Fifty Years Ago This Month

Damage from the Columbus Day Storm, Oct. 12, 1962

In October 1962, fifty years ago, my first husband, Bob Biggar, and I had been married only six months. After spending the summer in Alaska, we’d just settled in to new jobs and a new home near Marysville. It was a memorable October for two other things as well: the great Columbus Day windstorm of 1962 and the Cuban missile crisis.

    On the afternoon of October twelfth, a friend, Ruth Anderson, was being married at  the Granite Falls Christian and Missionary Alliance church. Sister Patty stood with Ruth as her maid of honor. Bob taped the ceremony on our reel-to-reel Ampex stereo.

    As the pianist played the recessional and the wedding party formed the receiving line, the electricity went off. Despite the rising wind outside, the reception went on by candlelight.

My parents had driven down to the wedding from the Robe Valley. They told us that sister Lois and her husband Jim were there, visiting from Tacoma where they both taught school. Bob and I hadn’t seen them yet, so despite the wild weather, we followed Mom and Dad home to the valley. We found later that we were in the midst of an unexpected typhoon which had originated off the coast of Oregon. It had reached us just in time for the wedding. Many trees were falling, stranding wedding guests in Granite Falls. As we crept east along the Mountain Loop Highway, we feared at any moment we’d be stranded too, or worse, struck by a falling tree. Dodging trees dangling over a road carpeted with slippery dead leaves and littered with branches, we finally reached Verlot.

The lights and phones were out there, too, so we visited by candlelight. The wind continued to get worse. Suddenly we heard a roar like a freight train heading straight for us. We fled to the back of the building as a blast of wind slammed my parents’ little house. In the quiet after it passed we heard trees snapping and crashing in the woods all around. A tree thumped down next to the house, tearing electrical and telephone wires from the wall outside the kitchen.  But fortunately, the large fir tree in front, big enough to flatten the whole structure, held firm.

Lois and I were frantic because Bob and Jimmy had taken our Jeep out for a spin, storm or no storm. Moments later they drove in, shaken. They’d narrowly missed a falling tree and had to maneuver the vehicle over it.

The next day we learned that a tornado had hit the Blythe brothers’ neighboring farms, just around the bend. It damaged all of Fred Blythe’s buildings. Will’s old prune tree was twisted off and blown fifty feet away. His water tower and tool shed were demolished too. In the memory of the old timers, nothing like that had every happened before. And there’s not been a storm like it since.

When the wind quieted, Bob and I set out for home but had gone only a couple of miles when we came to a big tree blocking the road.  Some young men with a saw cut away enough of it for our Jeep to squeeze through, then we drove home, dodging downed trees and power lines.  Just west of Granite Falls, debris and tangled trees and lines nearly hid the surface of the road.

We found our place relatively unhurt. The storm had splintered some of the maples. Wind roaring down the chimney had coated everything in the house with soot and ashes. But the next day dawned blue and beautiful. All the neighbors came outside to clean up the mess. Strangest of all were the leaves. All that still clung to the maples and alders looked as if they’d been ripped and shredded by an armada of ravenous insects.

The next week brought the Cuban missile crisis. The United States came as close to the brink of war as it had since the cold war with Russia began. People listened, shocked, to President Kennedy’s speech in which he told the nation of Russia’s secretive building of missile bases in our own back yard, despite Nikita Kruschev’s promise not to put nuclear weapons in Cuba. He said the U.S. had set up a blockade to stop and search all ships coming to Cuba. Many citizens feared that bold step could trigger nuclear war.

Like young couples of any era, all we wanted was the chance to make a good life with each other. We wondered if we’d get that chance.

Nikita Kruschev, John F. Kennedy (Photo in Public Domain)

Most of us didn’t know it then, but America’s military pilots, risking their lives in dangerous low-level flights over Cuba, had shown Kennedy photographic proof of missiles aimed at the United States and the nuclear warheads that could make them ready to fire in a matter of days. They gave enough warning to enable our President to play his hand and force Kruschev to back down. World War III was averted, and we did get our chance to build a good life for ourselves and our children.

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