Monday, July 18, 2011

Caught by an Oklahoma Tornado

My mother (Lillie Enkey-Parker), eldest sister (Wanda Joyce Parker-Vaughn), and one of my uncles on my father’s side (Jim Parker), recalled a series of incidents that occurred during the early to mid-years of World War II.  At that time the Owen Parker family consisted of Dad and Mom — Owen and Lillie — and my three sisters; Wanda, Faril, and Lillie Mae.  Extracted from a number of tape-recorded interviews, I’ve attempted to string these recollections into sensible order.  A few artifacts — such as the beginning of W.W.II, the date on the back of a photograph, and the postmarks on several cards — are all the known documentable pivots I have to string a time-line around.  And rather than trying to combine these into a unified narrative, I’ll let each of the tellers outline their bits of story in turn.

The Owen and Lillie (Enkey) Parker family. This photo was taken in Visalia, California, about December of 1940. From the left, Lillie, Lillie Mae, Faril, Owen, and Wanda.

Caught by an Oklahoma Tornado

A Story From
The Enkey-Parker Family History Newsletter
told by

Lillie Ada Enkey-Parker
Wanda Joyce Parker
James (Jim) Grady Parker

written by

Wally Lee Parker

(1940 — 1943)
            “We tried to return to Oklahoma twice.  I think the first time was December of 1940 or early in 1941.  That trip we pulled a little house trailer — the first house trailer Owen ever built.  We stopped to stay with Owen’s brother Buster and Buster’s wife Bertha at Summerton, Arizona, for a while.  For some reason we didn’t get any further that first trip, returning to the folk’s place in California — where we’d been living in the milk-house of the place Owen’s dad and mom were renting near Visalia.
            “Owen had been thinking we should go back to Oklahoma to get into farming.  When we’d left Oklahoma in December of 1933, a lot of people were share-cropping they’d move onto a farm, raise crops, and pay for the use of the farm by giving a portion of the crop to the land owner.  But things had changed.  You had to put down money for this and that before you could take on a farm.  We didn’t have that kind of money, so that didn’t work out.  Still, that was our thinking when we started out.
            “Before we left that first time we’d gone into Tulare to do some window shopping and Owen saw this little hooded jumper on a doll in the window display of a ‘Five and Dime’.  He said, ‘That’s just what we need for the baby’ — the baby being Lillie Mae.  The lady in the store said that she’d just put the suit on the doll — dressing up the window for the holidays — and it was the only suit like that she had.  Dad told her how we were moving to Oklahoma, and how cold it was over there in the winter.  Finally the lady relented and took the jumper off the doll.  I don’t know what we paid.  Since we didn’t have much money, it couldn’t have been much.
            “Sometime in ‘41 Owen sold the trailer house to his brother Jim and Jim’s wife Juanita.  When we left for Oklahoma the second time — that would have been in late November or just the start of December — we had a small utility trailer with all our stuff piled on it.
            “On the road we got so tired we decided we’d find a place along the road to sleep.  Owen kept driving, and driving, ‘til finally he said, ‘There’s a little town just up here.  We’ll drive through and then find a place to camp.’
            “It was dark.  All we could tell was that there didn’t seem to be anyone around.  We pulled over where we could get off the road a bit — a clear spot — threw our bedding down on the ground beside the trailer, and strung a tarp out from the side of the trailer to give us some cover.
            “Come light we woke and saw teepees and Indians all around.  We’d camped on a reservation.  It scared me — I thought they might get mad.  But they just stood and looked at us while we packed up and took off.
            “When we got into Oklahoma City — at a gas station or some such — the guy saw the California plates on our car and said, ‘Are you running home from the war?’
            “Owen asked, ‘What war?’
            “And that’s when we learned about Pearl Harbor.
