A Lady Still Standing—Clark Humphrey

The tornado spun up from nothing and spared nobody while it turned the town of Riverbend Bluff to nowhere.

Or at least that’s the legend everybody learned from the popular ballads and novels written years later, and from the vaudeville tour by the storm’s supposed “last living survivor.”

Sarah Maguire Twichell, the Heroine of Riverbend Bluff, toured for more than a decade with her spirited account of the storm, her noble family life before the storm, and her struggles immediately after the storm. She was written up I daily and weekly newspapers from Albuquerque to Providence. 

At every stop she sold copies of her memoir, “A Lady Still Standing.” Written in florid Victorian “feminine” prose, it was essentially an expanded version of her standard “talk,” which itself had several different versions. 

There was the ten-minute program she gave on the vaudeville stages, a tight, emotionally charged presentation guaranteed to not leave a dry eye in the house. 

This always began with her quoting the town grocer on that fateful morning, as saying the air “felt funny.” 

Then the heavy clouds; the night in the middle of the day. 

Then the WHOOSH-ing of the westerly wind. Then the town marshal hustling as best he could, against the wind, to find people to ring the bells at all five of the town’s churches. She, Sarah, was told to ring the bell at the Lutheran Church. From the bell tower she had a view of the whole community, her family’s farm in the distance, and the funnel clouds even further out but coming very close very quickly. 

Then the HIT! Right below her! 

And then the quick, curvy path the twister took, absorbing or decimating everything in its way. 

The stables, gone! Horses either flung to their deaths by the twister, or caged up in stalls beneath a roof that plummeted to crush them.

The bank: reduced to the vault, and the steel cage surrounding the teller window.

The newspaper office: come right off its foundation, leaving the heavy iron press alone. Huge spools of paper unfurled over the countryside.

Everywhere, fences knocked down, dog houses and delivery wagons blown high in the air, milk bottles and mailboxes crashing to the ground far from where the storm had swallowed them up.

Her own parents and siblings: hurled into the air while on their way to the root cellar.

Why did the storm skirt right by the church building she was in, leaving the structure with only some busted up wall boards and some loose eaves on the rooftop? Why, it could have ONLY been a GIFT from the Lord Himself! A gift for which she remains wholly grateful.

She would always end her presentation with a call for everyone within the sound of her voice to tell their family and friends how much they cherished them, several times each day; for one never knew when the local air would suddenly “feel funny.”

In addition to this dynamic, emotional rendering, Sarah also had a thirty-minute (plus question period) presentation. This was a quieter version of her tale, devised for more intimate settings such as local ladies’ clubs and Elks Lodge auxiliaries along the vaudeville circuit’s various stops. In this version of her story, she slowed her pace to include informative anecdotes about the parents and siblings and family farm she’d lost, the reason she was one of the few children in the town that day (every family that could afford it had sent its children to boarding schools), and why the town was never rebuilt (the railroad had passed it by). 

It was during the question periods following these longer presentations when someone always asked the current whereabouts of Mr. Twichell, the tender young man Sarah had married in the years just after the disaster. Sarah calmly explained that this brave young man had perished in a factory accident the year before she’d begun her storytelling tours. This was a simpler, more sympathetic, and more effective story than the truth, in which he remained half alive in an unaccredited sanitarium, dazed out on laudanum and strong drink. A man who barely noticed that his wife was away ten months out of the year, and who seldom recognized her when she was with him.

She supported his continued treatment with her near-constant touring. 

And, truth be told, she enjoyed the life afforded to her thusly.

Being on stages, night after night and twice on Saturdays. The attention. The adoration. 

The chance to see so much of this great country, from the vaudeville circuit’s reserved  private train cars. 

The company of such personable fellow entertainers—musicians, singers, illusionists, joke-tellers. Their camaraderie, their friendship, and most of all their discretion.

She knew that, except for those who were parts of husband-and-wife duo acts, she could request the intimate company of any of the gentlemen on the tour. Such assignations would never be spoken about, would never become the stuff of gossip. She did not always avail herself of this temptation; often she was sufficiently consoled by the knowledge that it was there.

There were always handsome and energetic menfolk in all the towns. But they were riskier. Someone could tell someone, who could tell someone, who might know her remaining family back home. 

Besides, she knew the other rumors that were already spreading about her. 

The rumors that claimed Sarah was not really the last living survivor; that several other fortunate former townspeople, even some who had been adults at the time of the storm, still lived quietly, scattered about the nation as if the storm had directly strewn them there. 

And there was the rumor that she, the brave young Sarah Maguire, had not really been in the church bell tower, could not have seen the storm’s fury so closely yet safely, that she must have retreated to the nearest cellar, just as any good child facing such a predicament ought to do.

But after so many performances of both the shorter and longer versions of her account, the story as she told it had become so much more real in her mind than anything that had actually happened that fateful day, even if she could have remembered it all after the shock of learning her sudden orphan-hood.

No. Sarah intended to go to her eventual grave asserting the legend as she knew it.

And enjoying the occasional guest in her hotel room or her Pullman-car berth. 

For she believed what she always said about showing her appreciation to those who were close to her, just in case the air outside ever did begin to “feel funny.”



About bbcstudiowrites

This blog is me archiving the BBC Studio Writers Workshop.

Posted on March 20, 2012, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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