One woman’s choice to find solace in a tattoo leads her down a bittersweet path of remembrance and healing

 

On May 27, 1997, four days after she graduated from Jarrell High School, Kandy Kubala watched helplessly from her Walburg driveway as a wall of dark blue water and wind ripped through nearby Jarrell, killing twenty-seven people and mowing down fifty homes. She desperately wondered if her friends and their families had survived. She dialed their numbers over and over, only to hear endless rings, finally realizing the lines were down.

A few hours later, Kandy’s father finally located her friend Lacy Ickes. Kandy rushed to Jarrell to see Lacy, relieved to know she survived. Kandy listened as Lacy’s uncle described pavement and foundations ripped from the ground and animals caught in tree branches. Lacy told Kandy harrowing stories of huddling with family members in the only room left standing after the rare F5 tornado. Then she told her something Kandy will never forget: “I don’t think any of the Igo family survived.”

A Lost Friend

The tornado erased all five members of the Igo family from the earth—Larry and Joan, husband and wife; Audrey, their daughter; and the twins, Paul and John.

Audrey Igo, one of Kandy’s good friends, had just finished her junior year in high school. The girls shared their talent and passion for singing in the school choir. “She was so confident in herself and had an amazing faith. I admired that. She didn’t care what anyone thought. She was a wonderful role model for me, even though she was a year younger,” Kandy thinks back.

Audrey never left home without her blue Chevy bow tie necklace. Her father loved restoring old Chevrolets. “Mr. Igo had a shop right downtown in Jarrell. Every year, during homecoming, he drove an old Chevy convertible around the football field with the newly crowned homecoming queen,” Kandy says. Other kids teased Audrey about that necklace. “I asked her what the deal was with the necklace,” Kandy remembers. “Audrey said, ‘It’s special, because Daddy gave it to me.’ That always stuck in my mind, because it was that important to her.”

After losing her friend, Kandy couldn’t bring herself to help clean up debris left by the monstrous tornado. At the funeral, Kandy says, “A girl in my class brought me a picture she found in a field. It still had a clump of mud on it. It was of Audrey and me together. I guess it was somewhere in Audrey’s house. I didn’t know it existed.”

The Tornado

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), twenty-two confirmed tornados unleashed their power in Texas that day. The Jarrell tornado, with a damage path of approximately 800 yards, remained on the ground a long time. Meteorologist Lon Curtis, a storm chaser at the time, followed the storm to Jarrell from McLennan County. He says he remembers how hot and humid the air felt that day—even at 6:30 a.m. “These are things you don’t forget. The people in Double Creek Estates did exactly what they were told to do, which was to take shelter. This was just not a survivable tornado,” Lon says.

The Tattoo

The events of May 27, 1997, affected Kandy’s life so profoundly that, fifteen years later, she found herself sitting backward in a padded chair, having the haunting image of that massive tornado etched into her skin. Forever. For some people, tattoos are an integral part of recovering from life’s trials. “The needle, the scarring, and the pain are all part of the healing,” Kandy says.

“Tattoos are not little rainbows that people splash on. It involves needles and blood. You’re actually scarring your body. It’s a very painful process,” Kandy explains. Forrest Hyde, Kandy’s tattoo artist, designed the work of art. “It’s a pretty massive undertaking,” Forrest says over the buzzing tattoo machine. He dips the needle in a small tub of black ink and drags it through Kandy’s skin. “But to me, it’s worth it,” Kandy decides. She’s in pain after several hours of work but looks up with a weary smile. She stops talking for several minutes and rests her forehead in her hands while Forrest continues, his eyes focused on her back—his canvas.

“I don’t get a tattoo unless it means something. What I’m going through to get the tattoo to show tribute to Audrey is nothing compared to what she went through when she died,” Kandy asserts.

For three years, Kandy carefully considered the tattoo and the consequences of this large, permanent mark on her body. It’s not her first. She says, “Once I got started in tattoos, I heard they’re addicting. It’s true. They are.” In seventeen years of experience, Forrest has come across many repeat customers. “I don’t think it’s the feeling of it that’s addicting,” he says. “My personal opinion is that it’s a fascination with our ability to alter our bodies—something God gave us. Yet we still have a little bit of control,” he says.

Once she made her decision, Kandy typed the words “Jarrell tornado” into Google. To her surprise, a photo popped up. Not just a tornado, but the tornado. She took it to Forrest. They designed what would become a work of art, a tribute, and a memorial, as well as a means for Kandy to heal—something she could see and reflect on daily.

The tattoo on her back illustrates the Jarrell tornado, including the three vortices within the tornado; a Roman numeral twenty-seven, for the number of people killed; the date of the tragedy; the phrase “gone, but not forgotten”; and a blue Chevy bow tie. Kandy says no one ever found her friend Audrey’s necklace. Even today, she still searches the ground for it when she’s in Jarrell.

The Healing

The tornado left Kandy with one fewer friend, many unanswered questions, and shaken beliefs. “I’ve actually gone through major issues with my faith. I’m just now starting to get a little bit of it back. It’s what Audrey would want. If she could speak to me, she’d say, ‘Are you crazy? Of course there is a God. Just be patient, and He’ll tell you what He needs to tell you.’” Kandy still asks, “Why Audrey?” She’s not sure if that question will ever go away.

It took nine hours, in four sittings, to complete the tattoo. Kandy says, “Now that the tattoo is finished, I feel a sense of pride. It’s going to be a constant reminder for me. And when someone asks me about it, I get to tell the story and talk about Audrey. I’ll keep the memory alive for those who died. I believe that, in turn, will heal me.”


The TV special “Fatal Twisters: A Season of Fury” highlighted the Jarrell tornado. See the tornado’s destruction first-hand on YouTube.

Special thanks to Georgetown Municipal Airport for providing a location for the August cover photo.

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