Elephant on the Roof…or Storm in
By Beverly Hicks Burch
We all carry genetic markers in our DNA, the basic building block of who and what we are. One of the basic scientific uses of these markers is to use them in the study of inherited diseases, for example hemophilia.
Another use of genetic markers and the study of them are for the purpose of genetic engineering. This one reminds me of those science fiction scenarios I see on TV and movies where an individual is discovered, upon contracting some unknown, incurable disease has a man-made genetic marker on a molecule of their DNA. It usually appears as a bar code or some strange encoded number sequence. This genetic engineering could, some rave, cure disease or as some fear clone humans and create a superhuman, genetically superior race. (Any Trekkers out there will flash back to Ricardo Montalban’s Khan.)
Well, my friends, I am here to tell you I firmly believe I have some rare, funky genetic marker encoded upon my DNA. It reads: “Tornado Magnet”. The third time certainly was NOT a charm and the fourth, well, in my book seems to be proving my little “scientific theory”. Let me give you a little history…
The marker first did its magic in 1973 during Memorial Day weekend. I was a naïve, young slip of a gal…one year out of high school (ok, so now you can “date/age” me). Back in those Golden Oldie Days, weather pontificating was certainly not what it is today. We didn’t get a lot of forewarning about upcoming conditions…and who the heck would have ever thought they would be relying on Doppler radar? That sounded so “2001”.
The day had dawned like any other Sunday in Birmingham, Alabama in 1973 in May. Most people were getting ready for church, some were headed to the lake if they weren’t already there for the long weekend (those lakes were usually Logan Martin Lake, Smith Lake, Lay Lake or Guntersville Lake). Some were getting ready for high school graduation ceremonies later that day. As it would turn out, those ceremonies would factor into my day.
For late May, the day was unusually heavy…thick, even with humidity. It was hot, too, which caused more humidity. We now know, this creates the prefect recipe or soup for severe weather…and there was a doozy brewing on the horizon. You could have cut the air with a butter knife that day.
The family went to church that morning. Gomez had accompanied us and afterwards, after lunch I was going with him to his sister’s high school graduation ceremony.
The day had only gotten more humid and stifling hot by the time church service was over. Today, I would certainly recognize the signs that something was “brewing” and I’m sure watches would be issued. But, this was a different time, supposedly a more innocent time…
The graduation ceremony was held in the school gym. We were packed in like clowns in a VW bug into a hot sweaty gym on increasingly uncomfortable bleachers. (I am of the opinion the people who make balance beams also make bleachers…they are approximately the same width.) The gym was quickly turning into a rotund (it was a round building) sauna.
As the ceremonies proceeded in began to rain. Now folks, I’m not talking about a little refreshing spring rain…the kind that makes you want to run out in it and be Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds and belt out “Singing in the Rain”. Oh no! The was rain of Biblical standards…I half expected to walk out and see Cecil B. de Mille directing a Technicolor extravaganza or Noah building a new ark.
As I sat on the two inch wide bleachers I watched out the gymnasium windows as the rain grew more intense and more intense. Then the wind began to whip up and build and build and build. And, then I saw an incredible thing…as I sat there I watched as the huge lights that lit the football field outside began to dance and sway and bend. They were like little pieces of straw with no strength or integrity.
Then, it all stopped as fast as it had started…just in time for everyone to scatter to their cars and go on to wherever their plans carried them next. In our case, it was home for a short time before we return to church for youth services at 6 PM.
The youth services that night went uneventful…other than the fact it was stifling hot…and there was a foreboding of a storm. There was a green pall in the sky…one I’ve come to recognize over the years.
The youth met in the annex, a small house while the new addition of the church was being built. The church had originally started services in the house and grown from there.
We had left the door open to try and keep it cool. One of the pastor’s sons and one of his daughters had sat in front of a curtained window. All of the sudden in the middle of our meeting we lost power and an eerie stillness overtook the room. Every time it lightening the two kids in front of the window became spooky silhouettes. Gomez recommended they move from in front of the window and they did…and it was a good thing. Two kids went into the church kitchen to get some candles and while they were in there something strange began to happen…
Outside it sounded like some of the smaller children were in the parking lot and they had begun to throw gravel on the side of the building. I remember being annoyed at first and thinking, “Boy, are they in trouble!” Then, it began to sound like they were throwing buckets of gravel at the building, then wheelbarrows of gravel at the building…and then it became obvious something else was up!