            “When we first got to Haskell, Oklahoma, we stopped at the Martin family farm — the family my sister Mabel had married into.  I got my one complete year of grade school when I was staying with the Martin family after the folks had died.  When Owen, me, and the girls got there, old man Martin said, ‘I got a little house on the farm here.  When I heard you was coming I told the people living there that they’d have to find a new house ‘cause some of my kids was coming home and I needed that place for them.’
            “My sister Mabel and her husband Kelly lived about a mile down the road.
              All three rooms sat in a line.  The center room had a big chimney set into the wall between the rooms.  Then a third room had been added for a kitchen.  The kitchen was just big enough for a stove, table, and some shelves.  We put a bed in each of the other rooms — and Lillie Mae’s crib in one.
            “The kitchen stove was natural gas — four burners with the oven set off to the side.   
            “One of my sisters gave me a sewing machine.  Different ones would give us a chair, table — this and that.  Back then, you took what people was willing to give you and made do with it.  So we got moved in.
            “It was winter, just before Christmas.  Owen was anxious about not having work and looking to keep busy.  About the only tools he had was his hammer, a square, hand saw, plane, and level.  He decided to make me a dresser for our room, so he went out and found some lumber.
            “He asked, “How many drawers do you want?’
            “I told him I wanted two long drawers at the bottom, little one on each side, and I wanted the dresser standing high enough that the little ones can’t get stuff off the top.
            “As he finished each board, he took it over to the kitchen stove, turned up one of the burners, and moved the wood over the flames so a pattern of scorch marks was left on the surface.  When he varnished over that, it was just the prettiest thing you ever saw.
            “For the top of the dresser Owen had hand cut a board into a scallop shape — that board was grooved to hold a big, round mirror.
            “That first year back in Oklahoma we had Christmas dinner at my brother Earl’s house at Tahlequah.  My sister Renee and her husband John were living with Earl at that time.  Our oldest brother, Claude, and his family came over.  So we all had Christmas together.
            “That spring, at the little house on the Martin’s farm, I put in a garden.  We got some pigs we fed all the table scraps to, and some chickens to raise and sell.  And my brother, Oscar, gave me a heifer.
            “My sister Mabel was milking about twelve cows by hand, so Owen would go over to their farm and help her.  I’d go over and separate the milk, then wash down the separator.
            “Mabel had a big, mean rooster running loose on the farm.  Every time it’d catch someone in the yard, as soon as you’d turn your back, it’d run and jump on you.  We had to watch the little kids because the thing would jump the small ones without any warning.  One day that thing jumped right in Lillie Mae’s face — she was only about two years old at the time — and caught her cheek with its spurs.  That tore her skin pretty bad.  Mabel got so mad she just run out, grabbed that rooster around the neck, yanked it into the air and wrung its body around and around her fist until the rooster was limp.  Then she dressed it out and put it in the pressure cooker.  At supper she gave Lillie Mae one of the legs and said, ‘Here honey, bite this thing just as hard as you can.’
            “Mabel’s house, like a lot of the houses around Haskell, was built over a crawl space.  People would store jars of fruit under the houses.  When they needed some, they’d have the kids crawl back to get a few jars.
            “All the kids liked to get in the crawl space, just playing around.  My sister Julie had a little boy just older than Lillie Mae — LaMone.  They were under the house when Lillie Mae started screaming.  We got her out of there and looked her all over for cuts or bites.  What we found was a perfect set of teeth marks on her rump.
            “We asked LaMone what happened.  He said they were crawling between the rows of jars and he wanted to be in front.  ‘So I bit her like this’, he said and bit her again.   
            “Owen was always looking for work.  It may have been late in 1942 when he found work in Muskogee.  He worked as a helper with the plumbers and electricians building Camp Goober for the Army.  He had a room at one of his uncle's in Muskogee.  He’d come back to Haskell on weekends.”

