Weathering the Storms of Life
Updated: May 14, 2020
By Terry M Pace (2020)
The old cellar had been dug deep in the ground and finished with strong reinforced concrete all around. The heavy wooden door was controlled with a rope and pulley mechanism held in place by a steel pipe inside a casing. This mechanism reminded me of a tiny oil rig or the mast of a ship. The door was usually painted red or white. The cellar had a vent that came up in a concrete pad that sat outside the top of the cellar. Opening the door, there were ten large sized concrete steps leading down into the cellar itself. Once under the ground, the cellar was about 12 x 15 feet. It had one electric light on a pull string hanging off the west wall. Dad also had lined the east side walls with shelves for our canned goods. Just inside the doorway there was a small wall shelf that contained an old kerosene lamp and a battery- operated portable radio. At the back of the cellar along the south wall was a fold up bed and mattress for use during storms. That was about everything. Just the essentials – light, radio, lantern, a place to rest, an extra chair for dad, plenty of canned vegetables or fruit to open in case of a lasting emergency.
The cellar was in the back yard of my childhood home. It faced or opened to the north toward the back door of our house. Though it sometimes seemed much farther, the cellar was probably only about 20 yards from our back door. My father and my uncles built our house, barn and cellar in 1953 and my parents moved in during late 1953 and early 1954 (they had married May 23, 1953). The cellar was an essential part of the construction plans and may have been a part of the wedding agreement between my parents, as my mom probably would not have consented to living in a home without a cellar for protection from thunderstorms and tornadoes, which are plentiful in west Texas.
Mom grew up a little further east in Texas in the little town of Crowell, in Foard County northwest of Ft Worth. It was rough ranch and farm country and right in the middle of tornado alley. The town of Crowell sits about 200 miles due east of Lubbock, about 200 miles northwest of Ft Worth and about 100 miles due north of Abilene, about 20 miles south of the Red River and the Oklahoma state line. If you don’t know where that it is you are not alone. Mom used to say tornadoes were more common than neighbors there in the springtime! However there were neighbors and just enough to know them well, almost as if they were all family. Their home sat on a little hill about 12 miles west of Crowell closer to a small community called Vivian, which is no longer there. And like most farm and ranch homes in that country they had a storm cellar used for storm protection and used year around for canned food storage in the cool of the earth. My mom told stories from her childhood of spending many nights in their cellar as storms raged over those rolling prairie hills.
Two stories of storms remain vivid for me now as they were prominent stories of my mom’s early life. The first story happened around 1932 when my mom was 12 years old. It was a nice spring day and farmers had been busy in the fields, so my grandfather had been out working most of that day. As evening approached the thunderheads began building in the southwest over towards the boundary formed by the Texas Caprock that then leads upward to the high plains. As dark neared, my grandfather came in from work and shortly afterwards a thunderstorm hit with a fury. The rains fell in mighty torrents, hail stones crashed the tin roof of the old farm house and of course the winter wheat crop was nearing maturity in the field and was everyone’s immediate worry. So there were a lot of long faces huddled around the kerosene lantern that evening; electricity did not come to their isolated part of the country until the early 1940’s. The wind shifted and blew hard then died into an eerie calm that folks in tornado alley know is often the sign of a tornado producing storm cycling up. My grandfather stepped out to look at the sky and came running in telling everyone to get into the storm cellar. It was a small cellar and very crowded with my mom, her parents and four of her siblings. The storm raged above and after a while they heard a loud banging on the cellar door and a faint voice. It was a neighbor man, I believe by the name of Mr. Bowley who said he had been caught out in the storm while trying to get home and he had come to a local creek crossing and found the water too high to cross. Then he said he saw a wagon trapped in the rising water on the other side. The team of mules had been cut loose and the wagon was empty, but huddled on the other shore, along a small rock outcropping there was a neighboring family, sheltering the best they could. That family, the Rasberry's and my mom’s family were close neighbors and friends. They had also been caught by surprise in the same storm and were trying to cross the creek coming the other direction toward my mom’s house in order to get to their home.
My grandfather told everyone to stay in the cellar until he came back and not to leave or come looking for him. This of course frightened everyone. My grandfather and the neighbor man got my grandfather’s mule team and his two biggest horses along with all the rope they could find and headed the half mile to the creek crossing amidst the raging of the storm. They decided the best option was to make a rope walkway to hold onto and one of them try to walk everyone across the creek. So one tied on the rope while the other held it along with one of the mules and was able to cross the creek and secure the rope to a large cottonwood tree on the other side. Then with great care and courage these two men were able to alternate and walk or carry each of their neighbors; a man, woman and three young children, across to safe land. After everyone was secure, the woman and her children rode the horses on to my mom’s house and the men were able to use the mules to pull their wagon out of the water and across to safety.
But all this time through the stormy night my mom lay with her mother and siblings and prayed her daddy was alive and alright. He was alright. He returned to knock on the cellar door with the five members of the rescued family and the neighbor helper. The sun was almost rising. My grandmother made a big breakfast for them all (at least 12 people) and it became a celebration of life and mutual commitment as neighbors as they together weathered the storms of life, natural or man made, in this rough and lonesome country. Thankfully the wheat crop was only mildly damaged but hope for a decent harvest still remained. Though individual bravery and ingenuity was a critical factor in their lives, mutual dependence on each other as family, neighbors and friends was equally important to them, their survival and way of life. While it was a memorable time in my mom’s life, the trauma of the night waiting for her daddy to return stayed with her all her life and any big thunderstorm brought her worry, fear and scary memories.
