Your letters: The blackest of Wednesdays!, by Loretta Pate Harder

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(SUBMITTED) -- I was 13 years old, and had been in foster care since the early ‘60’s, along with my 5 other brothers and sisters. We’d been scattered about in various homes and longed to be together again once our mom was able to care for us again – and that time had come! First my oldest sister, Linda moved HOME, and now it was my turn. So June 6th was a special day. Mom and her new husband Paul, lived upstairs in a two story apartment building on 7th street, sitting on the banks of the Shunga Creek. The apartment was about a block from the railroad tracks and catty-corner from the Frito-Lay factory. I could see the tall buildings uptown from our front door. My foster dad had given me a new transistor radio as a gift and I liked listening to KEWI and Chickenman.

Linda and my bedroom was in the back of the apartment (actually it was the enclosed top of the bottom floors porch. Mom’s bedroom was in the front, with the living room and kitchen in the middle. There was one window in the kitchen which faced the Shunga Creek, and Paul had put a huge exhaust fan in it. There was a back stairway off the kitchen. The front stairwell was in the center of the building.

Linda wanted to show me all the cool things in my new neighborhood; going across the street to the Frito-lay factory to sample chips, going along the railroad track picking up metal strapping that she taught me how to make whistles out of, going into the huge sewer opening down off the creek in front of the apartment building. We followed it all the way uptown! Boy it was fun being home. We even tried smoking cigarettes. There was a newly built bridge over the Shunga Creek in front of mom’s apartment. We stood on the bridge and experimented smoking a cigarette. And not caring for the taste, I’d spit over the bridge into the creek at every attempt! For three days we explored our new environment.

I was a little afraid of my new step-dad, Paul. He was a huge lumberjack of a man, but had a heart of gold. I was to learn this very quickly. He was ‘legally’ blind, but worked in a lumberyard every day. He got mom a new Ford to drive him to work everyday and was proud of this car.

June 8, toward evening, Linda was taking a bath, mom was washing her hair in the sink, and Paul was sitting in his pj’s watching TV. But, I had my transistor tuned in to KEWI and noticed that outside the kitchen window the air seemed to have turned a pea green color – all was so still out there. I mentioned this to Paul but he didn’t pay much attention. Then I went and looked out mom’s bedroom window and yelled that he better come look at this! He did. My little radio stated we were in a tornado. Paul yelled for mom and Linda. Mom with her hair in a towel and my sister in a robe. Paul scooped us up and down the stairs. Upon opening the door to leave, we automatically looked to the west - in time to see the windows explode out of the tall 10 story building at 10th & Kansas, then before we could turn around, the box cars on the railroad track began to lift.

Paul literally lifted us up and ran us back up the stairs and threw us into a corner in the kitchen and he threw himself on top of us! It was so loud, I thought the train from the track was going over us because it sounded like a train, everything shook and snapped and then the huge exhaust fan in the window of the kitchen began to turn BACKWARDS and began sucking in the water and mud from the Shunga.

Things were falling on us and we were praying and then I felt a great weight go limp on top of us. I wondered if Paul had just been killed. Mud was oozing all over, I couldn’t breathe because there seemed to be no air. I thought I was going to die under Paul’s weight.

Then it was over.

Us three girls got out from under Paul, at which time he awoke. The bricks from the chimney had fallen and had knocked him out. They probably would have killed one of us ladies. He then stood beside us as we gaped at the site. Me and Linda’s bedroom was gone (the entire back of the apartment was gone), and the front of the apartment was gone was well. Mom’s huge Paul Bunyon bed was gone!

We eased toward where we hoped the stairwell should be, and it WAS. Paul escorted us carefully down the stairs and stopped us in our tracks. A utility pole was laying in our path, sparking. Paul literally picked it up on one end and heaved it into the yard! He carried us one-by-one onto the driveway. When we were all there, he turned around and sat down once he saw his new Ford had a huge board driven threw it from trunk to radiator.
We heard much crying (besides our own). There were sounds of animal crying too. Many trapped and being gassed as it was carnage everywhere. There was a slight cry coming from our back stairwell. Paul went to see what it was. It was our little neighbor lady laying askew on the stairs. Paul held her as she passed away in his arms. The old man who lived on the corner across from us died too. The homes were all gone, flattened, every home around us was flattened, only our stairs and the place Paul had ‘thrown’ us was still there. I didn’t understand it or why our home wasn’t flattened as well. Linda and I sat on the banks of the Shunga and dug embedded plaster out of each other’s hair and was in awe of the devastation around us. The bridge we earlier stood on and spit off of was twisted rumble, the Frito-Lay factory was no longer there, but we could we could still smell it, a box car was in front of the apartment and the Shunga was perfectly lined with roof tops. It was amazing. We watched as people began to emerge and walk down the creek on those roof tops trying to find safe ground.

No one came to rescue us. We had nothing to rescue from the apartment as everything had been sucked out of it.
For many hours us girls sit there on the banks of the creek while Paul disappeared into the rumble to help those he could help. When he finally returned, he helped us across the rumble that use to be the bridge, and we walked for hours until we reached a friend of Paul’s home. They let us stay with them a couple of weeks. And we continued to bounce from one home to the next for months.

It wasn’t until September that Paul and mom found us our own home, and my other siblings were able to come home too. We were a family again.

Loretta Pate Harder