            “I’m trying to remember how the place we were living in on the Martin farm was situated direction wise — which windows the sunlight might be falling through, or which way shadows might be falling at different times of day.  But nothing comes to mind.
            “There was a pond on one side of the house — the downhill side toward Mabel and Kelly’s place.  It was a creek during the winter and a pond in the spring, and then it dried up in the summer.  The pond was full of turtles, and when it dried up, seems like the cows would walk across the bright green grass and their hooves would sink into the boggy ground — then the prints would fill with water and you could find a turtle in most every hole.  And there was a wire fence between the pond and the house to keep the cows out of the yard.

            “The garden was on the other side of the house — the side going uphill toward the elder Martin’s place.  I remember — though I can’t say if it was the first or second summer we was there — when the ‘measure worms’ took the corn.  The worms was so thick we even had them crawling into the house.  We carried tubs of stuff out of our garden — trying to can the stuff up before the worms ate it all.
            “Between the garden and the house was the barn — post and beam construction.  Post buried in the ground.  Beside the barn was the little chicken house.
            “Sometime before all this we’d gone over to Haskell — maybe Haskell — to pick up a bunch of baby chickens.  We pulled up next to a train depot.  Maybe a train depot — there were railroad tracks nearby anyway.  And the car caught on fire.  So we were scooping up handfuls of dirt and throwing them on the motor.
            “And it seems to me that something at some point killed most of the baby chicks.  I don’t know if it was disease, or weasels, or the tornado.  I don’t even know if the tornado was the same year.  But I do know that most of the chickens we had when the tornado hit didn’t survive.  And most of the chickens we pick up that day the car caught on fire didn’t survive.  So I’m thinking the two were related. 
            “The farmhouse was long — two or three rooms all in a line with the kitchen, as I remember, farthest from the road.  The front door was on the end of the house closest to the road.  I can’t remember there being a window on that wall.  Doubtless there was a back door leading out from the kitchen — I just can’t quite see it in my mind.
            “There was a stove in the kitchen of course.  Gas stove.  Propane or natural gas, I don’t know which.  It doesn’t seem like there was a fireplace in the house — just the chimney.  For heat we had a little gas burner — light it and it’d go whoosh.  And once it got started it’d glow red inside.
            “We’d use water out of the rain barrel to wash our hair.  I was using that room heater to dry my hair when my hair caught on fire.  Mom run over with a towel to put it out.  So I remember that heater all right.
            There was a window on the barn side of the house — kind of in the middle of the wall.  The big bed was sitting under that window when the tornado hit.  And Lillie Mae was asleep on the bed.
            “As was usual in them days, Mom had all her preserves, her jars of canning, in boxes under the bed.
            ‘There was another window on the other side of the house — the creek side.  I remember that ‘cause somebody tried to steal Dad’s billfold through that window.
            “That was quite a few days before the tornado.  The folks’ bed was on the other side of the room then — close to the window on the creek side.
            “Daddy always had a habit of putting his billfold under the corner of the mattress ‘fore they went to sleep.  A good part of the year they kept the windows open.  Just a screen.
            ‘Well, one morning they found these big footprints outside that window.  They figured somebody had reached through the window after that billfold, but didn’t find it.  Somebody who knowed about Dad’s habit.  Mom had her suspicions — though she didn’t tell me who.  Some of our shirt-tail relatives I’m thinking.
            “I’m sure we had chamber pots to use at night, and I’m sure there was an outhouse somewhere around the place — I just can’t remember where.
            “Now the driveway came straight in from the road and stopped by the front door.  There wasn’t much of a drive as I recall.  Dad was working all week someplace else, and he’d come home just on weekends.  This weekend he brought one of his aunts with him.”

Jim Parker:
            “Owen was working at Briggs, Oklahoma, on some government project.  He’d come home to Haskell on Saturdays.  I remember Owen telling how he had seen the storm gathering and could tell it was gonna be a bad one, so he was hurrying.  I don’t recall him ever saying he knowed that what was coming was a tornado.  And I don’t recall him ever saying one of our aunts was with him, but, since Owen was staying with our uncle Grover and Grove’s wife Nettie, my guess would be that if he had someone with him, it was Aunt Nettie.

            “Daddy parked in the driveway and came in the house with his aunt.  As I recall dad and mom was on the other side of the little room — sitting, and me and Faril was standing ‘side our great aunt.  And Lillie Mae was asleep on the big bed under the window.  All of a sudden the wind hit and the front door flew open.  Snapped open.  And I looked out and seen it coming down the slope — down the hill.  Not a real steep hill either. 
            “I was trying to say something, but I didn’t know how to describe what I was seeing.  But Daddy saw me, and I guess he could tell how scared I was.  I think we were the only ones who actually saw it coming.
            As best I can recall what I saw was this rolling white mass — not real white, but a kind of grayish white — and it was right down on the ground on its side rolling.
            “Daddy run to the door and shut it — used one of them slide bolts to lock it.  And Mom run over to grab Lillie Mae off the bed.
            “When it hit, the house went to rocking — floor tilting up and down, side to side.  The bed was scooting away from the wall then back again.  All Mom’s boxes of fruit came sliding out from under the bed — then went sliding back under.  The bed would slide, and then here would come the fruit.  The bed would slam back, and there would go the fruit.  They done that, it seems, ‘bout three times.  And all the time, Lillie Mae still asleep on the bed.
            “And the window over the bed blew out.  And there was glass all around — from the window, from the jars, from a glass ashtray, I don’t know.

            “Most of them bed-frames back then was metal — was curved pipe.  And the legs had them little rollers on the bottom so you could scoot them around over the plank floors.  Not that the rollers ever worked all that good, but that’s why the bed moved around so much.
            “I never did get to Lillie Mae till the tornado had moved passed us — till the house had stopped rocking.  I was trying to get to her.  I’d move toward the bed, the floor would rock, and I’d stagger back.  Move forward, stagger back.  When the floor finally stood still and I did reach her, she was still asleep.
            “Seems like the only person who got hurt was the aunt.  She fell against a little table and tumbled to the floor.  And you know, for some reason I keep remembering that we were calling her Aunt Rose.  I’ve got an Aunt Rose, but I never did meet her.  So it had to be some of Owen’s kin — I would think.”

            The only one who got hurt was the aunt.  Seems she cut her finger on some broken glass — a broken ashtray.”

Jim Parker:
            “Owen told me he went out and looked.  The house had been torn in two.  The little chicken house had been picked up and dropped down on the other side of the house.  He’d told me he went out and looked, and that’s when he decided he’d had enough of Oklahoma.  That’s when he decided it was time to pack up the trailer and head back to California.

