Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Up Close with a Tornado

By Chester Campbell

All the misery that has hit Oklahoma lately stirred old memories of my one experience with that  destructive phenomenon called a tornado. It was the middle of March a few months after I turned seven. I was in the second grade at East Nashville's Ross Grammar School, as it was called in those days. I remember standing out on the school grounds during lunch period that day. The air was unusually still and the temperature hit a record 80 degrees for March 14.

The year was 1933, long before the invention of weather radar. In fact the Weather Bureau had forbidden any forecast of a tornado, reasoning that no one knew when or where one might strike. A meteorologist at the local office explained, "The disturbed state of mind that would result from an attempted prediction would, in the aggregate, be far more serious than the losses actually incurred by the few who are affected."

Clouds began to build late in the day. After supper my brother and I sat in the living room listening on the big Atwater Kent radio to our favorite programs. I can't remember for sure, but one was probably The Lone Ranger show, which had just gone on the air in January. The radio soon began to crackle so much with static that it made the program difficult to hear. Lightning had obviously entered the picture.

Sometime after seven, frequent blasts of thunder became accented by hailstones that began to pound the roof and the sidewalk out front. We lived in a one-story bungalow that sat between a pair of two-story houses, which soon proved a lucky circumstance. The wind picked up, and then we heard a roar outside that sounded like a locomotive coming down the street. Bricks began to fall down the chimney into the fireplace. We didn't know what was happening, but Dad rushed us into the side hallway, through the door, and down the stairs into the basement.

My brother and I were badly shaken when we came back up to see bricks on the living room floor and water dripping from the ceiling. We gathered a few items of clothing, donned our raincoats and hats, and trooped out through the back yard, now covered with water from the deluge of rain. The small garage on the alley hadn't been damaged. We loaded into Dad's old car and headed off to my aunt's house several blocks away, out of the tornado's path. I don't know how we managed to get around all the trees and limbs strewn across the streets.

The larger houses on either side had saved our small place from major damage, but in the days afterward, there was plenty of devastation to see. I lived two blocks from Gallatin Pike, the main thoroughfare heading northeastt out of the city. Two streets came together to form Gallatin Pike, providing a wide open area in front of the new East Nashville High School that had opened the previous September. The tornado did minimal damage to the school but slammed into a large multi-story house on the corner of my street. The photo above shows the remainder of the Holcomb home, owned by a doctor. Several in his family were injured as the house was torn apart.

One house in our block had a full-length porch in front. Posts holding the porch roof were blown out, letting the roof fold down to block the doors and windows. We went by a friend's house on the next street over where a post had poked a hole in the wall and come to rest against a grand piano. Except for the Holcomb home, there were no houses around us that suffered total destruction.

It was the worst tornado in Tennessee history to that point. Fifteen people died and property damage was extensive, numbering 1,400 homes, 16 churches, 36 stores, five factories, four schools, one library, and a lodge hall. The storm ranged from 600 to 800 yards wide and cut a swath three miles long. The Weather Bureau calculated it as an F3 tornado with winds between 158 and 206 mph.

Suffice it to say March 14, 1933 was a night I'll never forget.

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Jean Henry Mead said...

That must have been especially terrifying for someone so young, Chester. Thank goodness your family survived. I've written about tornadoes, but the worst acts of nature I've ever experienced were earthquakes.

Mark W. Danielson said...

Nature has no respect for anything or anyone. The recent loss of three very experienced storm chasers proves it. Glad all worked out in your case, Chester. As I said in my last blog, once you hear a tornado, you never forget its sound.

June Shaw said...

Oh, Chester, how scary. I'm glad I never experienced a tornado--only a few hurricanes down here in south Louisiana. Sometimes we'd hear things ripped away from the house. Now whenever one's coming, we head north. It works for me.

Chester Campbell said...

Yep, it was scary for a seven-year-old. I suspect if it happened eighty years later, it would be just as scary for an octogenarian. We get alerts by phone from a local TV channel when a tornado is headed our way, but so far none has hit our neighborhood. I don't worry as much as I once did, but my wife takes off for the walk-in closet at the first sign of trouble.

Jaden Terrell said...

I've been fortunate enough to miss out on the tornado experience. I know I would be terrified. Those things are so unpredictable!

Pat Browning said...

Chester, it's a great description of a tornado experience. You were lucky, and that is the story of all such tornadoes -- they are so scary because they seem so whimsical, skipping around as they do. Thanks for sharing.
Pat Browning