Forty-One Years ago today, a super cell tornado system hit the Deep South. In those days, my family lived outside Nashville, TN, in a tiny suburb called Antioch. That day, our family farm was devastated by one of those tornadoes, leaving only my grandparents house standing at the end of the night.
Here is what I don’t remember from that day….
If you asked me to pick my third grade teacher from a line up of pictures of teachers from that era, I most likely would not be able to pick her out. I spent everyday for nine months with her and adored her, yet I doubt forty-one years later I would remember what she looked like. I don’t remember if she was young, or old, married, had kids….
If you asked me what I had for lunch that day, or what we were working on in class, I just don’t remember. I am sure the lunch was good, and the subjects interesting, but alas, I have long forgotten them.
If you asked me what bus number I rode home from school on, or if we had homework, I could not tell you.
But here are the details I do remember…..
We got out of school early that day and as usual me and my cousin Jeff rode the bus home to our regular stop. As we began to walk the 1/8 mile to his house, it began to hail. We ran the rest of the way. When we got to his house, his sister told us we were under Tornado Warnings. We only knew what that meant, because on Monday, April 1 of that week, a series of tornadoes had hit the Nashville area and so we’d had an assembly on Tuesday to tell us what to do if a tornado was coming. We’d discussed at home that night that if we were home alone we were to go to my bedroom and get into the closet. Most of the adults on the farm had outside jobs and we kids came home and took care of cooking dinner, and chores before they got home. We were often home alone under the supervision of older cousins.
Shortly after we got to my cousins, my parents came home from work. My mother had paid to have two posters she had bought for me framed. A dog and a cat. They were going to hang in my bedroom. The hail was so large by this time, that Momma put the posters in the window of my Dad’s truck, to protect us if the hail broke the glass on the windshield. Hail was probably golf ball sized or larger by now.
We arrived at home and Mom began to prepare supper: Tomato Soup. That I remember. We never ate it.
Dad and I argued over which TV to use to listen to the weather. I was nine and had gotten a small TV for my room that Christmas. I was worried that lightening would run in the wires and blow it up. Dad was worried about the family TV set and finally parental will won out, I went down the hall to get the TV.
The hail by this time was larger than baseballs, and Dad told Momma that he was going to go get some to put into the freezer because the guys at work would not believe that it was that big.
As he stepped onto the porch, my aunt’s house, a little over 1/4 mile away, was hit. It exploded. Dad screamed, “Oh my God, here it comes!” Mom came out of the kitchen saying, “Here what comes.” The lights went off. Dad told her to take us to the garage, he put a mattress from one of the beds over us and no sooner had he sat down than it hit our house.
The first hit wasn’t bad. The house shook. Windows rattled. And it was over. We’d survived, with most likely only a few missing shingles.
Dad told us to stay put. Seconds later the second one hit.
What I describe next, took possibly 8 seconds to complete:
First the garage doors were ripped off their hinges. The little door from the house to the garage opened. My shoe was sucked from my foot. Things from the house were pulled through the rancher and into the garage where we sat. Knives, lamps, clothes, dishes, you name it, hit the mattress we were covered it. The rafters over our heads were twisted and splintered, making the most awful noise I have ever heard. The back wall of our house caved in. Everything we owned was destroyed.
Here are the things I do remember from that night:
The smell of our dog, who had been in a disagreement with a skunk earlier in the day and had lost.
Walking on the wet road to my grandparent’s house, without one shoe.
Power lines dancing on the wet road in front of us, sending huge sparks dancing across our pathway.
The arms of a Civil Defense worker who came and picked up me and the smelly dog and carried us safely to my grandparent’s house.
The smell in the air both before it hit, and moments after it had ended. I will never forget that smell and on April 26, 2011, I predicted there’d be tornados in our area, based on that smell. We had 5 hit that next day.
Hearing the “we’re okay” from each home as we passed them by on our way down the 1/2 mile road.
The lady from our church who showed up with a Coleman stove, and canned soup. I don’t remember if I ate any of it, but I remember her coming.
The Civil Defense workers announcing another tornado was coming, scaring us kids half to death, but it was just to get looters to leave and stop stealing what little we had left.
Going to my Great Aunt Rose’s house to spend the night, me, my brother, my Dad and Mom all in one huge bed with a smelly dog at the foot of it. Perfectly safe. And having another storm take down several large, one hundred year old trees in her yard that night.
The sound of my Dad crying…
The stories of looters stealing us blind. Personally, I believe looters should be shot first, no need to answer questions later. If you are going to steal from someone who has lost everything, God have mercy on your soul.
My Mother is 73. She lived through World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam… She raised a child who was severely mentally and physically handicapped. She has buried a child, a husband, both parents, both in-laws and all but one sibling. She is the one who handles it all with determination and a stiff upper lip.
Yesterday, we had to go back to Nashville for her to see a new doctor. Naturally, talk turned to that day forty-one years ago.
Tears bubbled up in her eyes, her voice became shaky, she looked out the car window because tears to her are a sign of weakness and describing the moment she walked out of the garage, and saw the devastation and destruction all around us said simply, “I thought we were the only people left alive.” Huge tears ran down her face and she just looked out the window as we both drove in silence.
The next day, the printing company my Dad worked for sent men and boxes over to our house to pack up what was able to be salvaged. They took shovels and dug through the roof of our house, through a pile of brick rubble, and through a wall, to get the clothes out of the closet in my bedroom. The clothes that were hanging there were crushed under the weight of several hundred pounds of brick, timber, and debris. That was the closet we’d preplanned to go to in the event of a tornado. Thankfully in his panic, my Dad had saved all our lives by sending us to the laundry room in the garage and by putting a mattress over our heads. Had he sent us to that closet, we would most likely have been killed that day. My little TV set that I had so valiantly tried to protect from the storm was destroyed as were the dog and cat posters my mother had so lovingly paid to have framed for my bedroom. Our home, or clothes, even our car was destroyed. But on our family farm, no one was killed. Two people went the hospital for minor injuries and were later released. Five brick homes and about ten mobile homes on the 1/2 mile stretch of our road were destroyed that day.
It’s been forty-one years. I haven’t forgotten what happened from the moment I got off that school bus around 2:45 pm and midnight that night. Every second is embedded in my memory. I still am terrified of storms. I still have nightmares. I can’t go into areas of destruction after a storm to sightsee, and find it difficult to go in to help victims. I wish I could forget, but I just can’t seem to do so.