7/16/08

The Dark Night

Timer Nugent's cousin lived about ten miles from us in the Vann Town Community. If you wonder who Timer was, read previous entry. I went to school with his granddaughter Tanya. She was a few years younger than me. Like Timer, his cousin had become a preacherman for the local "Jesus Holy Church" congregation. They too had the charismatic services and lively worship ceremonies.

In our area, it seemed the focal point of every community was a church. There was usually some small country store as well, perhaps started in a shed in someone's yard or an old building along the main road. And, during those times, small community schools were everywhere. There was no greater rivalry than basketball season when we played our near/distant neighbors to prove which community had the better athletes.

In the Spring of 1974, the landscape of our community was forever changed as was our view of the world around us. On April 4, the southern part of the country experienced a severe weather outbreak of historical proportions. Our communities were not spared from this calamity.

That afternoon, my brother and I were playing outside. It was obvious something was different about the air around us. The breezes were becoming strong winds with strange lifting qualities. My brother kicked our lightweight kickball into the air and it was carried over our heads for nearly 1/4 of a mile. We laughed after staring at one another in surprise and I retrieved the ball. He repeated this for nearly an hour as I continued to retrieve the ball. I was so in awe of his ability, I didn't mind chasing the ball at all.

As dusk settled, the sky, actually the air, took on a eerie yellow glow. It was as if someone held a piece of yellow stained transparent paper in front of our eyes and everything had this hue to it - trees, grass...everything. The winds were still blowing and the television stations were beginning to broadcast ominous forecasts. There was no doppler radar and all weather tracking would now be considered third world.

This particular April 4 was a Wednesday night. Many a church in our area was scheduled to meet for their Wednesday night prayer/planning meetings. Some had managed to call the congregants and cancel. Others decided that the Lord's will was to be in church and the Lord's will be done. There is something to be said about the Lord's will isn't there?

As the sun settled, the storms began approaching for the western and southern regions. News travelled slowly those days so we didn't immediately know of the death and destruction already left in the wake of these storms. We didn't know of the massive size of the line headed our direction. We didn't know what a long night was in store for us.

As the storms raced across Northwest Alabama, they developed on into the night. Our family had the luxury of a then expensive weather radio. After the Huntsville television stations lost power due to getting hit, our electricity was soon knocked out as well. The winds continued to pick up even though we could not have imagined them any stronger and the thunder and lightning began it's game.

My father was working in Huntsville, AL during that time which was 30 miles from our home in Tennessee. He had stayed late for a meeting and began his trek home. We sat around the kitchen table with the weather radio and police scanner on since these were our only sources of information at this point to the outside world. I believe many systems were deemed necessary as a direct result of the storms of this particular evening.

Severe storms and tornados do not approach silently in the night. They come with a roar and a violence only understood through experience. The first such storm approached our little community and lifted. We all looked at the ceiling as it passed over the house. The roar was a new sound to us - a new and terrifying sound. Mother was the first to speak and very calmly commented that she was unsure as to what that sound truly was. Vann Town was the next community.

Preacherman was just getting wound up when he looked out the small church window. He saw the funnel canvassed in lightning and clearly outlined when the sky lit. He ordered his congregation under the pews and covered. Then, he did what we had always been told to do - he ran to open a window and stabilize the air within the building as the pressure outside continued to drop. Preacherman was sucked out the window as it opened. We are now told not to do such things. He did not survive the experience but, the Lord's will did. Not another soul in that church which was full to the walls was injured short of scratches and bruises. This sounds minor until I tell you that there was nothing left of that building short of a foundation and pews with bodies hovering underneath them. Losing Preacherman was a horrific experience for the entire community. He was loved by all. However, his act and demands to those who followed him saved the rest of those in the building - that and the Lord's will.

The Gwatneys across the road from the church raced from the house towards the ditch as the funnel approached. The father watched as the funnel lifted the water from the area pond and spread fish and turtles and water all over the land. He watched as his wife and daughter did not make it to the ditch and as his son was seriously harmed by the winds and debris. Many such stories are still told to this day by witnesses and survivors.

Meanwhile, we listenend for Daddy to come home and we listened as more storms came over the house. Finally, an hour or so later Daddy walked into the door and into our open arms. He was pale and mournful. He described his trip up Highway 231 - one funnel decimating the ground to his right in front of him, one storm plowing the trees to his left behind him. He could see this as the lightning lit the way. We are told not to stay in the vehicles, but what options are there when you see death in front and death behind. Again, the Lord's will that night was for Daddy to make it to the little turn off and to the house where his frightened family was waiting. No cell phones - no news. I can still feel the relief I felt then when he walked through the door. It's the first and last time I ever saw my Dad break down. Even a strong father feels fear and horrors when exposed to drama unimaginable.

Around 11:00 that evening the children were sent to bed. Kids don't realize the fear of parents. Children don't ever anticipate death or destruction. They just experience the excitement of situations and trust parents to protect them or assume they are protected. Mother and Daddy stayed up the rest of the night listening to the weather and jotting down different communities in the area who already reported being hit. I wonder if that evening could have been compared to those times in WWII when different villages were getting destroyed by the germans. You wait to see who has the greatest need and you pray it won't be you.

That next morning we were not surprised that school was cancelled. We WERE surprised to hear of friends and their families who had either perished or been injured. Most surprising was the news from my friend Tanya who had cut up legs and bruises but who could tell about the events in the church - the thunder, the lightning, watching her grandfather go out that window, the quiet, the calm...the salvation. There was much mourning for that preacher but the obvious miracle of the survivors soon turned the mourning to praise and worship.

Events such as April 4, 1974 hopefully do not happen very often. As technology improves and building codes improve, their ability to completely disrupt or take lives happens less and less. But, they show us the good in all people and the good in strangers. As my father and brothers returned from the area where they went to help, the scene they described still plays in my imagination - cows walking around with fence posts protruding, walls with mirrors standing where nothing else remains, telephone poles injected with utensils that could not be removed - bodies... I am grateful I was a girl and not asked to go to that scene. The media spent days covering it as well. My mother and I spent quite a while pulling the dishes, utensils and appliances lodged into the ground into a central location. Even though the storms lifted over our house, they continued to spread debris and dead creatures where ever they passed. Our yard was covered.

The Minninites/Amish showed up immediately. They provided food, counselling, smiles and quiet reassurance that all would be well. They spent the better part of the year assisting with rebuilding homes and barns and assisting with rebuilding farms. They NEVER asked for anything in return. When all was in order, they silently disappeared to the next location to restore the next area, never leaving names or addresses, never asking for anything.

Today, we know when the storms are coming and we see the damage they left in their wake almost as quickly as they leave. The world is our community and we grieve when we see the world suffering. And then, tomorrow, we move on and expect those suffering have moved on as well. 1974 happened 34 years ago. Those who suffered still carry those memories with them. Just because it has been 34 years since they experienced a night of terror does not mean they should be forgotten. Where does that reality leave us today when tomorrow we are waiting for the next big news item?

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