The Cyclone

By Helen Erwin Campbell


Odes Erwin worked with horses, either on a rented farm or in the oilfields of Kansas, but the world kept changing. In 1928 he sold his work team, purchased a truck, and managed to find jobs utilizing it. During that summer he brought our mother, Hazel Hayworth Erwin, and his younger children to Valley Center near Wichita for about three weeks while he did a hauling job. We all moved into the upstairs of a house belonging to the Blacks. They lived in the downstairs portion of the house with their son Tommy, who was somewhere around my sister’s and my ages. Mary was ten and I was eight. Our brother Bub (Raymond), then not quite thirteen, worked in the fields for Mr. Black for one dollar per day.

Mrs. Black was not a clean person, either in her personal grooming or in her housekeeping. When we moved in, there seemed to be beds available for everyone but me, and she kindly offered a small trundle bed, which Mom stored under  my folks bed in the daytime, and pulled out at night. I liked it; it was just my size, and I felt special for having it.

I had a restless first night’s sleep. I tossed and turned and kept disturbing Mom. Her concern was that I would wake up Dad, and he needed his sleep.

She finally asked, “What’s the matter with you?

I answered, I don't know. I just feel like things are crawling all over me. But I finally slept.

The next morning Mom checked my mattress and was horrified to find the thing had bedbugs! Before she even washed the breakfast dishes she looked it all over, crushing all the bugs she could find with her thumb nail. She then scrubbed it with a small brush dipped in turpentine and put it out in the sun to dry and air. My bed that night was still a little smelly, but I slept a whole lot better.

One day during those three weeks I remember admiring the white biscuit kind of clouds that filled the blue sky. Later in the afternoon the wind came up, my pretty clouds disappeared, and the sky darkened. In addition, Mrs. Black and Mom seemed a little anxious.

We children asked what was wrong. Mom looked up at the now menacing sky. That's a cyclone cloud coming.

All my life I’d heard about cyclones. Where's Dad? Is he coming home?

We were assured that Dad and the other men would have seen the cloud, and that they’d be coming soon.

Mrs. Black became increasingly upset and started pacing up and down in the yard outside her kitchen, wringing her hands and moaning. Her child Tommy followed closely behind her, trying to hold on to her skirts and wailing, Am I gonna die, Mama? Am I gonna die?

I ran to Mom, “Are we gonna die Mama?”

She was calmly reassuring. “Of course not. Dad will be here soon, and we’ll all be fine.” I was no longer afraid.

My mother kept watching the sky and watching for the men to come, but I didn’t. I watched Mrs. Black as she continued to paced up and down, still wringing her hands and moaning, and with her son still at her heels and whining, Am I gonna die Mama?

The men finally got the teams in and came rushing to the house, and Dad arrived in his truck. They herded us all to the storm cellar. We hadn’t gone there sooner because there was a large tree behind it, and the wind was coming from that direction. They were afraid the tree might come down on the mound that was the top of the cellar. As the cloud grew in size, and the sky got darker, that had become the lesser of two evils.

At the last minute Dad ran back to roll up the windows in his truck. There were things flying through the air—leaves, dirt, small branches—and a tin washtub that had hung on a nail outside the kitchen door hit him alongside the head. He rubbed the spot and ran back to join the rest of us.

The men watched the progress of the storm from the open cellar door. After the funnel cloud had gone over, we all rushed for the house just before the rain came down in torrents. Everyone sat around in the Black’s living room, and the adults discussed the storm and other storms they’d experienced or heard about. There was a lull in the conversation, and we heard a small voice from close by Mrs. Black's chair.

Am I dead, Mama? Am I dead?

Mary and I giggled. Mom shushed us, and Dad gave us a look. We shushed.

The cyclone did a lot of damage in the area, but where we were it only blew down a large tree in the front yard, but not the one over the storm cellar.

It was Mom’s calmness in the middle of a terrifying situation that made that memory one of amusement instead of fright. Im grateful to her.


Cyclone: Derivation of the Term

Cyclone—the word once struck dread in the hearts of many facing its fury. It first surfaced in the Indian city of Calcutta from the mind of an Englishman. He used it to describe the weather phenomenon that is a swirl of counterclockwise winds around a low pressure center.  

While serving as President of the Marine Court of Calcutta, Henry Piddington, a former sea captain, studied the stormy weather of the Indian Ocean. He had particularly focused on the devastating tropical storm of December 1789 that inundated the coastal town of Coringa with three monstrous storm waves that killed more than 20,000.

In a presentation to the Asiatic Society of Bengal around 1840, Piddington described that 1789 storm as a cyclone, a term derived from the Greek word kyklon which means moving in a circle, like the coil of the snake. Piddington introduced the word to mariners in his 1848 book, The Sailor’s Horn-Book for the Law of Storms.

By 1856, the term was used to describe the storms we now call tornadoes, such as the Kansas cyclone of Wizard of Oz fame. In many parts of the Midwest, tornado shelters are still called cyclone cellars. In 1875, the international meteorological community adopted the term to describe a low pressure system with counterclockwise wind field. Today, only tropical storms in the Indian Ocean are still called cyclones.                                                                                                                          -Ed.