Living Life on the Edge: Growing up in a Storm Cellar

I tell people that I was raised in a storm cellar.  I was born and raised in a small Northeast Texas town. Growing up in the mid-50s, every spring we had horrific electrical storms.

My grandmother, mother and our bulldog, Judy, were all terrified of storms. When storms would roll in, my Papa would go out in the back yard and watch it.  He would decide when the time was right for us to go to the storm cellar.

As is the normal event of things, storms always seemed to come in the night. When I was 10 years old, my mom worked out of town and I lived with my grandparents.  That particular year, we had quite a few electrical storms that spring.  Consequently, it seemed like we spent lots of time underground.

When the storm would start to move in, my grandparents would get up, get fully dressed and start trying to get me up too.  Since I wasn’t too concerned about our pending plight, I would “play-like” I was asleep.  Of course, it’s very difficult to continue to sleep when every few minutes Momma Riddle comes in my room in a flutter, saying, “Get up, the storm is coming.”  I roll over, mumble and cover my head.

A few minutes would go by and here she comes again, “Peggy, get up and get dressed. We’ve got to go to the storm cellar.”  I pulled my pillow over my head and think to myself if I lay perfectly still she will think I’m really asleep.

The final straw came when, she walked in my bedroom, yanked the cover off me, hollered in a shrill voice, “Peggy Frances, get up! We’ve got to go!  We’re going to get blown away!”

She would always use those same words, “We’re going to get blown away!” Looking back, I can see that she clearly believed that if we didn’t get in the storm cellar, we would truly get blown away.

Storm cellars are usually located only a few feet from the house.  In our case, we didn’t have one. Yep, we had to walk 2 houses down the street to the Madison family’s cellar.  As a matter of fact, many people that lived close by would also go there when bad storms would move in.

I remember one particular time when Papa didn’t quite get his analysis correct as to the timing to head to Madison’s place.  I don’t recall if I was the hold-up because they couldn’t get me out of the bed or what.  However, here we go, Momma Riddle, Papa, me and the bulldog, Judy.

It is pitch dark, raining hard, lightning is striking all around us and thundering to-beat-the-band.  The wind is howling as trees are thrashing around and limbs snapping off.  As we make our way down the street, there are times when the lightning is so brilliant that it lights up the entire neighborhood as if we are walking in broad daylight.

As we inch our way around to the back of the Madison home to the cellar, we sort of move as one unit all three of us huddling together.  When we get to the cellar, Papa gives the door a yank a couple of times but the wind is so strong, it’s not opening.

At this point, I’m thinking, Momma Riddle might be right; we are going to get blown away after all.  Finally, someone inside pushed up the door a bit and Papa is able to raise it enough for us to climb in.

Judy darts in first, followed by me, and my grandparents.  As I peer in, my eyes adjusting to a dim light shining from the back of the cellar.  I see the faces of our neighbors staring back at us.  People are sitting on benches.  People are standing everywhere.  The place is full of people.  There are so many folks that the only place for us to sit is, stooped over, on the stairs.

This underground structure is huge.  At least to this 10-year old, it appears to be massive.  It is a two-room semi-submerged structure made of 4-inch thick concrete walls.  The front room has a concrete floor, however, the backroom has a dirt floor.  That backroom has shelves lining the walls It is sultry and damp.  It is musty and smelt of dirt and onions.

Onions?  Yes, back then, folks used their storm cellars for food storage.  Along the back side of the unit, there are shelves filled with onions, potatoes, and jars of home-canned vegetables.

The storm continues to howl and howl outside for most of the night.  I don’t know how long we are there with 30 some-odd other people but it seems like forever.  I am so very tired.  I just want to go home, get in my warm feather bed, cover my head and go back to sleep.

We sit there to what seemed like hours until the storm finally subsides and we make our way back home.  It is still sprinkling rain but at least the lightning and thunder have moved on further east from us.

Crawling back into the bed, I immediately go to sleep for a very short time when my grandmother starts calling me to get up again.  This time her calls are for me to get up and ready for school.  I am so very tired and it is extremely difficult to concentrate at school as all I want is to lay down for a nap.

This entire year living with my grandparents there is a multitude of times that we make that trek back down the street in the middle of the night to Madison’s storm cellar.

