Not too many months before it happened, my husband and I had opened a small accessory and brief case store on South Street in downtown Kalamazoo. He worked a job selling dictation equipment while I ran the store. The store was long and narrow, with scarves and jewelry at the front, near the plate-glass window and glass door, the goods “hardening” to brief cases and attaché cases at the back of the store. This rental space included a full, remodeled basement where I kept my desk.
On May 13, 1980, I was at the store with another woman who I will call Helen, for privacy’s sake. When I heard on the radio that a tornado was traveling toward us along the old highway my first thought was for my husband who was driving back along that road from a call to customers located in South Haven.
Then the siren sounded. I had lived through numerous tornado watches and warnings in my life. Making the trip to the basement several times a year in the spring and summer was common enough. Nevertheless, since I was right downtown, the siren from the National Armory sounded much closer, more threatening, than at home. The winds outside had picked up to a roar.
Helen and I ran downstairs; as we took the steps two at a time, I heard the glass door banging alarmingly and because I didn’t want it to shatter and ruin my window display, I darted back up to lock the front door, while Helen screamed at me to get back downstairs.
Our store was just down the block from Bronson Park. The park was built in the old-fashioned town square style. Every outdoor event of consequence was held there. I had attended art fairs, concerts, peace rallies, lectures, and art classes under its oak trees. As we walked through the park on Christmas eves, the lights reflected off the icy outlines of the trees, forming a magical canopy.
I heard the sound of the tornado slamming the park as I ran back downstairs.
The wind and noise abated quickly. Helen and I gingerly climbed the stairs and looked around. Other than a crack in the glass, and a broken sign, we had no damage. I think I was in shock because I remember being drawn to walk to the park, more than considering much else. I still didn’t know that my husband was all right.
I walked alone to the park and stood at the corner of South and Rose staring across the street at the park. Centuries old oak trees were leaning every which way like so many pickup sticks. A few of them looked like macabre divining rods.
I can’t say the destruction of those trees truly entered the back recesses of my brain until weeks later, when most of the downtown cleanup had been accomplished and I saw the park denuded of its beauty. Twenty-six oak trees had been downed or crippled. One of those trees had sheltered Abraham Lincoln during an anti-slavery speech in 1856.
The tornado effectively bombed Kalamazoo that day. As you can see from the photo above, the entire back wall of Gilmore’s department store ripped off, leaving an effect like a five story doll house, as if you could put your hand in back and set up the shoppers and merchandise in miniature. But the trees, as I see them in my memory, are the most lasting image for me.
30 responses to “One Day in May”
What a wonderful piece. Thanks for sharing.
Thank you so much for your kind words, Ellen. That means a lot, coming from you.
What a terrifying experience, Luanne. Thank God you and your husband weren’t injured.Thank you for sharing this well written story.
It was so scary that I didn’t even really get scared–just went straight to shock ;). I was so relieved to finally see my husband. The days before cell phones . .. . Thanks for reading, Jill!
Excellent memoir, gripping and vivid.
Mareymercy, I’m so glad you liked it! Thank you for reading . . . .
That must have been so scary!
Anneli, it was scary, but I didn’t feel scared. After all the years of going to the basement as a kid for tornado warnings and watches, suddenly this one seemed real and I went straight into shock. I probably looked completely normal, but obviously acted stupidly.
I think we all go a bit catatonic when we’re in an emergency of that magnitude. Glad it turned out okay for you.
Ah, thanks, j4n. I figured out later that I was in shock while it was happening.
Wow. How macabre and scary. I know the tornado was bad, but I’m drawn to stories about it. You did it justice.
Thanks, Wilma! Yes, it was horrific. I wish I had more photos. I asked my Dad to search for his. Since he was so involved downtown, I’m sure he has some good ones hidden somewhere.
I love the way you wrote this. You didn’t tell us, you showed us. I also appreciated the historical note about our former President. That one fact really brought home the damage wrought by Mother Nature.
Patti, thank you so much for your comments. I’m really glad to hear that about Lincoln because I debated whether it fit or not. I’m glad to know it resonated with you!
How frightening! No wonder you were in shock.
Theresa, it was, wasn’t it? At the time I just thought of it as something astonishing I lived through, but my body knew it was scary!
Goose bumps – and then to see that building with the sides gone and items still in the rooms.
It was such a sight! And the dressing rooms were in the back–I kept remember being back there in the dressing rooms . . . .
Powerful story, you took a risk running up to lock the door. The park and the devastation, all horrendous. I am glad that you survived and that you have lived to tell us this amazing story!
Thanks, Robin–me too. And I’m so glad my husband was ok. He really was in the line of the tornado the whole way back, but he was racing to me because he was worried about me!
Originally a Michigander, we moved to Oklahoma in the 1980s – I can so relate to your vivid description. We’ve watched in awestruck horror as a black funnel passed our house, I waited in terror to hear if my husband survived the hit the General Motors building took (also before cell phones) and still drive through the recently ravaged towns of Moore and Newcastle. The surreal gets real as evidenced by your pictures.
Shel, my daughter graduated from OU in May 2010. She’d been there four years without a problem, but the week of graduation was when Norman was hit by a tornado–in the field just across the street from her apartment complex. We sheltered at the university with the students. I watched the TV with dismay after the tornado hit Moore this time.
Pretty scary stuff! And such a small world – Norman is our major stomping ground. We live close buy and I’m an OU undergrad and law alum. We probably passed your daughter in Walmarts or sat next to her in a restaurant at some point! And with that whole 6-degree of separation stuff, it’s likely we have acquaintances in common with her. Glad you all survived that nasty storm!
What a small world! We love the OU campus and that area of Oklahoma. Did you ever go to see Very Merry Pops with the Philharmonic? My daughter was in that for a few years.You’re probably right about the 6 degrees of separation–it seems more like 2 these days!
If it was at the Cox Convention Center four or five years ago, we did indeed attend, Luanne!
I’m jealous of your accessibility to fresh apples right – now I’d give a lot for a fresh-off-the-tree McIntosh. Please enjoy one or a trip to the cider mill for me!
Don’t be too jealous. I now live in Phoenix where it’s been blazing hot all summer . . . . I miss Michigan!
Oh – then you get the difference in the apples – and probably the corn! Let’s make a deal – first one of us back to MI in the fall eats an apple for the other! Looks like we have a lot in common – if you’re on FB (I can’t tell w/o your last name and I certainly understand that privacy issue) please ‘friend’ me. (I’ve only been on FB 10 months and I feel like I’m in elementary school asking someone to ‘friend’ me – hope it doesn’t come off as pathetic as that!)
Haha, see you over there.