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by Tonya Lake
March 3 marks 62 years since the jewelry store explosion on the corner of Main and Lafayette streets in Palmyra.
As far as I know, my sister, Christina (now Christina Blair), and I were the only two children living on the block and only a few doors down from where it happened. I never saw any other children there before, during or even after that time.
I have been wanting to write my recollection of that night, for many years, before those memories are gone forever. Now retired, I decided to finally give it a try.
Unfortunately, since so many years have passed from my young age of seven when this all took place, recollection will probably be amiss of some accuracy.
However, I still remember enough of the highlights to recall more than I thought before I started to write. I think that you don’t easily forget a thing like that, at any age, and just writing about it has jarred my memory a might.
After all, it is a part of Palmyra history and a nod to the resilience of the people of the time.
Maybe others who were there that night could tell their stories, as well. I mean, before we all slip into the clouds of history, ourselves. How often is it that citizens are still alive so many years later, to give first hand reenactments of rudimentary living and ways of dealing with catastrophes.
Perhaps at this time I should also apologize for any mistakes or forgetfulness in my writing. I do not intend to be insensitive to any plight or to harm in any way.
Conversely, this is my commemoration as a child’s perspective on a very different occurrence and date in time. Being on the fringe of it all, I am only offering my take on it, as I remember, through the eyes of a child.
This, I have never forgotten: the fear and helplessness, yet the reliance on and protection I felt from my grandma and grandpa – the assurance that I was safe and now, at this age, how refugee children must feel in war-torn countries, as mine was only a miniscule of their trauma.
Compared to back then, we are so advanced in many ways. So, as I go along, I believe it is important to set the scene by bringing forth distinctions between then and now to detail a little about the way things were back in the 1960s – especially for any young readers out there.
Actually, for me, the velocity of life seemed to really jet starting in the 80s and continues to do so, increasing in speed with each passing year. Once you’ve learned the NOW new thing, it’s old news! In olden times, new things just didn’t seem to occur as often. For instance, cruise control on vehicles really evolved in the 60s, yet it was invented in 1948. Possibly, the ambience of those times was simply cruise control.
If I were painting the scene of that night, the backdrop would be that of an early evening of bustling snow posing itself as a pure white glistening blanket, in an unwavering attempt to light up the night.
However, the heavy thickness of it coming down, swirled around in a blinding frenzy seeming to caution everyone to just stay in by the fire. Although hazardous, you couldn’t help but marvel at the size and different pattern of each flake.
As winters were back then, it was just another unimposing, nearly forgettable type of snow – deep and heavy laden was typical in Missouri. Pure snow? You could play in and eat the snow as much as you wanted without all the warnings that come with doing it today.
Eating snow, and snow ice cream, is just a casual reminiscent of the devil-may-care kind of society back in the days of yore. Today, we are continually warned by scientist of now and future problems of doing so due to the contaminates in the air we breathe.
Not only that, it is the same air that snowflakes fall through so is a health detriment with each breath or tongued snowflake. Those are not my words.
Chris (Christina) and I were living with our grandma and grandpa that year to attend the old Catholic school that once stood where Father Farischon Hall is now.
On the night that all this is leading up to, we had just finished supper and as usual grandad (Albert Lake) went to the front of our upstairs apartment to smoke his pipe and read the newspaper.
He routinely sat in his rocking chair by the front window that displayed a clear picture of the courthouse across the way and overlooked Main Street below.
And, as usual, gram (Elizabeth Meyer Lake), was still in the kitchen in the back of the apartment, washing dishes at the sink that stood fittingly under the kitchen window facing east to the alley below.
Not so typical was that Chris and I were standing on each side of her and having what was to me a most peculiar conversation.
At this time of evening, we would usually be playing somewhere or finishing up homework, however, it being Lent, we were about to trek out into the cold, dark, snowy night to attend mass at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church a few blocks away.
Gram was telling us to go put long pants on under our dress as it was way too cold, on this particular evening, to venture out otherwise. After all, we were under her care, and care – she did!
