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Elaine Held grew up in South Dakota before moving to California when she was sixteen years old. This family story was passed down to Elaine by her mother. The sudden and deadly weather phenomenon she describes is not uncommon on the prairies. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns
Sunshine filled the South Dakota prairie that beautiful spring day. Leaving the world of nature for a classroom was asking a lot, but children did appear at the school one or two at a time. Due to the fine spring weather they were barefoot, wearing cotton shirts or dresses, some on horseback, and some on foot.
The one-room school house stood solidly square, waiting. Paint was peeling, leaving gray puzzle pieces scattered across the walls. A rusty bell kept the slightly leaning building balanced. The tiny, beloved teacher stood at the wide door, greeting all twelve students with love and respect. The day proceeded so normally that nobody noticed the black, boiling sky approaching from the north.
Abruptly, leaves and gravel spit on the north side of the building, announcing the arrival of wind. Any child of the prairie was well aware how fast a killer spring storm could make your heart jump. Running to the window, the teacher whirled when she saw the black sky.
“Frank, shut the storm windows on your side; Earl, shut the ones on your side!”
All knew the routine. The fear in their eyes was a silent companion to their chores. Older girls comforted the little ones while older boys ran outside to carry all the wood that had been chopped. The one omission in the routine was devastating – there were no coats, jackets, mittens, or boots to put on.
Wood was in the Ben Franklin stove waiting for the match. All had been done that could be done. Sitting in a circle around the stove they waited. Waiting! That was the hard part.
Storm windows gradually began to rattle, wind escalating to a screaming volume. The teacher composed herself, searching for anything else she could do to help them survive. She began reading an action book chosen for just such an emergency.
It was one thirty in the afternoon and the world had left them alone. An hour later they piled their desks on top of other desks around them in a circle. Two maps were hung on the piled desks to keep the heat wrapped around them.
The wind was ringing the school bell, sending out the sound of alarm to a world without ears. The temperature was now twenty seven degrees below zero. The children fed the wood slowly and snuggled while the courageous teacher continued to read to them, holding their attention.
SLAM! The door flung open. The huddled children were so startled that the little ones began to cry. Out of the darkness came a man all in white from head to foot. The unknown man shouted, “Hurry! Come outside. I have a wagon with hay and piles of blankets, but you’ve got to hurry!”
In unison they turned to their teacher. She broke the stalemate. “Harry, Frank, and Earl, stand by the wagon and throw the little ones up. The rest of you, scramble up, quick!”
The children ran barefoot to the wagon through ten yards of wind and snow and were quickly in a pile covered with hay and many blankets. Even so, they were in shock from the snow and icy cold.
The sturdy team of horses took off with a jolt. The shivering children huddled together under all of the blankets, creating a barrier between themselves and chaos. It seemed that they had bumped along forever when their blankets were finally lifted.
“Ed and Shirley, this is your place,” said the driver of the wagon after he hopped down from his seat. “Come on, quick!” They scurried out into his arms and he carried them to their house. Then the wagon started up with a jolt, and the remaining children knew they were on their way again.
This scene was repeated until all twelve children were safe in their parents’ arms. The teacher was not dropped off until all of her charges were safe.
One of the little boys who was rescued that day was my father. The heroic driver, who lost part of a foot to frostbite in exchange for thirteen lives, would later become his father-in-law.
This prairie hero was my beloved Grampa, my mother’s father. At that time he had a family and he ran the dairy store on the block-long main street. My Grampa was a valiant and valued member of that South Dakota community.
Published: Jan. 9, 2014 – Volume 12 – Issue 39