Tornado Alley Near St. Louis MO 

Yesterday, I was on the phone doing family history research with a distant cousin in Southern Illinois.  After a half hour of  intense concentration about birth dates and burial locations, we were interrupted by concerned family members on the New Columbia, IL side of the phone call.  The St. Louis Airport terminal had just been hit by a tornado. We decided to end the call so they could go into the storm shelter in the basement.

This reminded me of my father Willis Lyndell Helmantoler’s memoir of the stormy night he was born on a farm in that same New Columbia, Massac County, Illinois town.  I dedicate it to those who live under the threats of tornado alley.


It was a dark and stormy night.  Lightning was flashing and thunder was crashing over a small frame house in the tiny hamlet of New Columbia, Illinois.  Outside the house the lightning struck and killed a small brown calf.  Inside the house a young woman screamed.  She was giving birth to her first child:  Me.   She was barely nineteen years old in that year of 1921.

Beside her bed sat my father and a half-drunk country doctor.  They were both drenched from their ride through the storm in an open wagon.   In spite of the weather and the late hour I arrived in this world squalling and kicking and fighting for life.

At the moment my father was between jobs.  He had left school after the sixth grade to work on his widowed mother’s farm.  During World War I he had served as a medic in the Army.   On this particular night he was suffering from a severely diminished cash flow: the family lived on a total of $21.00 for the first six months of my life.  I can imagine him worrying that night about another mouth to feed.

In the other room of the tiny house my ten-year-old half-brother, Wayne, waited for the birthing and the storm to end.  He would ask that I be named after his best friend.   By the dim light of a kerosene lamp the old doctor prepared a birth certificate for a long skinny baby with the name Lyndell Helmantoler.

A few months later my father began a three-year stint as a tenant farmer.  He worked from “can’t see to can’t see.”  A team of mules pulled his plow and harrow.  My mother raised much of our food in a garden beside the little three-room house in which we lived.

Of course, there was no electricity or plumbing in farmhouses in that area in those days.  A black woodburning stove in the kitchen kept us warm and cooked our food.  Kerosene lamps lighted the house at night.  A cow named Bossie supplied us with ample milk.

In the late afternoon I would watch from the kitchen window as my parents went about their chores.  On one such occasion I fell from that window and broke my arm.  This was a major disruption to farm life: I had to be taken by mule-drawn wagon to a doctor several miles away – an all-day trip.

When we got back home I threw my shirt onto the floor and refused my father’s order to pick it up.  It was the only time in my life that he ever spanked me.  That disciplinary action made a deep and lasting impression on me.  From that day on I was always responsive to my father’s instructions.   I never again challenged his authority.

During that time on the farm he often went “coon” hunting at night.  On one of those nights a group of men gathered in our yard and built a fire.  My mother and brother and I could see their shadows as they walked to and fro.   They pounded on our door and demanded to be admitted.  My 13-year-old brother stood guard with an iron poker that was longer than he was.  He called out, “The first man through the door will die.” They retreated to their bonfire and milled around for what seemed an eternity. When we heard my father’s wagon cross a wooden bridge, they departed.

My father was convinced that the men were from the Ku Klux Klan.  They had been pressuring him to join their ranks.  I have always been proud of the courage he demonstrated in refusing their offer of membership.

The terrors we face make us stronger. He became a very strong but humble man.