Yet, an even more traumatic event was experienced by my mother ten years later in 1942, which cemented my mom’s storm fears. By then mom was 22 years old and had a teaching certificate though no college degree as of yet. She was teaching second grade in Crowell where she lived with an elderly widow lady. As I remember her story, the tornado came in the evening before the late April sun had set. Her and her land lady survived under a large heavy bed. When the roaring and thunder had stopped they emerged to see no roof and only a few walls standing in their house. Immediately to the west across the street mom reported seeing nothing but cement slabs where houses just had been and highlighted by the sunset walking along a vacant sidewalk was a lone chicken just pecking through the debris like the spring day it had been. Many people were killed or injured and the small rural town was devastated. Mom knew these people, taught some of their kids, so these losses were heart-wrenching for her and the community.
So for me growing up, thunderstorms were times of great distress for my mom and we all learned to understand and comfort her. Thus the cellar was a central part of our lives. With most loud thunderous storms rolling across the plains, we headed for the cellar! The “cellar runs” as I thought of them were often made amidst howling winds, slashing rains and pounding hail. As a goofy kid, it was an adventure to me and I always felt then I was going to the cellar just to soothe mom. Of course there were real risks from storms and tornadoes, prudence and reasonableness about safety are attributes of wisdom and of love I learned from my mom. Though the cellar was a real protection for me and my family, sometimes even if we did make the cellar run just for mom's assurance, it was well worth her peace of mind to us.
While I was little, there was a clear pattern to the cellar run. A thunderstorm rolled in. Mom asked if we could go to the cellar. Dad looked out at the skies from our back porch to see the weather, then he ran to open the cellar door and turn on the light before returning to the house. My brother and I then ran to the cellar, followed by my dad bringing my mom along. Once inside we all took up our posts. We laid open the old fold down bed and mattress. Mom would sit on the edge or lay back on one end. My older brother had comic books or Tom Swift novels and would lay on the far side of the bed and read. I would lay between them and listen to the storm and to the radio my dad played. Dad stood guard! Usually sometime in every storm back then, the electricity would go out at our farm house. We had an old family inherited kerosene lantern we kept and used in the cellar, so dad would tend to the lamp (my brother still has the lamp). Dad occasionally went “up to have a look” out the door at the skies or he listened to the local radio station for severe weather updates. In between the weather updates in the evenings the local radio station, KLVT played Tex-Mex or Tejano music, so that is what we listened to. I loved that music then and now and the sounds of Tex-Mex music are always tied in my memories and emotions to storms, cellars, kerosene lantern light (and shadows) and to the closeness of family. Often, when I experience a storm now, I crave Tex-Mex music and kerosene lantern light! How early experiences shape and stay with us! Mine surely have. Storms also remind me of mom, so they can be bittersweet to me with her gone now for many years.
But our storm cellar also saw many bright sunny days, where it’s slanted door and rod and pulley door system served in my imagination as the deck of a great ship, an army tank or an oil drilling rig to list a few things. From the deck of the cellar, I sailed the seven seas. I circled the globe. I discovered new unknown lands. I took troops ashore at Normandy. I watched the dolphins and whales dance near Tahiti. What a wonderful old ship she was!
From the top of the cellar door, I also fought many a tank battle, repeating WWII all over Europe, North Africa, and on Iwo Jima in the Pacific . The door rig with its steel posts and pulley system served in these times as my imaginary cannon. Also, as a west Texan, oil was the queen next to king cotton in our economy so most any kid in my place and time imagined themselves working a rig or two. I brought in many an imaginary wildcat oil well right from the top of my old cellar door!
Once, when I was about 15 and sick of being only 15 and sharing a room with my older brother I decided that I needed my own space and the cellar or the barn were the only available spaces. Wisely, my mom and dad told me I could live in either of them, it was up to me (they knew my stubbornness and that I needed to learn for myself in those days). So, I gradually move my things to the cellar and since it needed the ambiance of what I thought a "grown man of the circa 1972 redneck- hippie type" should be like, I scoured the borrow-ditches of the countryside for beer cans and lined the cellar walls with hundreds of empty used beer cans and bottles thrown away by the oil truck drivers passing down those empty roads. My favorite cans to collect were Pearl or Hamm’s beer. Once I had prepared everything I thought that I might need to live on my own then I moved in. It was summer, it was hot, I got thirsty and wanted ice cold sweet tea or milk. Those things were in the house where the rest of the people lived. It was a lot cooler in the house too. And I got hungry and wanted a late snack, maybe mom’s left- over fried chicken. Yep, that was in the house too. I got very bored with the radio and looking at my beer cans and frankly realized I was lonely. So after several nights, I told everyone it’s just too hot in the cellar and I’m moving back in. I had a whole new appreciation of Dorothy on the Wizard of Oz when she said "there's no place like home!"
When my mom had passed away and we were cleaning out her home, the home I grew up in, our family home for almost 60 years, in order to sell it; one of the last moments I had to have before I left for the last time, was with the cellar and to just allow all those memories to live once again. There is no place like home.