A True Texas Tale
by Miriam Hogan, O.C.D.
I only met my Uncle Willie Gray about three times. I liked him immediately. He had a way of making you feel good and confident about yourself. He was a tall rugged gentle man who wore a white Stetson and black cowboy boots. In another era, you'd have expected to see him come riding up on a white stallion and wearing six shooters.
The first time I met him was at his home. He was happy to have to have a visit from his Northern niece, or as I was better known as Eva's girl. I remember that he took me out and showed me how he fed his white long horn cattle. A small herd but he was very proud of them.
The following year I met him again at Christmas time. I was staying with my aunt in another town. He came with his wife, for a visit. He had sold the white cattle but had bought a new Chevy Truck. We all went out to look at it. Shiny new and black...you could see on his face the joy of a child discovering his first new red wagon under the Christmas tree. Everyone agreed it was a fine piece of equipment.
The next Christmas was the last time I saw him. He didn't say very much. In fact most of the time he sat in our company with the silence of someone who has experienced things too deep to be expressed in mere words. That year it was my cousins who told me the story of the tornado and of Willie Gray's inner strength and determination.
You see my mother's side of the family all live in the Pan Handle of Texas about 80 miles south of Amarillo.This territory is often subject to flash floods and tornadoes. My Aunt Annie Mae who always remembers the details showed me where three of the relatives had drowned in a flash flood one year. So, when the family would get together at Christmas I'd have a funny feeling about who might not be with us the following year. There was no way however that I could have guessed the significance of the new truck that December.
In June of the next year, a tornado hit my cousin's place. Edna Jewell and her husband Alf and their eleven-year-old daughter La Verne lived on a small farm about a half a mile from the main highway. The cousins said that they should have been all right because they had heard the warnings and were safe in the storm cellar.The problem was that after the tornado had passed by, Edna Jewell and Alf came up to look at the damage to their home.
Then, the second tornado hit. La Verne was close enough to make it back to the shelter. Edna Jewell and Alf however were fully exposed. They dove for a small ditch and Alf threw himself on top of Edna Jewell covering her with his body. The second tornado followed along the same path as the first one. Alf died and Edna Jewell was badly injured.
When La Verne got to where she could see her parents she knew that she had to get help. She started walking toward the highway. It was slow going (seemed like it took forever) because of the mud and the dibris and she was scratched and bleeding before she got to the road. When she made it to the highway, she immediately asked to call her grandfather.
Willie Gray came in his new truck and by that time the disaster relief people were also on the highway. They told him that he would have to turn back, the road was not passable and that no one could get into the farm. He said, "Well you can be sure you are going to see me try." Gunning the accelerator, and rocking the truck back and forth he was able reach the place where Edna Jewell was laying. He put her in the back of his truck and managed to drive back to the highway. Badly injured they knew that the only hope for her to live was to get her to the hospital eighty miles away in Amarillo. There was no time to wait for an ambulance so they put Edna Jewell in the back of Mary's car. (Willie Gray's oldest daughter.) She took off for Amarillo with Willie Gray riding beside her. At one point she said, "Daddy I can't get any speed out of this car". Willie Gray said that he looked over at the speedometer and she was doing 120mph at the time.
The doctors were able to save Edna Jewell's life. Her body was full of straw and other debris but it had been shielded just enough by Alf's body for her to survive. My cousin La Verne had problems riding in a car for over a year, as she was afraid that the hood would come flying up and hit her. The farm could not even be plowed that year as the tornado had driven stakes into the ground and made the land unusable until it was cleaned up.
Eventually, however Edna Jewell remarried and life went on. La Verne was also able to control her fears and let the psychological scars from the tornado begin to heal. To this day, I also have a soft spot in my heart and a new respect for a proud man and his truck.