That alone verifies how cold it was – my grandma never wore pants (except blackberry pickin’) and it was also unheard of for any female, back then, to wear them to church, of all things!
Imagine, if you will, the winters night described by the Burl Ives snowman, narrator in the animated “The Night Before Christmas,” when Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer saved the day.
Well, the red nosed heroes of this night were two legged with the same steely spined determination, grounded, and using only their hands and feet until whatever tools and equipment became available.
Feeling lucky to be able to wear britches on such a cold night (even though we still had to have our dress on), Chris and I quickly ran to change our clothes, then returned comfy and cozy in our nice long pants.
Blissfully unaware of what was about to happen, we parked ourselves, one on each side of Gram, again, to receive further instructions for the walking and attending of mass that evening.
All of a sudden, we heard a loud, heart-stopping “BOOM!” Not the kind of boom (described as amazing) associated with social media these days. The earth shook, glass flew into the kitchen and all over the three of us.
So implausibly startled, we all jumped in chorus with the jarringly loud interruption. Then, all we seemed to be able to do was stand there in the aftershock’s deafening silence, stunned – just waiting for what was about to happen next.
Without a word, Gram now had placed each hand on the shoulder of Chris and I, and held on tight. Sliding her arms down our back, she stooped down, held us close by her sides, turned all three of us around and started scooting to the front of the apartment.
Approaching the living room, there was grandad, motionless, still sitting in his rocker, holding up his opened newspaper, broken glass in his lap, and snow flying in all over him from the broken window.
As Gram pushed us towards him, she shouted, “Dad, somebody shot at us!”
Coming to his senses, Grandad, started to rouse, removed the pipe from his mouth and warned, “no, it was bigger than a shot!”
He stood up, took a quick look out the window turned and we shadowed him as he slowly walked to the back of the apartment. When he opened the door for our exit to the porch, we were again met with strange disbelief.
The high wires that zigzagged across the alley were slowly flaming and falling against the dark sky adding to the already rattled evening.
It was at that time that my seven-year-old mind, full of the popular scary TV shows and movies of the time, surmised what was happening. To me, the sky was falling – we were in the ‘Twilight Zone!’
I guess grandad knew he had to get us out of the building. He coaxed us back inside to put our coats on then down the front stairs onto Main Street we went.
And there it was, the jewelry store laid toppled all over the sidewalks and streets of Main and Lafayette. Again, the already eerily atmosphere was shifting course.
My mind flashed to pictures like this on TV news programs airing Vietnam. So, is that Vietnam coming here, I wondered? Grandad needs to get his gun and we need to go hide!
Gram was so distressed when she saw her good friend, Miss Cross’ apartment was all gone except for the closet.
Chris, seeing Gram looking around for her friend, spoke up and said, “maybe Miss Cross had been in the closet so somehow escaped injury.”
As it turned out, I believe Miss Cross wasn’t home at the time of the explosion.
As townsfolk started to appear, like small bulldozers they scrambled fast and fiercely around the big pile of rubble. Long into the night, they continued to frantically and bravely battle the brutally cold, snowy, windy weather and huge pile of debris, that were blindly leading them into their worst fears.
That night proved to me that that old adage that “it is too cold to snow,” is far from the truth. I think many of us would beg to differ as it was as brutally cold as I can ever remember – and none of us was out there for fun!
Working as fast as possible, carrying and moving rocks and boards and anything they could to dig down, never mind that as far as anyone knew, there could have been another explosion.
Their only thought and purpose at that time was trying to find what they dreaded was underneath it all. As the night grew on, even more people and equipment appeared to help with the digging.
Unclear of what had happened we were not allowed to go back into the buildings except to hurriedly gather any necessities.
So, back upstairs, I remember, gram desperately searching in the phone book (yeah, we had those back then) and her shaking finger looking for a particular number.
