On the outskirts of Muskogee, Oklahoma, in the Hyde Park suburb, my great-grandparents, James and Mary Pauline (Wagnon) Upton, were among those captivated by the shocking development. As the news continued to pipe in, ominous storm clouds were churning and preparing for a violent display of power.
Newspaper accounts tell how most Muskogee residents were unaware of the threatening storm because they were dazed by the Commander in Chief's passing amidst the final days of World War II in Europe. The Muskogee Phoenix recalled that, "It wasn't until the wail of sirens sounded above the noise of the storm that many folks became aware of a disaster much closer to home."
In the Oklahoman, survivor Lillian Bumgarner remembered that, "I had heard it on the radio that President Roosevelt had died and it went off. It (the tornado) hit and tore up all the lines and everything." The funnel, which struck several towns across Oklahoma, was massive. It was variably described as "shaped more like an acre-wide spade" and "looked like black smoke on the ground."
|Charles Upton (center) with his parents|
Mary Pauline and James Upton.
Not grasping the severity of the storm, my great-grandfather sent his sons Ken and Charles (my grandfather), to gather their livestock from the fields. The twister approached with ferocious and unanticipated speed, forcing the two boys to ride out the storm in the open elements.
They threw themselves in a ditch and clawed at grass and shrubs, desperately clamoring for an anchor to the ground. As the tornado carved its path, debris swirled around them. Charles, who was 15 years old, was hit in the head by an object, but didn't suffer serious injury.
In the storm shelter, Mary Pauline was overwrought with fear for her sons' safety. James had to grasp her tight to keep her from running into the tornado barreling down on the landscape. The wind ripped pieces from the shelter.
After the storm's passing, Charles and Ken ran back to the shelter. As they were hurrying home, they saw a quilt in the distance that, at first glance, they mistook for their mother. Their initial horror changed to relief when they realized she had been spared along with the rest of the family in the dugout.
The storm, which killed dozens across Oklahoma, including three blind students in Muskogee, left an indelible mark on my grandfather. For the rest of his life, he had an exceptional fear of storms and was always the first to make his way to the cellar (livestock be damned!).
Listen to my aunt and mother recount versions of this story told by my grandfather's sister and brother.