August 11 1939 Circe, Kansas (late morning)
“It’s about time you got here, young lady.”
Emily Gale stood at the podium, at the edge of the small stage that was set up on the west lawn of St. Mary’s hospital. A hospital employee was busily setting out wooden folding chairs in rows before the stage. The west lawn was ideal for the groundbreaking ceremony, not only for its level expanse of grass and proximity to the hospital’s parking lot, but for it’s view of the soon-to-be-demolished wing, itself the original effort to expand the hospital. A single level, wood-frame structure, it branched off the rear of the granite and brick four story main building and had housed St Mary’s Charity Ward since 1922. Windows ran along both sides of the structure and afforded half the patients within, a view of the green, tree-shaded west lawn. The other half, five to be precise, ten being the maximum capacity of the ward, were consigned to being involuntary sentinels of the service entrance and staff parking lot. The new addition, soon to occupy the space taken up by the ward and it’s one remaining patient, would be three stories tall, have fewer windows and would result, as the freshly printed programs proudly pointed out, ‘in a re-focusing of an essential community institution’.
The driving force behind the new addition stood behind the podium on the small, and currently empty, stage. Looking up, Emily Gale glared at the two young women walking across the lawn.
“The ceremony’s not for another two hours, Auntie Em!”
Dorothy looked at her adopted mother from halfway up the center aisle, newly created by the two groupings of chairs. Noticing that Eliza was no longer at her side, Dorothy turned and watched her friend talking to a tall, young man. At least a foot taller than Eliza, he had three folding chairs leaning against his leg and from the blue short-sleeved shirt, she guessed he was an intern, no doubt taking the opportunity to help set up for the groundbreaking ceremony. As he smiled, Eliza pointed towards the parking lot and her yellow convertible. He laughed, looked back towards the hospital and nodded his head. Eliza turned, caught Dorothy’s eye and winked.
“Don’t tell me how much time I have, missy. There’s more to do than you think. The ceremony will begin at 1 sharp. I’ll give my speech at 1:15 and then we’ll walk together… as a family, to the side of the old wing and turn over a shovel of dirt. We’ll make a difference to this town and even if you no longer care, the Gale family will be remembered!”
The papers on the slanted wood of the podium fluttered suddenly. The sky to the east remained as pale, hot and featureless blue as it had been since just after dawn, when the sun broke free of the horizon. To the south and west, it was a much different story. Instead of a clean, sharp line following the contours of the far distant fields that formed the horizon, Dorothy could see a dark jaggedness. Where normally the brown and beige of the fields blended with the pale blue of the sky, there were obsidian serrations, as if the increasingly dark gray clouds were fleeing something worse to the south, something that tore at the fabric of the fair-white clouds.
Dorothy glanced at the trees that grew along Cathedral Ave from the hospital entrance down to the Town Square, two blocks to the east, and thought she saw the slight paleness of the undersides of the elm and oak leaves.
“Henry! Get me something to hold these papers down with! I’ll not have my speech interrupted by a page flying wildly across the lawn!”
Henry Gale, sitting, nearly un-noticed, on one of the chairs that lined the back of the stage, looked up,
“Well, Em, I reckon I can find something in the hospital to serve that purpose, a paper weight or some sort of clip.” He stepped the single step off the stage and walked towards the hospital, veering to the right and the main entrance.
“Get Thaddeus Morgan to give you something. Seeing how we’re building him a bigger hospital, it’s the least he can do.”
The gust died as suddenly as it was born, the three pages of her speech safely flat on the lectern. Emily turned her attention back to Dorothy, still standing at the head of the aisle, facing the stage.
“My stars and garters! The biggest event in this small town since….since I can’t say when and that’s how you choose to dress?”
Emily Gale stared at the blue and white gingham dress, a very white blouse with a subtle ballooning at the shoulders. Her gaze grew increasingly critical until she noticed that Dorothy had put her hair up in braids, a hairstyle she seemed to have left behind when she went away to college.
“What about all those fancy new clothes you brought back from New York? Surely you had something a little more, well, a little more in keeping with the occasion. I guess it’s all too true what they say, some people just can’t leave their humble beginnings behind, no matter how much is done for them. For all the better things in life and the advantages of being a part of a successful family, there’ll always be those who are more kitchen than parlor. Breeding always shows in the end.”
Emily looked back down at the lectern. As much as she liked what she’d written, illustrating the dedication and commitment to hard work that went into growing the Gale property from a small family stakehold into one of the largest farms in McPherson County, she was not satisfied with the ending. With a frown of annoyance, Emily Gale stared down at Dorothy, who remained standing in front of the stage. Her friend Eliza was walking towards the parking lot, the tall young man following eagerly.
