above her crashed shut with a tremendous clamor. Esther stood looking up in the pitch blackness, expecting that her mother would soon join her.
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