How can you engage your children or grandchildren in family stories? Give them paper and crayons and let them illustrate the story as you tell it. I’ve been writing fictionalized accounts of my dad’s tales so that his posterity could know him. Having my grandchildren in town gave me the chance to tell them the latest story in his saga and see their creativity. We marveled at his surviving so many adventures. So far I’ve written about him surviving a gunshot to the face, a near rattlesnake bite, rheumatic fever, and now a tornado. Enjoy this account of an exciting and terrifying day in his life, circa 1935 Oklahoma.
The Adventures of Cowboy Bob: Tornado
by Diana Elder
“Bob and C.H., time to take the cows out to the pasture,” called Ettie from the kitchen.
The young boys, called back, “Okay, Mama, just as soon as we finish our game of marbles.”
“No, now. Get along you two.” Ettie firmly replied.
Those three cows were the family’s sole source of fresh milk and she needed to make sure they got their feed. The spring grass had come up thick and green in the pasture Les had cleared last fall. They had moved to the two-room cabin in the summer of 1934 and worked hard to make a living off of the land.
Ettie’s garden hadn’t taken hold yet and all she had to feed her family was black-eyed peas and cornbread along with some black strap molasses and boiled wheat cereal. They were all getting mighty tired of black-eyed peas.
Even Bob, an easy-going child had had enough. Last week the Shults family had driven over to Apache, Oklahoma for Sunday dinner with Uncle Oscar and Aunt Izzy. The large group had just sat down to dinner when 7 year-old Bob took one look at the plates laden with black-eyed peas and cornbread and burst into tears.
Through his sobs, he wailed, “I don’t want to eat black-eyed peas and cornbread again.”
A hush fell over the table as he voiced the feelings of all, then Uncle Oscar spoke up. “By gosh, Bob, neither do I! Let’s go to town and get some meat.”
Laughter filled the room and the women quickly covered the plates to hold until Oscar and Bob came home with a cut of beef. Ettie smiled to think of it. Her boy wouldn’t soon forget that debacle, but he surely enjoyed his share of the steak.
Bob and C.H sauntered behind the large, tawny cows enjoying the sun’s warmth on their backs. The cows moved towards the pasture, anxious for their meal. A brisk breeze kept the flies off and they swished their tails in contentment.
The boys reluctantly left the cows to graze and headed back to the cabin to start in on their other chores. Today was sprout-cutting with their daddy, a much-hated job. To have any room to farm, Les had cut down several of the large hickory trees surrounding their cabin. Unfortunately, wiry sprouts kept growing from the roots and were the bane of Bob’s existence. The sprouts were tough and more often than not sprang up and smacked him as he helped his daddy cut.
As the morning wore on, Bob noticed the sky darkening in the west and the normal blue turning kind of greenish. There was kind of an odd black funnel shape far in the distance.
“Daddy, look at the sky. It looks real strange.” Bob called to Les who was intent on digging out a stump. Les looked up and yelled, “Boys get to the house and tell your mama. That’s a tornado!”
Bob and C.H. took off running, whooping and hollering, “Tornado, Mama, tornado”
Ettie appeared at the doorway with their little sister, Helen.
“What’s all this, you boys are going to wake the dead,” she declared.
“Daddy said a tornado’s coming and to tell you,” exclaimed C.H.
“Quick, into the storm cellar all of you.” Ettie calmly took Helen’s hand and quickly led her brood to the concrete storm cellar back behind the cabin. Bob grabbed his little blue tick hound dog. He wasn’t about to leave him behind.
Les let the mules and horse out of the barn. He figured they’d be safer finding their own shelter. He glanced to the west and saw the twister coming closer. The wind had died down and the air was deathly still. Time to get to the cellar.
Les hightailed it to where Ettie and the three children had already found their way down the wood steps into the cellar’s dark depths. Les plunged down then lowered the heavy wooden door with the rope handle.
He didn’t know who had put in the concrete-lined hole, just big enough for his family, but he was grateful. Putting his arms around his wife and children he blessed the man with the forethought to build a shelter from the tornados that threatened Oklahoma every spring.
It wasn’t long before they heard a loud rumbling, kind of like a train coming from a distance. The roar got louder and louder until it was directly over them. Bob covered his ears. Terrible noises came from above. Trees crashing and animals shrieking.
As suddenly as it started, it was over.
“Well, let’s go see the damage,” drawled Les. His family was safe and that was all that counted. Gingerly lifting the door he quickly glanced around and exclaimed: “The house and barn are still standing!”
Ettie let out a big sigh of relief. She had been prepared for the worse but couldn’t believe their luck. Especially when she saw the trees. All around the house and barn the trees had been pulled out of the ground or snapped in two and were laying in every direction.
Bob hopped out of the cellar, anxious to see the light of day again. He hadn’t felt too scared, safe with his family below ground while the storm raged above, but now he wanted to check everything out.
“Bob and C.H., go find the cows,” his daddy called.
Where were the cows, Bob wondered as he and his brother took off for the pasture. The trees were lying every which way and they scrambled up and over them as they made their way to where they had last left the cows. At first there were no cows in sight, but after a little scouting, they found them huddled together against a little outcropping.
It took the boys all afternoon to find a way to get the cows back through the maze of felled trees. Just when they thought they’d found a path, they ran into another obstacle. Finally boy and cows made it back to the cabin.
Starving, Bob smelled dinner cooking. Black-eyed peas and cornbread never sounded so good.
Writing the Story
My dad told me the story about Uncle Oscar and the meat a few years ago. He never wrote it down, but it’s one of my favorite stories. Growing up we never had black-eyed peas, but he did like cornbread.
I found a great account of a tornado in Kansas in 1927 that gave me a feeling for what it would have been like for my dad and his family. Not having experienced a tornado myself, I relied on the memories of others.
Interesting how telling such simple stories can bring our family closer. I never met Uncle Oscar and Aunt Izzy, but I feel like I know them through my dad’s memories.
Account of Bobby Gene Shults
[Dad] had leased a farm at Tahlequah, Oklahoma so we moved into a 2 room log cabin with dirt floors.
To get any ground to farm we had to cut sprouts. We grew just about everything we ate and had two or three cows to milk.
Also had [a] tornado come through near [our] home. We got in [the] storm cellar – After storm, trees [were] laying down in every direction. It was hard to find a trail to get the cows in from [pasture].
More in the “Adventures of Cowboy Bob” series