Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Time a Tornado Destroyed My Town

It was December 1987, which places me at 7 1/2 years old.  We knew some bad weather was coming through that night, and we diligently watched the weather on Channel 5 in case things turned nasty.

Daddy, Mama, and I were sitting in the living room in the little yellow brick house on Dickson Street when the power went out.  This was nothing new.  We had a kerosene lamp for emergencies like this, but Daddy got his long police-style Maglite.

He shone the light on the barometer hanging on the wall.  The barometer had been there since I could remember, and it was mostly decorative, but tonight Daddy wouldn't stop looking at it.

"Dartie, this barometer has never dropped this low before." he said to my mama.

They looked at it, and discussed  whether it was broken or not.  But it wasn't much of a discussion, because you could feel the pressure.  It felt like your ears wanted to pop.  Daddy told us to get in the closet, and he opened the front door to look outside.  Mama put me into her bedroom closet, which housed her collection of high heels.  I remember the pain of them poking into my legs and behind.  

Mama said the tornado was like a funnel and it could suck you up, so we had to hide in the closet.

The only funnel I knew was the one she used to pour sugar into the iced tea jug, and that thing was only 5 inches tall, so I wasn't sure how that worked- but I believed Mama implicitly.

Mama said not to leave the closet until she told me to, and she left me there alone in the dark.

I heard the front door open and then I heard yelling.  I envisioned the tornado "getting" my mama.  

I later learned that she heard Daddy go outside and she went to talk some sense into him.  He went outside to get the lawn chairs that were floating up in the air.  He didn't want them to scratch the paint on the car.  

Mama came back to the closet with me (Daddy has never and will never hunker down).  I don't remember the tornado.  I'm pretty sure some part of my little brain blocked that memory.  I don't remember what it sounded like or what it felt like.  The blessing of amnesia. 

It didn't hit our house, but it leveled homes a half mile away from us.  

I remember someone going to check on Grandmama who lived a block away, and she said Aunt Gina hadn't made it home from working at Big Star.  

Daddy put batteries in his big police scanner and we started listening.  We heard that Big Star had been hit, Maddux Elementary was gone, and Fountainhead Apartments were gone.

Granddaddy lived at Fountainhead Apartments.  

They said houses were destroyed on Barton Avenue, where Edna lived.  

There were two Big Star locations.  Aunt Gina worked on the west side, but they never mentioned which location was destroyed.  We were worried.  I imagined her running to the back of the store and taking cover in the bathroom.  

I remember praying with Mama for all the people we loved. It was hard to fall asleep that night.  

The next morning Aunt Gina was home.  Her Big Star was not the one hit, but she was unable to drive home due to the debris strewn across Broadway Avenue. She had spent the night with Annetta, but the phones were not working so she couldn't let us know.

We drove around to tour what damage had been done to our town.  I still remember it vividly.

You know how you watch the news and see a town utterly demolished by a tornado and you think: "Wow, that's terrible!"? When it's your town, and your grocery store, and your gas station, and they are gone! Your brain can still see what it's supposed to look like, and the image of your memory juxtaposed against the aftermath is a dizzying effect.  Your brain does not believe your eyes.  It keeps flashing up old images stored away, and you blink your eyes in confusion.  

A tornado had touched down southwest of town, and torn a straight path of destruction to the northeast.  A car dealership had cars picked up and tossed all along Broadway.  Waffle House was gone.  Mama's first apartment was gone.  The Big Star close to our house was gone.  Maddux was gone.  Blink.  Blink.  Blink.  

There was a house on Barton that I will never forget.  The house was not just tumbled over and destroyed, it was missing.  You could see the slab and wires sticking out of the ground, and a closet in the middle, still intact, with an open door.  That family had been spared.  

I saw a bright yellow Caterpillar or Bobcat machine high up on top of a tree.  It looked like a giant child had picked it up and placed it there.  

One side of a street would be fine, the other demolished.

If I remember correctly, 6 people died that night.  

A policeman said he was sitting in his patrol car with the window down, and he was sucked out of his window, flew up in the air, and "set back down in the ditch". 

All our friends and family were spared.  

The Red Cross and National Guard became regulars in town.

Later that month we had a terrible flood.  Then a week later we had a terrible snowstorm.  But, in true Arkansas fashion, Wal-Mart survived and so did we.