            “The kitchen had been torn away from the rest of the house — pulled away with only one wall still attached.  That one wall was like a hinge on a door, with the rest of the room lifted off the foundation and set back down after swinging away a bit.  One leg of the kitchen stove had dropped down into the space that had opened between the floors — so the stove was sitting cockeyed.  It seems like there was something cooking in the oven.

            It was a chicken.”

            “When we went outside, it looked like a flood had gone through — I mean, everything was soaking wet.
            “Our little chicken house had been picked up and thrown over the house and over the fence, then dropped in the pasture where the creek was.  Only one of our little chicks survived.  The rest were dead.
            “The barn was okay.  I remember people saying that it was the post and beam construction — those post buried in the ground — the kept the barn from flying.
            “We went up the hill to stay with the elder Martins that night.  Seems like I heard the storm had taken some of the shingles off their roof — but that was all.  I put our one surviving chick in a shoe box and took it up the Martin’s with me.  I put the box up on top of the half wall room divider — a lot of those old houses divided living and dining areas with half-walls.  When we got up the next morning the box had tumbled off to the floor and the chick was dead.  ‘Course I figured it’d died from the fall and blamed myself for putting it up there.  And even though I know it was the storm that injured it so bad that it couldn’t have lived, even now I still feel guilty about it.  Isn’t that strange?
            “It wasn’t long after that when we left for California.  If, like Uncle Jim says, the tornado was the reason, or if dad had been figuring on going back for some time anyway, I don’t know.
            “But we was getting ready to leave, getting rid of a lot of the stuff we weren't taking with us, so I was to take my banty rooster down to Mabel and Kelly’s place on the other side of the crossroads — maybe a quarter mile away.  It was night, and I recall lightning jumping across the whole sky.  And I recall being really scared — really scared that rolling thing was coming back.”

            “We intended to drive back to California.  The tires on the car we’d brought to Oklahoma were real bad.  And with the war on it was nearly impossible buy car tires.  Owen found a car, a Durant, with good tires, and bought that for the trip. 
            “We had a two wheel trailer to pack all our belongings on.  I had dozens and dozens of quart jars of stuff I’d raised in my garden and canned.  One of my sisters had given us a bunch of utensils from a restaurant she use to own.  A gallon bucket of silverware.  Stoneware plates — divided plates.  Thick mugs.  All kinds of restaurant stuff to take back for us and Owen’s mom and sisters.
            “Somewhere on the road to California — it wasn’t desert, but it was desolate country — one of the wheels on the trailer went bad.  People would stop to see if they could help.  But what it needed was some kind of part, and we were told it was at least forty miles to the nearest town that might have something.  Owen pulled the rig off the road as far as he could, then set off walking to try to find whatever it was he needed to fix the wheel.  There was nothing to be found.  So we sat down to figure out what to do.
            “We had to leave the trailer.
            “We set everything out on the ground and started going through it — deciding what we absolutely had to have, and trying to fit it in the car.  We rolled one featherbed up with some blankets and pillows.  The rest of the bedding we left.  We left our tent, box springs, mattress, silverware, dishes, wash tubs, clothes, and some of our canned food. 
            “We packed the back end of the car till the kids had just enough room to lie on top of it all.  Owen tied my sewing machine upside down on top of the car.  There was a folding rack on the back of the car.  We piled what we could on that. 
            “We had some furniture for the girls.  A little table.  Two little oak rocking chairs — one for Wanda and one for Faril.  And, for Lillie Mae, a little red, green, and blue cane bottom chair with flowers painted on it.  One of the old girls’ rocking chairs had a crack in a spindle.  ‘Course the girls didn’t want to leave any of their furniture, so that hurt.
            “Owen said, ‘We can take the legs off the table, so we’ll take that.  One of the rocking chairs is broke, we’ll leave that and Wanda and Faril will have to share the other one.  And we’ll take Lillie Mae’s chair.’ 
            “All the time we was sorting stuff, tying stuff all over the car, people would stop to see what was going on.  Then they’d drive down the road a ways, pull over and park.  By time we got ready to leave, about a quarter mile each way was people sitting in their cars.
            “When we drove off they come running like a bunch of pigs.  And through our stuff.  We drove away watching people tearing through our stuff and running back to their cars with armloads.
            “The rest of the way to California we saw people passing us with our stuff tied to their cars.  But the worse was when this big, expensive looking car went around us, and tied to the back was that little rocking chair with the broken spindle .”

Email comments, concerns, corrections, and additional data to

Copyright to the above material is retained by Wally Lee Parker — the author.

Other Family History Stories

Haying at Gila Bend: 1936-'37

Pistol Whippin Bertha

How Wanda Joyce Got Her Name

Stepping to the Side: A Dynamite Primer

Incident at Knight's Diner