“Well, just remember, young lady, I want you up here with your father, sitting behind me when I give my speech. Henry Stuart is sending both a reporter and a photographer to write this up for the McPherson County Observer. And you’ll be pleased to know, he said he’d put in a call to a friend of his who runs the Kansas City Star. We might be in the news in the city. Won’t that be exciting?”
Somehow avoiding the nearby trees, a particularly strong gust of wind sneaked up behind Emily and roughly tousled her carefully brushed hair, like an over-excited teenage boy in a schoolyard with too much energy and too large an audience. Feeling the folds of her dress flutter and lift, she reached down, only to see the white papers rise and fly up and over the grassy lawn. Dorothy stepped to intercept them, succeeded in snatching one page in the air and stamped her right foot on the second paper, as it scuttled across the lawn. Looking up at her Auntie Em, who, with the brim of her hat forced close to her ears, seemed to be flying as she stepped off the stage, focused only on the paper under Dorothy’s foot.
“Be careful! Give me that!”
Dorothy picked up the page, added it to the one she’d caught and handed both to her aunt.
“Here. You can have them. I certainly don’t need them.”
Stepping up on the small stage, Dorothy sat in the chair at the end of the single row behind the dais.
Emily Gale stared at the three pages of words, with a scowl twisting her face, daring the words to deny her the opportunity to tell the people, some of whom were already walking towards the stage, the inspiring story of how a hometown girl from humble beginnings lifted herself from poverty to become one of the towns leading citizens. Her speech would also assign some credit to the good lord for having the sense to provide Emily Sauvage with a hard-working husband. The rest, as she smiled, speaks for itself.
August 11 1922 Circe, Kansas (late morning)
“Why Emily! Almira and Aurora and I were upstairs, I guess we didn’t hear you knock. Uh…you’re early!”
I was relieved that Almira remained upstairs with Aurora, when the knocking on the front door began. Despite my having told Emily Gale that the best time to come to the house was 12:30, there she was, standing on our porch at 11:45 am. Stepping past her out to the porch steps, I watched a dust cloud settle over fresh tire tracks in front of the house. Henry, his face barely visible in the truck’s rear view mirror, was headed down County Road #2. I waved at the back of the truck, as far as I could tell, Henry didn’t wave back. I turned back towards Emily and said,
“So Henry isn’t going to join you? Thats too bad, Aurora really took a liking to him that last time we visited. ‘Hen!! Hen’ was all she could say the whole afternoon after we got home.”
“What?” Emily was already in the living room, looking at every corner of the room, a frown growing on her face.
“Henry. Your husband Henry.”
“What about him?”
She turned and looked at me, a flash of annoyance that she struggled to control.
“I thought Henry was going to be with you. You know, for lunch, here, today? Thought the two of you would be making the day of it. Here. Watching Aurora?”
Again her brows tried to control the growing anger and impatience that colored her eyes. Fortunately Almira chose that moment to come halfway down the stairs.
“Hello, Emily. I just have to feed Aurora and then we’ll both come downstairs.”
Emily spun to face Almira,
“I can help…” she broke off the sentence and confusion showed in her eyes as she seemed to struggle to make sense of what she was saying.
“Don’t give it a thought, we won’t be long. I see you brought some toys and blankets, Sterling can show you where you can put them.”
Almira walked back up the stairs and Emily returned her attention in my direction.
“I’m willing to help, you know,”
Emily’s face displayed emotions that I can’t recall ever seeing in one person’s eyes, at least not all at once, at the same time. There was an angry, flinty look in response to my question about her husband, Henry. But even then, there was, underneath, or maybe behind the anger, a shiny, hard calculation as, just for a split second, she measured and assessed. All in a blink of the eye. However, what was startling, perhaps because it occupied her face as the other emotions came and retreated, was a look of sadness. Underneath her slightly furrowed brow and subtly critical eye, was the face of a child confronting the loss of something precious. And, perhaps because it was not on the face of a child, there was not the slightest hint of accepting the loss. As soon as I saw it, it was gone and Emily had moved to the couch and was putting her things down on the table.
“I brought some milk, fresh as can be. Here, put this in the refrigerator for me. I’m sure Dorothy will be getting hungry later on.”
I stopped, startled from my own reverie, but decided that I must have mis-heard her.
