June 8, 1974 started out like any other early Summer day in Tulsa, Oklahoma. A hazy sunrise gave way to a cloudless morning sky and typical for early June, it was muggy and still.
Mom and Daddy sat at the kitchen table drinking their morning coffee while Mike and I sat in front of the TV watching Saturday morning cartoons. Mom was busy making her lists – bills to pay, groceries to buy, errands to run. Daddy was looking out the window at the grass that needed cut and a dirty car that needed washed. After breakfast, Mom began her ritual Saturday morning house cleaning and we all helped. I was only six years old, but I knew how to dust and clean my own room. Getting my little brother to do the same was the chore I hated most.
That afternoon I sat in the floor of my parent’a bedroom playing with my Barbies. My mom was sewing a shorts outfit for me out of a remnant piece of textured, coral colored, double-knit fabric. Every so often she would call me over and hold up the pattern pieces to my chubby little body trying to get the the fit just right. Mike and Daddy were outside playing with cars – Mike in the middle of a mound of dirt with his Hot Wheels and Daddy washing the dirt off our 1974 yellow Ford.
As the afternoon progressed, severe thunderstorms started brewing out west. As the weathermen anticipated, the storms escalated rapidly and soon tornado watches were issues for Eastern Oklahoma. All the elements were in place for a significant tornado outbreak to occur. Even before all the modern technological advances, the weathermen just knew…it was going to be a long, troublesome night.
As the storms grew in intensity, Mom and Daddy watched the news with an eye to the sky. Before long, they witnessed the evening sun being overtaken by ominous black clouds. Tornadoes were ripping a path up the turnpike from Oklahoma City and as the tornadic storms marched closer to Tulsa, my parents started making an escape plan. The mobile home park was obviously an unsafe place to ride out a tornado, so they packed up our dog, Pudgey, and her four puppies in the trunk of the yellow Ford. About that time the tornado sirens started bellowing across the city. Mom rushed Mike and me into the back seat of the car and Daddy drove us to the shelter of the I-244 overpass. We rode out the violent storms under the protection of the steel and concrete bridge listening to the weather reports on the radio and waiting for the all clear.
When the sirens finally stopped, Daddy drove us home thinking that the worst was over. And although we had managed to escape the wrath of the tornadoes, the torrential rains had just started.
Back at the house, Mom took Mike and me and the dogs back inside. My brother and I were still shaken from the tornadoes that passed overhead and Mom did the best she could to comfort us. Daddy was outside checking in with the neighbors who were talking about the ordeal their families had also experienced. About that time, the men noticed how the water in the streets was starting to rise and began to worry about the flash flooding that Mingo Creek was infamous for. They decided that it might be best to move all the families to the park clubhouse that was on a bit higher ground, so Daddy came inside and told Mom to get her stuff. Mom put Pudgey and her babies in the front bathroom (the highest place in the house). And she put Granny’s bible in her cedar chest for safekeeping. I took Daddy’s hand and Mom carried Mike, and along with the rest of our neighbors, we made the short pilgrimage to the neighborhood club house for safety.
Everyone huddled inside the small clubhouse watching the deluge from inside the double glass doors. And for a while, it seemed as if we were safe from flash flood that was rushing through the mobile home park. But the heavy rains went on and on and the storm water runoff kept creeping closer and closer to the doors. Terrified, Mom watched the water began to creep up the glass and seep into the clubhouse under the doors and through the narrow slit between the rubber door seals. One of the men shouted that everyone needed to get out before the water came in high enough to get into the electrical sockets. Daddy picked me up then he and Mom waded back to our house and loaded my brother and me into the car. They started driving out of the park toward Mingo Road until the water got too high and forced them to turn around and drive back to the house.
There was no place to go. Daddy knew that the only way to get his family to safety was to get out of the park and across Mingo. So he and Mom set out on foot with Mike and me in their arms – me in my new shorts outfit and my brother grasping a Hot Wheels car in his tiny hand. And along with the rest of their neighbors they began their slow exodus towards higher ground.
Mom and Daddy trudged through thigh high flood waters for about a half-mile until we reached the narrow bridge over Mingo Creek. Up on the bridge, we looked out over the swollen creek below us and I watched in fear as my curious little brother kept trying to lean over the rail to get a closer look at the water rushing underneath. It was a brief moment to rest before crossing into the raging waters that were flooding Mingo Road.
Daddy set me up on his shoulders while Mom carried Mike in her arms. She clung to Daddy’s arm for support in wading through the now waist high water. With each deliberate step they were bombarded with tree limbs and other debris carried in the violent storm water runoff. And with each step Mom’s tender hysterectomy scar reminded her of the surgery that she had endured several months earlier and she struggled to keep up with Daddy. Out of the blue, an angel in the form of a kindhearted neighbor waded up to her and said, “Here, let me take him for a while.” Mom gratefully passed my little brother to the safe, strong arms of this compassionate stranger and he walked along side her bolstering her safely between himself and Daddy.
Once we reached the other side of Mingo, my parents gradually walked out of the waist deep flood water onto higher ground. When they finally reached dry pavement, my parents were able to call for help and we were taken to the nearby Red Cross shelter. The volunteers stayed with my brother and me while my parents frantically tried to find a place to stay. Exhausted after their terrifying ordeal, my parents gladly accepted the offer to spend the night at home of one of Mom’s co-workers. In the middle of the night, the generous family picked us up and took us to their nearby home. Mike and I spent the rest of the night in their daughter’s urine stained bed. I didn’t sleep, but rather lay there staring at the flowers on the wallpaper, haunted by terrifying images of raging flood waters and my family’s flight to safety.
The next morning, Mom and Daddy got up early and went back to the house to survey the damage. They were relieved to find that our home, unlike many of our neighbors, did not sustain much water damage and that our pets were still safely protected in the front bathroom. Back at our overnight refuge, Mike and I were treated to pancakes for breakfast by our gracious hostess. Later that morning she let me help her spoon out chocolate no-bake cookies, and for lunch we ate peanut butter sandwiches on white bread with no jelly.
Soon we were able to go back home and life returned to normal. My parents went back to work. Mike and I went to the babysitter. Mom continued making shopping lists. Daddy kept cutting grass. Life went on.
I went to visit my parents today. No reason. No birthday or celebration. Just because.
My parents are in their sixties, but after the recent storms in Joplin I can’t help but think of them as the two young parents courageously wading through waist-deep water to get their babies to safety. I vividly remember that night (as a 6 year-old), but now that I’m a parent I can’t imagine the terror they must have felt. I can’t imagine the terror those poor families in Joplin must have felt.
Driving home I noticed line of clouds rolling in over the setting sun. I thought about how my parents protected me and my brother from danger all those years ago. And then I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude to still have them in my life.
Because I know as long as they live, they will always be there to protect us.