But I lay awake most of that night reading the book about the vicious tornado that hit St. Louis on the afternoon of Wednesday, May 27, 1896, killing more than 300 people, injuring more than 1000. It was really a collection of newspaper articles written back then, right after the storm. So there were many sad stories.[i]
And many strange things happened that day, too:
The twister peeled the bark from some giant oak trees.
A roof flew from one house and landed on another.
Two horses, hitched to a wagon, were blown away and never found. The wagon, left behind, was undamaged.
At the powerhouse for a railway, the entire building flew away, leaving behind the machinery inside, still operating. Later that day, hundreds of people came to see this strange sight.
The storm ripped out a telegraph pole, carried it away, and then dropped it down a chimney.
A robin was found with feathers on one side—and no feathers on the other.
A birdcage was sucked out a window and left high in the telegraph wires. The owner found it later when he heard his pet bird, completely unhurt, chirping merrily away.
Three women—caught outside in the storm—had all their clothes blown off and ran naked down the street.
When I read that, I laughed so hard that Father came in my room and made me turn the light off again.
But I just waited a while, then turned it back on and finished the book.
The next afternoon, down in the basement (where there were even more tools to use), I started making something out of some of the pieces of wood Father had given me—and with other things I found down there.
Let me remind you: I was four years old. Just four years old. No one had ever given me a lesson with a hammer or saw. I had watched my father use his sometimes, but not very often. (He wasn’t that interested in being a handyman.) And I had never seen any television, so I didn’t learn anything from that.
But for some reason, I knew what to do. I knew exactly what to do.
At supper that night my father asked me the usual questions:
“How did you enjoy your day? What did you read? What did you learn how to do today?”
And I answered them: “I loved my day. I finished the tornado book. And today I learned how to be a carpenter.”
When I said that, he laughed out loud, almost spitting out a mouthful of the spaghetti that Aunt Claire had cooked for us.
“That didn’t take long,” he finally said in mid-chew. “Only an afternoon,” he joked lightly, “and you’re a carpenter.”
“Only an afternoon,” I echoed.
“Well, did you make something this afternoon?”
“Yes, Father, I did.”
He looked at me.
“Would you like to see it?”
“Of course I would.”
I excused myself from the table and went to my room. What I had made was so heavy that I could hardly carry it—it had been really hard getting it up the basement stairs, so Aunt Claire had helped me lug it into my room just before my father got home from work.
When he saw me coming into the room, he jumped up from his chair and took the object from me. He sat down with it on the little couch we have in our huge dining room.
“Vickie?” he asked. “What … ?”
“Lift up the lid, Father.”
“The lid,” he said softly. He was very confused, and I was very happy.
Here’s what I had made for him. It was a little desk he could use in bed. If he propped himself up against his headboard, the desk would fit right over his lap. It was tilted slightly toward him, and I’d put a little piece of wood along the bottom so that pencils or pens would not roll into the bed. I’d cut a little circle in it to hold a cup or glass. Inside, I’d made separate little compartments for paper, pens and pencils, envelopes.
He wasn’t saying anything.
“It’s not finished yet,” I said. “I sanded it. But I didn’t have any paint or wood stain.”
He still hadn’t said anything. And he was just looking at me.
“Vickie, where did you get this? Did Aunt Claire—?”
“Yes,” I said.
“I thought so.” He looked relieved.
“She helped me carry it upstairs. But I made it all by myself.”
He didn’t look relieved any longer.
It took Aunt Claire to convince him that I’d done all the work by myself. Oh, he pretended to believe me. But after supper I could hear him at the front door as Aunt Claire was about to leave for the day. I was in the parlor, listening where they couldn’t see me. Aunt Claire’s voice was too soft for me, so I can report only what Father said.
“Claire?” Pause. “About that bed-desk?” Pause. “Really?” Pause. “Yes, it is amazing.” Pause. “Yes, very surprising.” Pause. “Well, thank you. I’ll see you tomorrow.” I heard the door open and close.
“Vickie?” he called.
“Yes, Father.” I looked up from my book as he came in the room.
“Vickie, how … ? I mean, who showed you … ?” He couldn’t seem to figure out what to say.
“I don’t know, Father. I just looked at the wood. And I looked at the tools. And a picture came in my head. And the tools helped me make what I saw in the picture.” I waited a moment. And then I told him the truth: “It was easy, Father. Really easy.”
And it was easy. I wasn’t lying. And I’m not lying now.[ii]
My father never looked at me quite the same way again.