The National Weather Service’s newest field office was located on the second floor of the maintenance hanger at the Wichita Municipal Airport
On Friday August 11, 1939 at 6:00 am sharp, the six telegraphs in the new-enough-to-smell-the-paint office of the National Weather Service, started clattering. Most of them relayed routine reports from spotters spread out through the surrounding states, reporting the overnight and pre-dawn weather activity. At precisely 6:24 am, a spotter outside of Norman, OK reported severe thunderstorms. A follow-up from the Tulsa station added to the picture by describing the development of several wall clouds. However, no hail was observed and, within 30 minutes, the sky was clearing as the morning progressed from dawn into full daytime.
Head meteorologist, Barry Conant, was the first meteorologist assigned to the Wichita station. On this particular Friday morning, his first entry into the day’s log read:
‘Preliminary signs of tornadic activity to the south appears to have been false alarms. Seems like just another hot Kansas day.’
He was partially correct.
August 11 1939 Circe, Kansas (early afternoon)
Dorothy sat at the end of the single row of chairs at the back of the small stage. Between her and the gathered dignitaries, politicians, reporters and senior citizens balanced on wooden chairs arrayed across the west lawn of St Mary’s hospital, Dr Thaddeus Morgan was concluding his introduction. The Chief of Medicine had spent the previous 15 minutes explaining how critical a community resource St Mary’s hospital was, not only for Circe, but all the towns in McPherson County.
Her Uncle Henry sat to Dorothy’s left and, next to him his wife, Emily, who was writing frantically on the three sheets of paper in her lap. Each time the audience applauded, she would scrawl a note in the margins. Henry caught Dorothy looking at her stepmother, winked and leaned back in his seat so she could see the pages, each an angry field of cross-outs and corrections.
Emily Gale’s efforts to revise her speech was made all the more difficult by the wind that ruffled the pages in random bursts and breezes. To make matters worse, fast-moving clouds would slide in front of the sun without warning, and the light would switch from glaringly bright to squinting dark without warning. Leaning to her right in order to see around Thaddeus Morgan’s ample backside, Dorothy studied the crowd of Sunday-dressed people sitting on their uncomfortably hard chairs.
A couple just arriving caught her eye, as they walked, hand-in-hand across the lawn. They managed the peculiar ‘slow haste’ that people attempt when late but hope to avoid the attention that running would attract. The young woman wore a dark skirt that, even at the distance Dorothy was, was obviously tightly fitted. Despite the weather and fit of her skirt, the girl wore a sweater, sleeves draped across her shoulders. Being August-hot, the sweater clearly was inspired by some residual modesty, as her blouse was tight and the temperature high. Her companion was tall in a dark suit that did not quite fit. Despite the effort to dress formally, the lack of a neck tie was obviously deliberate.
Dorothy stared and almost let her stiff cardboard, commemorative program drop to the ground as she realized that the young, almost well-dressed man was Hunk Dietrich. Dorothy scanned the audience and spotted Eliza among the guests. The look on Eliza’s face made Dorothy wonder if her friend could read minds, as the grin on her face, a deliberate turning of her head towards where Hunk now sat, made it clear that she, too, recognized the couple.
Dorothy watched as Hunk pulled the chair out for the young woman. Something in her response to having her chair held, made her appear much younger. Even from up on the stage, the girl’s figure was quite noticeable and, with a second jolt of recognition, Dorothy realized that Hunk was sitting next to Becky Stillworth. She was the part-time library worker, full-time high school senior-to-be, who’d stopped Dorothy in the Town Square earlier in the summer, wanting to talk to her about college.
“Every small town has its heroes and, all too often its villains. These are the people who till the land and sew the cloth; every civilization that rises, does so because of the blood, sweat and tears of hard-working people. Every small town has members who, through luck, talent or ambition, rise up and make a difference. Circe is no exception.”
Turning her attention back to Dr. Morgan, Dorothy realized that he was about to introduce her mother. ‘At least then’, she thought, ‘they can get out their silly silver shovels and pretend to dig a hole and all this will be over’. Dorothy’s luggage was already in Eliza’s car, the plan was to drive for Kansas City as soon as they could get away from the ground-breaking ceremony.
Dorothy watched as Hunk leaned and whispered something to Becky Stillworth. Whatever he said caused her to smile and when she smiled, his face lit up in a way that Dorothy thought she would never have seen in the man she thought she knew so well. It was an expression of a happy confidence in himself and a fierce joy in the obviously new relationship.
From the corner of her eye, Dorothy saw movement in the windows of the Charity Ward. It was a flash of white that moved with an uncanny smoothness past the windows closest to the main building on to the left, towards the far end of the ward.
