It is hard to believe it has been 45 years, when it seems like yesterday, since vengeance came over the mountain and destroyed our town. This column was originally written right after the tornado.
A DAY OF MIRACLES
Like the roar of a hundred jets it came over the mountain leaving in its path destruction. For all of us who were in Greenwood on that day it was a nightmare that most of us thought would never happen. Someone made the remark that “God sure had it in for Greenwood.” My answer was that “God was watching over Greenwood.”
Although it was a day of destruction it was also a day of miracles. I was attending Greenwood High School at the time of the tornado (after being out for 23 years). I had come home at noon to put on a pot of beans and I raised my windows. The day had become very muggy. Each Friday after taking my American History test Mr. Dan Palmer would let me go home. This Friday (April 19) Mr. Palmer did not dismiss me even though it had started to rain and I kept saying I needed to put my windows down. Later he told me that he did not know why he did not let me leave.
Across the hall from Mr. Palmer’s room in an empty classroom, some boys who were skipping class stood looking out the windows. When they saw the tornado coming, they ran across the hall and called Mr. Palmer to come look. When he saw what they were looking at, he ran from room to room getting the students out into the hall.
We sat on the floor with our backs against the lockers. I had my history book in my arms and I held on so tight it was bent. I had the feeling of being on a Merry Mix-up at the carnival. It seemed as if I was going round and round. It would slow down then start up again. I could hear the ripping of metal, the breaking of glass and the screaming of students.
When it was over I ran up the hall to the study hall where my daughter Connie was supposed to be, only to find it completely gone. I think that is when I went into shock. Another miracle, Connie had skipped study hall (for the first time) and was at the cafeteria practicing with a singing group.
When I got outside to my car I could not move it because it was covered with power lines and wires. Lisa, Sonda and David Hughart had gotten into the car, but because the storm had knocked out the power plant, there was no electricity in the wires. Another miracle.
I got the kids and started running home. There was destruction all around. I saw it, but I did not see it. When I got to the funeral home I could see the top of the court house was gone and Eldon Hughart’s house wasn’t where it used to be. But, the word tornado never crossed my mind.
As we started across the highway we met the late Dutch Carter. I asked him about my house and he said, “Shortie your house is gone, but the important thing is that your kids are alright.” Dutch was custodian at the court house and held the back door of the court house so it would not blow open. He did not want to have to mop up water. He did not know that the top of the court house was gone. He had seen our house blow away and he was not sure if we were at home.
By the time I could get from the school to my house there was a man coming out of Eldon’s house carrying Eldon’s tool box. Frank, my husband, was working in Texarkana and my main concern was that I needed to get in touch with him. After checking on Grandma Hughart, I ran up to Wayland Parker’s and borrowed a car. I do not remember driving to Fort Smith, another miracle I made it.
As soon as Connie and I got to my sister’s house I wanted to come back to Greenwood. We came across 96 highway and was stopped by the police and was told we could not go into Greenwood. After taking a look at me I guess he decided I did belong there. It was at this time that I saw what had really happened to our house. What was left of the house was dumped between the court house and John Mayo’s (south side of the square) store.
I had washed towels the night before and had them folded in a basket. There on top of all the debris was my basket of towels as if they had been placed there.
The employees of the court house working upstairs saw our house lift higher than the tree tops then explode. Then the tornado circled around and moved Eldon’s house before the full impact hit the court house, giving the employees just enough time to get down the stairs.
Later we found a pillow from Eldon’s house wedged between heavy beams upstairs in the court house. When John Mayo’s store was demolished, one of my slips was found wedged between a shelf of canned goods.
I did not want to stay in Greenwood. I told Frank repeatedly that Greenwood would just become a ghost town, but having lived here all our lives we would not leave. Instead of becoming a ghost town that I feared it would be, it has become a beautiful growing city. I believe that the love that was felt toward one another when we met at the high school for meals, or on the street, made everyone determined to rebuild. The rich and the poor were in the same boat. You felt a kinship to everyone you met.
It is hard to be a gracious receiver and the generosity of family and friends was overwhelming. By nightfall on Saturday my brother’s living room was filled with food, clothing and household items from members of the Fort Smith Little Theater.
For months my laundry bore the green and white logo of the Holiday Inn thanks to Halton Gordon who brought us a box of linens donated by the hotel. The generosity and the moral support given by the American Red Cross disaster team will never be forgotten.
On Sunday just at sunset a beautiful new house trailer was backed onto our lot. This was our home for the next six months thanks to many friends.
The next day after the storm family and friends arrived to help with the cleanup. I do not remember much of what happened. I was told I picked up my telephone and handed it to a lady and told her she could have it. I must have walked miles and would pick up something, look at it and put it down and start walking again.
Later I found my bean pot that had the beans cooking in it the day the storm hit. It was as clean as if it had been washed. I am still cooking beans in it almost every Friday as I was that day in 1968.