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When Life Gives You a Tornado, Make Ice Cream

August 29, 2012


As Hurricane Isaac is crashing and thrashing its way across the Gulf states and causing havoc too reminiscent of  Katrina, I thought about my own experience with a major natural disaster. It was April, 1956 in Berlin, Wisconsin and I was five years old. My sister was three and we were fast asleep in our bunk beds having our afternoon nap. The day had dawned sunny and bright with unusually high temps in the 70s. Spring was definitely in the air. But a strong cold front was approaching from the west and out ahead of it, a line of violent thunderstorms had formed over Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan. By nightfall that day multiple tornadoes had roared through countless communities in those three states leaving behind a trail of death, injury, and destruction the likes of which had never been seen in one twenty four hour period ever before.

In Berlin, a small rural village of 5000, 15 houses were crushed and scattered in the streets along with big trees and utility poles. Countless dozens of homes had moderate to severe damage. Berlin Memorial Hospital treated 50 people for injuries and kept 13 overnight, 3 being in critical condition. Seven people were dead. An appalling casuality list was avoided by mere chance. The twister crunched its way within a few yards of the high school where 400 students were in class. It demolished the Sands Knitting Mill, but 90 employees inside the shattered building escaped with many injuries but no casualties. At a rural school outside of town a teacher shepherded more than a dozen youngsters into the basement moments before wind collapsed the building.

Communication and power lines were down all over the area and rescuers summoned by radio dispatch were blocked at point after point by washed out roads and downed trees.

Of course I don’t remember all of those details, but what I do remember is that in the middle of my sister’s and my nap, our mom ran into our small bedroom and shook us awake, saying that we needed to go to the basement right away. As we rushed outside I realized it was raining and hailing, the wind was rocking our big tree back and forth, and the sky was an eerie green. Our basement could only be accessed by going outside, lifting open the huge wooden door, and descending a dozen concrete stairs into the cellar. I remember my mom struggling to get the door open, her dress soaked and clinging to her body, her hair whipped around her face and us being soaked to the bone. As we huddled in the corner of the dark cellar it became very, very quiet outside and what little light we had from the two small windows darkened into what seemed to be a night sky. All of a sudden we heard a roaring noise coming closer and closer. It really did sound like a huge train engine bearing down on us, but I don’t remember either my sister or me being frightened.  My mom held us tightly and began to sing to us. She always made up silly songs and although I couldn’t tell you what on earth she sang about during that moment of impending doom and terror, it held our attention and made us feel safe in spite of the chaos all around us. It was over in less time than it has taken me to type this paragraph and when we opened the basement door and went outside, the rain had stopped, the sky was blue again, and the air fresh and clean.

We had not gone totally unscathed however. Many of the windows in our house had broken or blown out completely…..casualties of both the wind and hail. The tiny creek that meandered along the south edge of our property and was no more than a few inches deep most of the year, had risen many feet and overflowed its banks right up into our garden. Huge, ugly brown catfish floated by along with branches, large logs and other debris. Our little happy creek had become a raging, scary place.

But for the moment none of that mattered. The storm had also left behind hail…..lots and lots of hail piled up against the sides of our house and garage……scattered across the yard and driveway. My sister and I ran to gather it up. We made piles of it, built little ice men, threw it in the air, and in general acted as if nothing had happened… kids are prone to do. In the meantime, our mom was busy too. She gathered up some of that hail and while we were busy playing in it, she was busy making ice cream with it!

Here’s to safety and comfort to all those who have lived through disaster no matter what it may be, but remember……….when life gives you a tornado……MAKE ICE CREAM!

Chatty Grandma

PS…..When I started first grade that fall I found out that one of my classmates, Linda, had been picked up out of her backyard and carried four miles by the tornado and set down in a swamp on the edge of town. She was found many hours later, terrified, hungry, and very cold, but alive and uninjured! Linda and I were good friends all through grade school!





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  1. Ann permalink

    great story, your mom was one of a kind!

    • She was indeed! I miss her terribly.

  2. Jeannie permalink

    I am loving these stories and getting to know your Mom and family in even more detail than I had in the past. Funny how we know and care about people and yet there are facets to everyone that we truly have no knowledge of. I can promise you I will never again see hail with out remembering the image of your mother, making ice cream .. . how precious!

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