At that moment a cloud slid between the sun and the west lawn of St. Mary’s. Sharp glints and pale reflections in the glass windows were extinguished, and, in that second of slight darkening, Dorothy saw a woman standing in the last window. She had very blonde hair and was staring at Dorothy.
“May I introduce to you a member of the Gale family, Mrs…”
Thaddeus Morgan stuttered in surprise as Dorothy stepped off the stage and, without a glance back, walked towards the front entrance of the hospital.
“…Mrs Emily Gale. Please join me in giving her a warm welcome. She will tell us a little about the journey that brought her to this exciting day.”
A sudden burst of wind ranged across the lawn and rolled over the gathering. It was startling not because of its strength, (although it was, in fact, one of the stronger gusts of the afternoon), what caused people to make sounds of surprise and small noises of fear, was its temperature. Like a rogue wave amidst a normal, and therefore non-threatening, sea, the wind pushed against the women and pulled the hats from the men’s heads. For a day that started with temperatures in the 90s, the coolness of this last wind made the hair rise on the back of the neck of many in the assembled crowd.
Emily Gale cursed the wind and approached the podium, her attention so focused on the three sheets of paper that held her speech, that she did not notice the main door of the hospital closing behind a determined young woman.
August 11 1922 Circe, Kansas (early afternoon)
“Come on, Sterling, let’s get going.”
Almira pulled my right hand, turned me in the direction of the dormitory and we walked around the corner of the building, leaving Emily Gale standing on the porch holding Aurora.
Of course, I’d still be standing there, ten feet from the front of our house, waving at our daughter, setting records for variations on the expression, ‘bye bye’. Aurora laughed her enjoyment of the show I was putting on and mimicked my waving. Her 18-month-old attempt to duplicate my gestures were mostly, ‘b’ sounds with a long vowel. She waved her arms and kept it up as long as I did, all the while, bursting into gurgling laughter.
Emily stood on the porch holding Aurora and smiled cheerfully when the first of the ‘bye byes’ began. Her smile. began to flatten out after only about five minutes, as she tired of the game. For a woman several years younger than Almira, Emily Gale managed to look every bit the stern schoolmarm, standing ramrod straight in her long, too formal dress that looked suspiciously brand-new. Her wire-rim glasses added a steely outline to her eyes. ‘But,’ I thought, ‘no one would buy a dress just to babysit for a neighbor for a couple of hours. Would they?’
“Come on, Sterling, the sooner we have our picnic lunch, the sooner we can get back to our normal lives.”
Almira pulled me along as we waded through the still mostly green grass of the meadow that marked the transition from the level terrain on which the house and the barn and the dormitory building were built, to the gentle slope up to the low hills that rose, like a battlement in the northwest section of our property. We’d decided to take a picnic lunch and blanket out to the spring. This announcement did little to stop Emily’s somewhat frenetic suggestions that we take the whole day for ourselves. With a look I would normally associate with the word ‘fervor’, she actually suggested that we take a trip into Kansas City. She assured us that if we wanted to get away for an overnight trip, it would be no trouble at all.
I caught Almira’s eye and smiled and she relaxed and smiled back at me,
“We all walk before we crawl, Emily. Lets see how Almira and I do with a picnic out at the springs for a couple of hours. Then, maybe for the next time, we might try something more ambitious, we’re very new at this parenting thing, you know?”
“Don’t you agree, dear?”
I reached out and took Almira’s hand and succeeded in breaking the growing intensity in her eyes. My wife is the most patient woman in the world, she has brought together parties that were at the point of physical conflict and, by her calming and peaceful guidance, allow them to come together in agreement. I have also seen my wife, at the time a girl of no more than sixteen, nearly kill a man three times her size. Even as she stood over him, his screams of pain filling the union hall, she remained silent. But in her eyes then, that winter’s night there was the rage-triumphant scream to give pause to any valkyrie of ancient legend. I saw a growing coldness in Almira’s eyes and thought it best to help her focus on the positive.
She held Aurora out to Emily Gale. Emily held our daughter and walked towards the front door. I took advantage of the momentum and broke the spell that threatened to overcome my wife.
I had my arm around Almira as we stood at the wall of evergreens that protected the spring that flowed eternally from the earth, our choice for a picnic lunch. I looked down over the gentle slope of the hills, the meadow we’d just crossed still showing our bent-grass path from the barn. The dormitory and our home just beyond it looked like a midwestern fairy tale castle.
Almira leaned into me and said with a mischievous grin,
“Well, husband-of-mine, I’d say we’re certainly not in Lawrence, Massachusetts, anymore. Wouldn’t you agree?”