After that one event, I guess Papa decided it is time that he built us our own storm cellar.  He marked off a spot out in our yard that was approximately 5-ft wide by 6-ft long, clear of any trees and to my best estimate 20 ft from our back door.

He starts digging out the dirt with a shovel.  He works out there every evening, digging a little deeper each time until he has hulled out that 5 x 6 foot area and about 6 feet deep.  Next, he starts laying in some 1×4 pieces of lumber on the floor and built up a frame on the 4 walls, filling in the walls with the 1x4s.

Finally, he built a top frame and covers it with sheet metal.  He hones out 4-5 steps for us to be able to get down inside. He either makes or buys a couple pallets that he puts down on the floor and made a couple of wooden benches to sit on.  Finally, he makes a door frame covering it also with sheet metal and attaches it.

I have no idea how long it took Papa to accomplish this feat.  However, we can now say we have our very own Riddle storm cellar.

Soon another storm begins to brew in the west. Momma Riddle wakes me in the middle of the night telling me to get up and get dressed because a storm is brewing.  I struggle to extricate myself out of the bed, put my clothes on and out the door we go with Judy, the bulldog, to our very own new storm cellar.

I am sort of excited because I’ve watched Papa build this cellar with his bare hands.  Furthermore, I’m thinking that we don’t have to dodge lightning running down the street anymore.

Since Papa hasn’t strung an electrical line to our cellar, he has his oil-lantern in tow to light the way. As he opens the door for us to enter, we are faced with massive spider webs across the doorway.  Of course, Judy has no problem being the first one down in this dungeon-like hole in the ground.  I’m supposed to be the next one in and I’m balking at the idea of going in there with spiders.

Papa waves his arm across the webs so we can all pile in there.  As I gingerly sat down on one of the benches, I’m obviously thinking about where the spiders are that created those webs.

Old Judy immediately crawls under a bench panting and shaking with ever clap of lightning and thunder.  Poor old thing, she is about 7 years at this time. She is a Boxer-English bulldog mix. We got her when she was 2.  She had experienced some traumatic incident in her earlier life that made her terrified of the sound of thunder, firecrackers or guns.  She would go into fits of panting and trembling and trying to hide under the bed.

When she got to be about 10 years old, we finally had to get the vet to prescribe something that would semi-sedate her at New Year’s Eve and Fourth of July because she would be in such a panic.

So, here we are in our new storm cellar.  It is raining and lightning and thundering.  Two things started to happen.  First, water began to slowly seep in from around the roof and roll down the wooden walls.

I’m sitting there thinking about those spiders and my mind is also thinking about the fact that snakes live in the ground and there just might be some coming in through those cracks.

Next, the pungent smell of kerosene being emitted from Papa’s lantern begins to fill the room.  I seemed to remember that he might have installed some type of pipe in the roof of the cellar that would let in the fresh air.  The only problem is there are 3 people and a dog vying for oxygen to breathe yet we are inhaling kerosene fumes.  We all are coughing.

It becomes apparent even to this 10-year old that we have a matter of whether we get blown away in the storm by going back to the house, drown underground in this hole or be asphyxiated by kerosene fumes.

So out we come–all except Judy.  She would not budge from under the bench.  I call her.  Momma Riddle calls her promising a cheese treat which was her favorite. Papa tries to coax her out.  She continues to huddle there, panting and trembling.

Momma Riddle and I run back to the house, dodging lightning and rain pelting our backs.  Finally, Papa picks Judy up–all 40 pounds of her and carries her to the back porch.

My grandmother is still so very certain that we are going to get blown away she turns on every light in the house.  She does not want me to get back in bed but to sit up in the living room with her and Papa.  At some point, I lay down on the sofa and went back to sleep.

The next thing I know, I awake to the smell of frying bacon, fresh-brewed coffee Momma Riddle is in the kitchen banging pans.  It is just another day in my young life spending the night in a storm cellar.

Papa did make some corrections to his storm cellar design.  However, as I got to be older, I would tell them, “Just go without me and let the storm blow me away. I’m too tired.”

They finally stopped going because they couldn’t get me to get up in the middle of the night.  They certainly were not going to leave me alone either.

I will report that I have asked many of our older family members about this theory of us getting blown away in a storm and to my knowledge that has never happened.  I did find out a few years ago from my grandmother’s niece that great grandmother Cochran was terrified of storms.

Thank God that the generational curse was never passed down to me.

Peggy P. Edge © 2015