'53: bloodied by wind, rain, bayonet

By: John Young, Waco Tribune-Herald

We read about what a tornado can do — how it can pile-drive a shaft of straw into a telephone pole, how it can pick up a cow and drop it in another county.

But consider this: The worst storm in Waco history deposited one its many injured all the way up in the Dallas suburb of McKinney — where he was treated for a bayonet wound.

Fifty-five years later, Eugene Reeves doesn't remember the man's name, only his story and treating his wound.

The man's injuries weren't serious within the hell wrought downtown that day, May 11, 1953.

Indeed, he was lucky to be alive. One hundred and fourteen people that day were not so lucky. He was among 597 people reported injured. Then again, he may have been 598, for he didn't hang around to be counted. Eventually you will understand why.

A traveling salesman from the Dallas area, the man was in his hotel room in downtown Waco that afternoon tending to his books. His business was to provide clients in the region with prescription drugs.

Eventually he had to turn the light on in his room. A menacing front had turned the sky into ink.

Then it started acting out. The storm started to rattle the building. As it grew more fierce and alarming, he crawled under the bed in his third-floor, top-floor room. Then rain was pouring in. The roof was gone.

When the storm finally passed, he crawled out to see that two corner walls were gone as well. Below: untold devastation. He stayed there for a long time — ‚•©minutes turning into hours. At first he yelled for help, maybe from a fire truck. Finally, after waiting and waiting, and realizing how many others were yelling and moaning in mortal pain, he realized others needed help far worse.

The stairway was gone. Below was a river of debris. He gauged the slope of the collapsed plywood and sheetrock below him and decided to negotiate his way down to the street using his mattress as a sled.

By this time, the city was one giant triage and recovery center. He stumbled down Franklin Avenue, his business records and belongings left behind. He tried to take a short-cut through some quarantined property. Suddenly, a National Guardsman confronted him.

He was startled into speechlessness, then, as the military man poked him in the chest with his bayonet. He wanted no part of any confrontation. He wanted a bus out of here.

He made his way to the Greyhound station on Sixth Street. Miraculously, the buses were still running. He took the bus to Dallas. That night, for treatment, he went to the Veterans Administration hospital in McKinney, where Eugene Reeves was an aide.

The wound was superficial. "Just a little hole in his sternum," said Reeves, who said he felt more concern that moment about what the man had left behind in Waco.

Reeves tried to get him to contact the Red Cross or someone to retrieve his money box and all of his records.

"That's the last thing on my mind," Reeves said. "I've got to get my nerves straightened out."

The man thanked Reeves for his care and disappeared into the calm North Texas night.

"That was the last I heard of him," said Reeves, who moved to Waco to work at its VA hospital after McKinney's closed in 1965.

Reeves still wonders if the man ever got his records back and if he lost his money box.

Regardless, the man did have what at least 165 families in this town did not that night — a home to which he could return. That's how many residences were destroyed. Much is said of how downtown was devastated. Less is said of families left homeless.

Yes, the traveling salesman was a lucky man. But like so many who survived, he was a wounded man.

The flesh wound? It was, said Reeves, "one injury the tornado didn't inflict."

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