My Journey: Through a Tornado

by Carol Sokolsky

Palm Sunday 1965 was one of the prettiest days we had seen since winter set in months prior. It was unusually warm and just a gorgeous, sunny day. We were out all afternoon, enjoying the Sunday before Easter. Our little Indiana town of 3500 people was a church-going town, and on Sunday nights, many of the residents would be in their individual churches. After all, it was Palm Sunday, April 11, 1965.

Northeastern Indiana was used to thunderstorm and tornado warnings. It’s a little bit like living in Oklahoma weather patterns…lots of severe storm fronts, many warnings, but all-in-all, we never experienced much damage. As we enjoyed the gorgeous Palm Sunday weather that afternoon, we had no idea how drastically things would change in just hours…

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We got to church at the usual time. My mom was against the east wall at the Hammond organ; we were singing hymns when the lights went out. We already had a bad thunderstorm in progress, but at 8:10 pm Eastern time that evening, lights went out, the walls felt like they were going to implode, and the noise was truly like that of a train. People were under the church pews, and I remember the fear I felt knowing my mom was still over by the organ, fearing the walls would fall in on her. And then a crash….the huge tree right outside the door had uprooted and fell on the car beneath it. And then the noise stopped….everything was pitch dark.

Everyone quickly found their families; children were in the basement. It was organized bedlam for a few minutes as everyone tried to understand what just happened. We were the lucky ones……

Remember, it was 1965. No cell phones, no email, no text, no anything except word of mouth. The entire town was without electricity, so it was dark and rainy and extremely scary to a 14-year-old girl wondering if the sky was falling.

I’m not sure how we found out so quickly that the tornado had come from the west, barreling into Berne, Indiana, straight east on Highway 218, but somehow, the news traveled quickly. At 8:10 pm, an F4 tornado, one-half mile wide, continued its path to my town in its 52.5 mile journey on the ground. It stayed on the ground for over 50 miles – and it took absolutely everything in its path. By dawn next day, we would find out that 10 massive tornados (eight of them F4; two were F3) tore through Indiana, taking 145 lives with them.* Berne was spared; no lives were lost that night, and probably because so many that lived on the 218 corridor were in church, away from the destructive path of that monster.

I remember getting into the car with my sister, mom and dad. We immediately headed over to my Aunt Delores and Uncle Winston’s home, which became Ground Zero for the night. My great aunt and uncle had a huge farm directly west of Berne on highway 218; we feared the worst for them. No phones, no electricity, no way to communicate. So my dad and my uncles drove out to Uncle Sylvan and Aunt Lucy’s to ensure that they were ok. They were alive….they were not ok….

As I look back on that night, as all of my cousins were together while our dads went to help, I can still feel the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, not knowing if they were even alive or what our dads would find. And that, alone, had me scared…worrying about my dad being out there with no way to see or know what to do. So we waited for hours together until they returned.

Uncle Sylvan had many large buildings on his farm. He milked a huge dairy herd and had a big chicken coop and many smaller buildings other than the several barns. They had (what I remember at that young age) a massive big, old white farmhouse, where the family used to gather. They had a mobile home on the property that they rented out, as well.

When the men returned – so many hours later – they were beyond tired. I remember sitting there in silence as I tried to fathom that my dad and uncles had to shoot cows because boards had pierced through them. Everything was gone…nothing was left. The house was like match sticks and the barns were completely down. The chicken coop was nothing more than a clean cement slab and the adrenaline I felt, as I listened, was about the most overpowering thing I had ever known.

Berne was spared a direct hit that evening; the tornado had been on a straight eastern trajectory for miles, including a direct hit on Uncle Sylvan’s farm. Just as it came barreling into Berne, that massive monster took a northern turn and took a direct hit on our electrical power plant, which left us without electricity for a week. But once it turned north, everything in its path was instantly gone…our bowling alley, lumber yard, grocery store, and many other businesses and homes in the path.

The National Guard moved into our school to do what they do best—assist and create order. I have special memories of walking the half block to the school and talking to my Uncle Don, who was a Sargent in the National Guard….I felt special and protected, because my Uncle Don was there. Funny how little things like that become such special memories later….

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The most amazing thing happened that evening that to this day I cannot understand. We lived just half a mile from highway 218. All that destruction and the magnitude of the tornado was more than I could even comprehend. And yet, outside our back door that evening was an empty red plastic bucket, which was still there the next morning; it hadn’t even blown over. How is that even possible? That red plastic bucket was an enigma for so long, still to this day, I guess.

Well, 51 years have passed since that evening, and I know that the memory of some of that evening has faded. But I can still clearly see the two cut glass goblets pulled from under the rubble at Uncle Sylvan’s home – both without a scratch. How does that happen? Yes, Uncle Sylvan and Aunt Lucy rebuilt their home and new buildings on their farm. Was it ever the same? Of course not! Yet every time I read or hear about Nehemiah rebuilding from the rubble, my mind goes back to that day when I watched two goblets being pulled from the rubble…the massive heap of boards and glass and brick and furniture….and saw something beautiful. There were tears that day from all of us; I cannot even imagine how Uncle Sylvan and Aunt Lucy felt…it’s just incomprehensible. And there are scars still….but mostly now faded in memories, and one of the major moments of this little girl’s young life.

There are many lessons I learned from that day. I learned that, when it’s a beautiful day to enjoy it, it may not last. I learned that family is the most important piece of my earthly puzzle; we stick together regardless of the circumstance. I learned that there is beauty in pain and always something to be thankful for.

I also learned to pay attention when I hear a tornado siren….because I remember so many years ago….

My disclaimer: These are my memories, as remembered by a 14-year-old girl, with newspaper clippings and family stories that have been chewed on for so many years.

*Wikipedia: “The tornadoes occurred in a swath 450 miles long from Cedar County, Iowa to Cuyahoga County, Ohio and a swath 450 miles long from Kent County, Michigan to Montgomery County, Indiana. The outbreak lasted 11 hours and is among the most intense outbreaks, in terms of numbers, strength, width, path and length of tornadoes, ever recorded, including four “double/twin funnel” tornadoes.

The outbreak was one of the deadliest, and most violent ever documented, with 17 confirmed violent tornadoes (F4-F5 intensity) all of which were rated F4, the second most amount of violent twisters in one outbreak behind the Super Outbreak of 1974. It occurred on Palm Sunday, an important day to Protestants and Catholics, and many people were attending services at church, one possible reason why some warnings were not received. There had been a short winter that year, and as the day progressed, the temperature rose to 83 degrees F in some areas of the Midwestern United States.

$5.5 Billion in damage, 271 total fatalities, and 1,500 injuries. There were 47 confirmed tornadoes in the areas of Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois.”

Carol Sokolsky is a relative newcomer to Tulsa. She relocated from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in October, 2014 after retiring from FedEx Services, Global Account Management. She spent most of her 33 FedEx years as a road warrior, leading a large global management team and serving one global customer for over 20 years. Her passion for blogging began in 2010 as she launched a two-year blog that chronicled the journey of her husband’s valiant fight with cancer and ultimately the end of his journey. Her blog became a book, “Sid’s Journey”. She continues to journal daily on just about everything!

You can also read about Carol’s experience at Cain’s Ballroom, her Journey Through Grief, having a life coach, why Tulsa is such a great place to live, kneel, her journey through losing a son, or her journey through a family member’s addiction, Antediluvian, and Yellow Roses.

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