Suddenly it sounded like a freight train or a 747 was bearing down on us. My ears and head felt like they would explode…and then there was pandemonium in the room. I stood up and started screaming and was pushed to the floor. I remember as I lay prone on the floor I had my fingernails dug into the floor. I literally felt like I was being sucked out of the end of the building. I expected to find the whole end of the building gone and the two kids missing with the wall. I honestly expected two fatalities amongst our immediate midst. We were battered and whipped by debris and wind. I recall watching the pages of the Bibles on the floor in front of me flapping forward and backward like some bizarre scene out of the Exorcist. A piece of debris…probably a house shingle…hit my upper arm and cut me.
And then, darkness and a deafening silence suddenly set in…it was over…
The door to the building we were in had been blown shut during the assault unbeknown to us…and just as suddenly it burst open. Some of the men in the church building next door rushed in to see how were had faired and gather us into the main building.
That’s when we realized a miracle had happened…the two kids…the brother and sister were alive! But, had they stayed it front of that window…well, that window was totally shattered and blown out and all the debris that had been blown into the room had come through that window. You can imagine what would have happened to their heads…
As we walked out of the building, we walked into a war zone…30 – 45 minutes earlier there had been a neighborhood around us…now, some homes were totally missing. Others were damages…like a giant hand with a giant hammer had randomly picked unfortunate souls to wreck havoc upon. One vivid memory I carry to this day is of the house behind the church. Every wall of the home was gone, but the furniture was still sitting in the rooms…untouched, in place and arranged like normal. It was surreal. Some homes had been picked up off their foundations and then dropped back down on that foundation…just askew a few inches.
There was a Church of Christ across the street and the wall of the nursery had caved in…fortunately there were no critical injuries. The force of the winds had been so strong that in places the pavement on the road had actually been stripped off the surface leaving bare ground.
Cars in the parking lot had been tossed around like Matchbox cars. Some were stacked on top of others. My mom’s car was full of insulation from people’s homes. Someone’s garbage can had even been blown into her car through the back window. Her dashboard was full of debris…shattered glass, etc.
Mom was the youth group leader, so she was at the church when the storm hit, but Daddy was on his way to church when the storm hit. After we all reunited and recalled our experiences he told us he knew he was in for a wild ride! As he and Yvon drove down Sun Valley Road he said he could see trees falling behind him in his rear view window! He was living Twister: the Movie – Alabama style.
When he got as far as the old post office, he knew he couldn’t go any further…the main event was about to happen. He whipped into the parking lot across from the post office. The building there was then a bicycle shop, but at one time had been a barbeque joint. Daddy edged his ol’ Duster (yep, he had one of the first in Birmingham to own one) into the cove created by the smoke stack of the chimney, strapped Yvonnie and himself in with seatbelts and they rode out the big dark monster that tore up Center Point, AL in 1973.
And did it ever! The apartment complex on the hill above the church was devastated. The top floor was removed on most of the complex. Center Point had a drive-in theatre back then. The big movie screen was picked up and collided in mid-air with the roof from the Bonanza steak restaurant. A swath was cut across Carson Road that remained for years…as a matter of fact, that barer than normal spot is still discernable today. Sadly, one life was lost, but given the damage it was a bonafide miracle the count wasn’t higher.
After the calm settled in Daddy, being the strapping East Tennessee guy that he is was determined to get to his Sweet Thing (Momma) and his girls (Me and Pam) at church. Daddy was born in Townsend, TN…the “Peaceful Side of the Smokies” and he grew up there before they moved down into the “big” city of Maryville. So, for Daddy, walking was a breeze. His big ol’ long legs take strides about half a football field length long. I was always taking two or three to his one.
Yvonnie is our “special” child in the family…our CP (cerebral palsy) child and she is the baby of the family. She was about 11 when this happened and this was a big adventure to her. She has a “wicked” sense of humor…she likes to shock you…she can be a hoot. I always kid Momma and say had Yvon been “normal”, whatever that is, she would have been the sister that would have run away and become a porn star. Of course Mom always says, “BEV!!!” And of course I’m kidding…
Daddy hoisted Yvon up on his shoulders and started walking…and Yvonnie balled up her little fists and began to pound Daddy on top of the head and say, “Let me down you gorilla!” (See what I mean about her sense of humor?!) Daddy got bout a block, down to the red light at Center Point Rd. A Jefferson County deputy sheriff was directing traffic since the light was out. Daddy explained what was going on and the deputy let Yvonnie set in his cruiser while Daddy continued on, walking to gather up the rest of his family
And that my friends was how my baby sister ended up in a police cruiser and I was introduced to my first experience with tornadoes…
To be continued…
© 2008 Beverly Hicks Burch All Rights Reserved.
This is the Dress I had on the night of the tornado. I still have it and there's a rip in one arm