May 16, 2015
In 1955, I was seven-years-old, growing up in Bellville with my little sister and mother and father. We would live in Belleville for eight more, turbulent years then move to Alton. But the spring of ’55 was relatively calm.
We lived across the street from the Skyview Drive In Theatre. My sister and I would play there in the daytime, using the car speakers and jumping around on the drive in playground. I used to stare at the ornate, columned back of the screen (they added screen wings in ’53) and imagine it was alive, a kind of giant.
I remember the smells of popcorn and hot dogs wafting across the street to my inquisitive nose. I remember sneaking out of my house, firefly jar in my hand as an excuse for being out, and running for the woods behind the Skyview and watching the movies on the screen, no sound. I saw quite a few movie stars without knowing who they were. The life of the characters seemed so exciting.
That spring, a storm was brewing in my house. Dad would never fulfill any dream he might have had; Mom had me when she was a teenager—she loved her kids, but she mourned for her lost childhood. She would come down with multiple sclerosis in the early 60s, and it was downhill from there. We would move four times in eight years, from house to unhappy house.
One afternoon, the sky turned black and purple. Dad herded us into the bathroom—we didn’t have a basement—and put my sister and me in the bathtub. The four of us crouched in there, touching each other with an intimacy that would never repeat itself, and suddenly the house felt like if was being squeezed to death and a terrible stillness was followed by an immense, ear-popping roar.
It was over in a matter of seconds. We could hear people screaming outside. The sun came out. I escaped the bathroom and ran into the front yard. Houses around us had been destroyed. The yard was littered with trash and storm debris. The Skyview Drive In Theatre had been partially destroyed. The tornado hit the screen and blew it up, and the playground beyond looked like a giant hand had ripped it off the earth in a single swath.
A neighbor’s body lay in the street, a two-by-four impaled through his chest. We heard that cows had been lifted up and dropped safely back to the ground. Back at the house, my mother was hysterical over what might have been. She lived long enough and suffered enough to wish that the tornado had swept her away.
Ironically, something far more sinister and horrifying would sweep her away. Family storms were coming. That tornado feeling, of a house being squeezed, never left me. I was being squeezed by dark forces I could not understand. I still do not understand. We were about to be lifted up by a storm of rage, and we would not be put back down to earth, not get a chance to take a breath.
I don’t fear storms. They are amateurs, violence-wise.