Waterloo, Iowa - A third of my hometown of Parkersburg, Iowa, was virtually gone with the wind on Sunday afternoon. Maybe you read about it or saw the reports on CNN or “The Today Show.” A tornado packing 205 mph winds, ground and shred everything in its path across most of a mile of the southern side of the town where I was reared.
If it was an act of God, he can really pack a wallop.
What would my parents, buried in Oak Hill Cemetery, have thought if they could see their town now? What if they had lived to see “P’burg” so devastated, so transformed in minutes? My mom and dad died in 1997 and 2004 at ages 87 and 92, respectively. I found myself so wishing they knew what had happened to their Parkersburg.
But they and my grandparents lie in their graves next to the plot of town founder Pascal P. Parker. The 18-foot obelisk bearing “Bawn” (whence came my first name) is the highest marker in the cemetery. It’s under a massive oak, spared by the storm, although oaks fell onto tombstones throughout the cemetery. Down the hill, a tree fell just inches from the grave markers of my aunt and her two husbands who died before her. So many tombstones were not spared. A quarter mile away, the Catholic cemetery sustained worse damage by the tornado, with markers flattened and trees down.
We had tornado warnings all the years I was growing up on the farm just southeast of town. We went to the cellar a few times, but ominous clouds would always pass, save for the rains that sent a farm stream overflowing. My parents used to tell us that Parkersburg couldn’t get hit by tornadoes because it couldn’t navigate Beaver Creek that ran through town.
The tornado hit an hour after my wife and I had arrived at my mother-in-law’s home in Washburn, 25 miles away, for a vacation visit. The TV was immediately full of weather warnings and reports that the air was ripe for tornadoes.
And so my hometown was finally socked.
In Parkersburg, some 288 homes were destroyed, five people killed, 70 injured, 20 businesses wiped out and some debris ended up in Wisconsin. Among the dead were a couple who had lived across the gravel road on one of our farms when I was growing up. They had long since retired from the farm and moved to town, but sadly Richard and Ethel Mulder couldn’t get into their basement in time and died in the ferocious whirling winds. Years ago, I had gone into the Army at the same time as their son, David. And I remember how their daughter Martha Kaye was killed just before her high school graduation when a bunch of celebrating girls got into a car and drove up and down the roller-coaster hills northeast of Parkersburg, and the car crashed. My mother’s family had bought farmland outside of Parkersburg in 1855, the same year that Parkersburg was founded, and it remains in the family 153 years later.
As I drove around the town of nearly 2,000, I struggled with getting my bearings because nothing remained to help me remember what had been there. It was surreal.
Tears welled in my eyes as I rolled past the homes of people of my heritage. I beheld the proverbial war zone. The town’s only grocery store, which my second cousin owned and operated for years, was flattened. Gone was a pizza shop that had been a root beer stand 45 years ago where my sister was a carhop. Gone was the town hall where I had made an inquiry about buying a cemetery plot the last time we were in town. (We ended up buying in Tempe.) Gone was a restaurant where we ate so many times, which long displayed a newspaper column I had done on the place in the early 1980s. Gone was the home of one my classmates, another member for the Parkersburg class of 1964 where I was valedictorian.
Much of the devastation was to houses built after I had left home. Many went up in what were farm fields in my formative years when the town’s only fame was having the state’s third-tallest water tower and being the birthplace of Pauline Pfeiffer, the second wife of writer Ernest Hemingway. Today it claims four players in the National Football League.
Each time I visited Parkersburg, I saw the sign at the east entrance of town listing all the school’s state championship or runner-up distinctions. The high school, built in the 1970s, was largely destroyed by the tornado. Not long after it was erected, I was emcee for the first all-school reunion, bringing out nearly 900 folks.
Generally speaking, the tornado cut cleanly. At margins, the areas where the tornado missed, buildings were intact, saved for missing shingles or siding. Trees were mangled and rudely stripped of leaves. By the time I arrived, many destroyed cars were lined up in a row like a car junkyard.
People everywhere were sorting debris, digging through the snarl and sharing stories.
The downtown was spared — including the weekly newspaper office where I began my career in journalism in 1963 as editor of the school newspaper, Top Talk.
The young corn is just emerging from the black Iowa soil this spring. East of town, though, the green sprouts compete with the debris dropped by the wicked Tornado of ’08. I just wished I could tell my folks about it.