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Lasting memories of a spring storm

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CLAREMORE, Okla. (AP) -- Howard Peaster doesn't run or hide when storm clouds roll. But he has a respect for storm warnings, a lasting memory learned in an experience April 26, 1942.

That's the date of the infamous tornado that dropped out of the sky east of Claremore on Highway 20 -- hitting at Blackie's corner and staying on the ground -- leaving Pryor's main street in rubble and devastation.

The longtime Claremore car dealer, 30 at the time, was working on construction of the Dupont plant south of Pryor, commuting from Claremore.

He had been in the automobile business in Claremore from 1936-41.

"In the war years, there were no cars. I got a job with the government building the plant ... ."

He and Troy Lewellen, who commuted with him, quit about 4 p.m. and started home.

"On Highway 20, about a quarter mile west of the Mayes County line, we stopped when we saw the storm coming from the west. 'Better hunt for cover,' I told Lewellen.

"We drove down the road a little bit. I knew a farmer, Luther Kayes lived there. There were just a few houses between Claremore and Pryor then," he said pausing.

"We drove in the driveway and jumped out of the car and went around the house to get in their cellar." The usually calm, soft spoken Peaster's voice raises excitedly.

"The storm was there. We were in it." The Kayes family had already gone to the cellar. "They heard us, but thought it was the wind (and didn't open the door). We grabbed each other and went to the ground."

Peaster remembered later that something hit him across the back. "Might have been a limb."

He and Lewellen were knocked out. The wind picked them up and dropped them about 150 feet from the Kayes house in the farmer's hog wallow.

"You ought to have seen us," he continued, relaxing and grinning.

When they got to the Kayes farm they could see that all the buildings were gone and stopped to check. They were looking around with the Kayes family, who by then had come out of the cellar, when they found Peaster and Lewellen in the hog pen.

It was the Adair man who brought them to the Claremore hospital.

"He saved our lives. I know that," said Peaster, who celebrated his 87th birthday in December.

He had shoulder blade and leg fractures and a skull fracture. He spent the next three months in the hospital and underwent three surgeries performed by the late Dr. Roy Melinder. He was in a cast another three months recuperating at home.

Lewellen, less seriously injured, had a cut across his face and was stitched up.

Peaster regained consciousness during the drive to Claremore, but it was the next morning before his friend "came to".

"We were beat up," he remembers vividly.

He said Dr. Melinder and his wife, Velma, "helped clean us up and take care of us, then went to Pryor and worked all night there."

Peaster's wife, Jo, picked up his clothes at the hospital. "What there was left of them," he said.

From the waist up, his suit was ripped from his body. The pockets were ripped from his pants.

While he was still in the hospital, three days after the tornado, a girl came to his bedside with his 1931 Claremore High School class ring, found someplace in the rubble of the tornado.

His car was demolished, where it had been tossed against a concrete culvert.

"We would have been killed if we had stayed in it." It was six months before he went back to Pryor. He wasn't that curious. "I didn't want to see it. I didn't know how I would feel," he said. He still can't describe the feeling.

Peaster is an Army veteran, drafted in the spring of 1943, the year after the storm. He spent two years and nine months overseas in Europe and the Pacific as a staff sergeant in the Army engineers.

He was in the car business 32 years in Oklahoma and retired in the late 1970s after operating a used car lot in Claremore about 15years. His wife died in 1989.

Many years after the tornado -- in 1957 -- Peaster was operating a car dealership in Pryor and a man came in for a car.

"The deal was cut, but they hadn't made up their mind on color and interior. That evening, Jo and I went to their home in Adair with color samples."

"It was the man who took us to the hospital."

Somehow the conversation got around to the storm. The man said he had been in a bread truck in the storm and had been blown into a pasture. He went on to say he picked up two people.

"I looked at him and cried," Peaster said. "I had been looking for him 15 years."

Peaster's friendship with Lewellen, who died 13 years ago, lasted a lifetime. He won't spend Wednesday dwelling on what happened 58 years ago, but he won't forget that day, his friend and the man who rescued them.
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