Right now, I have to wonder why, as I can’t imagine phones or electricity working at that point or anything being so important to risk us being back in the apartment at that time (My memory eludes me of this poignant part of the evening).
I suspect it was to find a place where we could go for the night. Remember, this was back when cell phones and internet were not only non-existent, what’s more, inconceivable to say the least.
As it turned out, we were split up and took refuge at different places there in town: Chris and I went to our Aunt Ruth and Uncle Joe’s; Grandad went to his daughter’s house, Elva and Ray Barnes; and Gram went to her brother’s, Charlie and Marge Meyers.
Of all those family members, in that generation, my Dad is the only one still living.
Until then, we had to wait on the snow-covered, cold, sidewalk and try to stay out of the ambulance and everyone’s way. Again, so glad for britches!
No bystanders were allowed nearby, rather only helpful responding citizens were acceptable lest another explosion occurred.
Meanwhile, in my hometown of Philadelphia, Mo., mom and dad (Howard and Carmen Lake) were getting interspersed news flashes on one of the two TV channels we had back then.
Reception was only as clear as it was (brought in by the antenna (dubbed rabbit ears) that set on top of the television as there was no cable or dish either) received on the black and white remote-less television set.
One broadcast was about the explosion while the other warned of the bad weather and road conditions and that travel was nearly impossible now.
Mom and Dad were perhaps living the worst nightmare of all of us as they had no idea what had happened to us and the news was not that clear since it was all still sketchily taking place.
All they knew were the whereabouts of a terrible explosion and the ongoing frenzy as workers tried desperately to save lives.
The unknown condition of their children and dad’s parents had to be, and in fact, was unbearable and they were faced with, what I suspect, is one of the hardest decisions they have ever had to make in their lifetime.
Dad would have to face that terrible night and try to get to Palmyra. And Mom would have to stay at home with our other siblings, wondering how much of her family was left and now would even her husband return safely.
We lived on a farm about two miles from Philadelphia and one mile of it was only a gravel road. Clearing the roads of snow or ice wasn’t as prompt, if at all, back then as it is now.
And only few people owned four-wheel drive pickups (my dad wasn’t one of them and most were for off-road only).
There were no front-wheel or all-wheel drive vehicles, at least not in our realm of reality (my blurred memory believes they became common about the early 1980s).
Dad’s only option that night was the family car. My guess is that it was an old rear-wheeled drive with a carburetor (no fuel-injection) Chevy of some sort with only whatever weight he added to the trunk for traction (maybe he had chains?)
When he made it to town (Philadelphia), he stopped at the tavern (popular hang-out back then) where Paul Graves volunteered to ride with him the rest of the way.
I think vehicles were typically heavier back then which probably helped them make it to Palmyra and back.
Having a heavier car was doable as gas ran about .31 cents a gallon except during gas wars when it would drop to around .09 cents a gallon. So, I dare say, “those were the good old days.”
Through it all, I don’t think I saw my dad that night except as an apparition, as I vaguely remember through the bustle as the night went on. That might have been intentional as he probably would have a hard time leaving town with Chris and I behind.
Not only on his part, but I think Chris and I had enough of this haunting evening and were ready to go home, and had we seen him, we would have clung for dear life! I’d had just about as much city-life as I could stand.
In the daze (days) that followed, Chris and I would walk around the rubble on our way to school as it took a while to clean everything up.
On the weekends, we would stand at grandad’s replaced glass window, looking out on the street below and watch all the bumper-to-bumper and out-of-state license plates of cars traveling down Main Street.
Some were fascinated onlookers, I suspect, however, there was no four-lane highway just east of town like there is now.
So, at the end of it all, looking back, I can’t help but wonder if the falling of the portion of that row of buildings, the blast, the death, the decisions in the weeks that followed, marked the end of an era somehow.
Oh, it would be subtle I’m sure as most things are like that but some of us oldsters can conceivably look back and see how something that changed in the past redirected the future in various ways and I speculate that evening did, too.
One can never tell in “The Twilight Zone!”