Wow... Forty years ago tonight - February 4, 1971 - our home was destroyed by a tornado. I was 6 years old at the time (so there is the answer to that question!), but remember it like it was yesterday.
We had eaten supper at my grandparents' house - across the street and 3 houses down from ours. It was looking stormy and my Mom wanted to go home before it began to rain. We had walked to their house because it was an unusually balmy day for February - a "weather-breeder" my Mammow called it. But Bewitched was about to come on, and my brother and I wanted to watch it on my grandparent's *color* TV. We had a black and white set at home at the time and we loved watching that color set any time we got the chance! Since Bewitched was our favorite show, we begged to stay, even pulling Mom back as she went to the door... please, please, please!!! So she relented. We had been in the den watching the show for about 10 minutes when the storm slammed into town. It was amazing how quickly that the conditions deteriorated - no time at all to react.
The electricity went off immediately and we were plunged into total darkness. There was surprisingly little lightening occurring at that time, and the adults were fumbling for flashlights, candles, etc. Meanwhile, we could hear an unbelievably loud noise and could hear trees snapping off in the woods behind their house - it sounded like gunshots. Understand... this all happened in about 90 seconds. Then as quickly as the storm had hit, the winds lessened and the rain began. Torrential rain, coming down in sheets.
For some reason - and I do not know the answer and never thought to question it until recently since I was only 6 at the time - we went out in this rain and got into my granddaddy's pickup - he, Mammow, Mom, my brother and me. Maybe we were going to a storm cellar, although I don't remember one nearby at that time. Maybe Pappow - who was the Chairman of the Road Commission in our county and a very good neighbor - was going out to see if there was damage or if anyone needed help. Not sure why he would take us all with him, if that were the case though!
Anyway, when we backed out of their drive - remember it was still pitch black outside - and the headlights of his truck shone down the street, we could see debris everywhere. We only drove about 30 feet and Pappow saw a power line down in the road and stopped. At that point, my mother gasped and I remember saying "Mommy, what is that?" and pointing at all of this "stuff" in the street. She immediately began to cry. Pappow left the truck where it was, got out and walked down the street in the pouring rain. He came back in a few minutes, and I can still remember how serious he looked.
"It's gone" was all I remember him saying. Mammow began to cry and pray, and I was sitting in my mother's lap thinking "What? What is gone?" Had NO idea they were talking about our home.
Turns out that our home was lifted off its foundation, flipped over and set back down in almost the exact same spot. The roof was still there and was within about 6 feet of the original foundation site. The floor and walls and contents were swept across the street, almost demolishing the house that sat there. It was like a giant had picked it up, turned it over, and then took his big foot and kicked it to the curb. Literally.
I don't remember much about the days that followed, but I do remember some of the amazing events that occurred. My mother had taken off her beautiful Keepsake engagement ring and wedding band when she was doing housework earlier in the day and left them in her "ring minder" (remember those?) above the kitchen sink. She assumed they were gone forever! The next day, when neighbors and the Rescue Squad were helping to salvage what we could, one of the men found her rings - still together ON the ring minder!! - in the mud about 75 feet from where our house had stood. I do remember that this young man came running toward her, waving his hands in the air, so excited. Mom was very grateful, of course, and I am sure she expressed it - being her - but since then I've often wondered if that young man was thanked enough. He could very easily have taken those rings (over 2 carats worth) and never said a word. I hope that God has blessed him for his honesty that day. We had many things that simply disappeared, and I am sure looters were to blame. But his honesty remains in my memory of an example of how people SHOULD behave during a crisis.
Our neighbors whose house was struck by the debris from ours told us that they had been in the basement when the storm hit. She went to the door to open it after the storm had passed only to find debris piled so high they could not step out. She had on house shoes at the time, and as she turned to go back in the house (remember it was very dark) her foot brushed something warm and soft. She began screaming and fainted, because she thought that it was one of us, lying dead on her porch. It was actually my little white cat, Bullet. He was still alive, but terribly injured. My Pappow put him into a box the next day, and told me that he took him to the vet but they couldn't save him. Years later, I figured out that there was no way that Pap could have gone to the vet 10 miles away with the roads closed and all the damage in the area. He just didn't want me to see my little kitty suffering. I never knew what happened, but I am sure that Pap did what he had to do. I never asked.
About a week after the storm, after the papers had carried the story "Bewitched Saves Family" and everyone in the area had heard about our house, a man and lady from the next town north of us came to my grandparent's house one afternoon. They lived over 15 miles away, but a few mornings after the storm, she had noticed something pink in one of the trees behind their house. Her husband went down to investigate and found a tiny pair of panties with Saturday embroidered on them. Just below the "day of the week", was my name. My Mammow had given me the "days-of-week" undies - most of you ladies have owned them, seen them or bought them for your daughters! - and then embroidered my name below the day. Those undies traveled over 15 miles in the storm before being deposited in that tree! And that nice couple drove down and brought them back to me. Amazing.
There was, of course, damage to other areas of our tiny, tiny town. My best friend's house was badly damaged, and her oldest brother and his wife were injured. Several other houses were badly damaged. The school's new gym had the roof ripped off. Two old buildings (of about 7)that still housed businesses on "Main Street" were completely destroyed. Several mobile homes in the area were damaged or destroyed. Chicken houses at a farm about 5 miles away were destroyed and hundreds of chickens killed. One farmer lost most of his cattle. And in all of this destruction, only one person was killed. An elderly lady died when hit by flying debris going to a storm shelter. As tragic as that was, it was amazing that more people were not hurt.
I have NO doubt in my mind that my mother, brother and I would have been killed if we had been in our home. Bewitched did indeed "save" our family. My Daddy was in Arkansas on business, and couldn't get through to us by telephone. It was 3 or 4 days before he was contacted by the Highway Patrol - on his way home to see what had happened - and could get back to Alabama. I still remember how glad I was to see him and how upset he was that he wasn't there to help Mom through the initial shock of it all.
So forty years ago tonight I experienced one of the most life-changing events of my life. Witnessing the power of nature first-hand was terrifying, especially through a child's eyes. We lost everything we had that night except each other. Mom's rings, some of our clothes and our washing machine were basically all that survived. Oh............ and my pink Saturday panties..........