On harrowing day, Dodgers cap had to wait

James Vowell

May 11, 1953, was a day I had been looking forward to for weeks. That's the day my father, Mattie Ree Vowell, had agreed to take me to New York Clothiers in the 300 block of Austin Avenue for a Brooklyn Dodgers baseball cap.

I was 10 and a fourth grader at North Waco Elementary. My dad operated a furniture refinishing and antique shop at 326 N. Sixth St. in downtown Waco.

After school I caught the bus across the street from school at 20th and Alexander. The weather was ominous, but a deal was a deal and I was intent on getting my baseball cap

By the time I got downtown it was almost 4 p.m. and had begun raining lightly. I went to the shop and said to my dad, "Let's go before it starts raining too hard." He said no, that he was busy and that we could wait. The store, he said, would be open for another hour or so.

I paced the floor in my father's shop. Back and forth, front to back, I watched the progress of the storm. The shop was on the west side of the street, just down a modest hill between Columbus and Jefferson, not far from the court house and across from the episcopal church. By 4:30 to 4:45 or so, the storm had unleashed its fury.

Rain poured. Trash can lids and debris flew down Sixth Street. By now my dad and I had agreed that it was foolhardy to try to make it over to the clothing goods store. I was resigned. No baseball cap for me this day.

The lights flickered and ultimately went out. About 5:45, we decided to go home. The rain had pretty much stopped. But dad couldn't work in the dark, and no customers were braving the weather for antiques.

We got in the truck and headed up Sixth to Columbus, where dad started a right turn. He slowed down as I asked, "What's wrong with the water tower on top of the Goldstein-Miguel building?" It looked like it had fallen over, we both agreed.

By this point I think my father was worried that something had happened, but he must have wanted to get home to make sure his wife (and my mom) Ila Lou and my brothers Gene and Wesley were OK.

Mom and Gene were home when we got there. Mom said that she had been watching the storm and that about a hour before she heard what sounded like a freight train in the distance. She thought it must have been a tornado. But the lights were out and we didn't have a radio that worked. For another hour or so we had no idea what was going on.

Finally, Wesley arrived home. He was 17 at the time and was driving dad's 1950 Oldsmobile. We went outside and Wes managed to get KLIF 1190 AM out of Dallas with the news about the tornado.

A few days would pass before it was clear how many people had died, and where. Seventeen died in New York Clothiers store that afternoon. Every May 11, I thank my lucky stars that dad and I never made it there.

I remain, to this day, an avid Dodgers baseball fan. I've lived in Southern California for more than 30 years. But I have never owned a Los Angeles Dodgers baseball cap. I think I'll go to Dodger stadium to get one when the team gets back from its road trip on May 14.

James Vowell graduated from Waco High School, earned a journalism degree from UT-Austin, and has spent most of his career as an editor at the Los Angeles Reader and the Los Angeles Times. He now lives in Yucaipa, Calif. Wesley Vowell still operates Vowell Furniture Refinishing in Waco.

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