IN THEIR OWN WORDS
'I remember it like it happened yesterday'
MEMORIES OF THE 1974 TORNADOES
Thursday, April 03, 2014 11:00 AM
I remember it like it happened yesterday. April 3, 1974, 3:55 p.m. is when the tornado hit our house on Bellaire Drive. I know the time, because that's the time our clock stopped in the kitchen.
For me, the memory of the day begins with getting home early from school. I was a junior at Shawe at the time. It wasn't real early; I got home at about 3 p.m. But it was early for me, since it was rare that I got home immediately after school. Baseball practice had been canceled that day, because of the heavy rain earlier in the day. With no sports things to do after school, and since my grandma and grandpa were in town visiting, I came home earlier than normal. It was also not normal for grandma and grandpa to be there. They didn't often come to Madison from Lawrenceburg to visit, but it ended up being very fortunate for us that they did this time.
Shortly after I got home, it started raining again. Mom asked that I put the car in the garage since it started hailing. It was a good thing I did, because the hailstones got bigger and bigger. When they got to being about the size of baseballs, I got the crazy idea that I needed to save some (for what I have no idea, but I just needed to have some). I must have gotten that crazy gene from my grandma, because she was out there in the back yard with me collecting hailstones, to put them in the freezer. It's just a good thing we didn't get hit by a falling hailstone while picking them up, or we'd have probably gotten knocked out, or worse. But, we were lucky. We were able to accumulate a bunch, and neither of us got hurt in the process.
Mom influenced me to stop picking up hailstones, by yelling out to me, "Tommy, get in the house, the radio is saying there's a tornado coming!" Hearing that, I thought "Cool!" and I climbed the TV tower to get on top of the house. Standing on our house and looking south, sure enough, I saw it coming. I yelled down "there's trees and boards and all kinds of stuff in the air!" I heard the noise, that a lot of people say sounds like a locomotive. I jumped down off the house, at the urging of Mom and Grandpa. Grandma was still out collecting hailstones, so I got her and we both got back in the house..
My dad was still at work, and my younger sister, Terri, was at swim practice at the junior high school. My older brother, Denny, and older sister, Pam, had both moved out of the house. So it was just Mom and me, and Grandma and Grandpa there at the time. Grandpa coolly and calmly took the three of us to Mom and Dad's room, the northwest room in the house, and told us to crawl under the bed. Mom and Grandma followed his directions well, but I wasn't so good at following directions. So, when Grandpa went back out to the dining room area in the house, I went along with him. If he was going to be brave, then doggone it, I was going to be brave too!
Our dining room was in the center of the house, on the south side. The doorway out to the back yard was a sliding glass door. Grandpa and I stood on either side of the glass door, and watched the tornado come towards us.
What I saw next is forever etched into my brain. Time seemed to slow down, as I can remember very vividly things that happened, even though the time span was only a few seconds.
My best friend, Kevin, and his family lived in the house across the creek. Our back doors were about 30-40 yards apart. So looking out our sliding glass door, I had a direct view of their house. At the time, their house was a pre-fab modular home, the type with the corrugated aluminum siding and rooftop. I watched the wind peel the roof off of the Shaddays' house, like peeling the lid off of a sardine can. The roof just peeled from one end, across the length of the house, to the other end. And when the roof was completely gone, the entire house just collapsed, like a house of cards. It went from a perfectly fine house to a pile of sticks and aluminum in about three seconds. Just incredible.
The winds kept heading north, right toward us. Back in those days, Mom and Dad liked to take our family out camping in a little 19-foot travel trailer. We always kept the trailer in the back yard, parked by the trees next to the creek. Well, that little trailer was no match for the tornado. The winds picked up the trailer and hurled it directly towards our house. When the house was built in 1962, Dad had planted three maple trees in the back yard. One of those three trees was directly in the path between the parked trailer location and the house. It had grown large enough in those 12 years, to completely stop the trailer from hitting the house. The trailer wrapped around that tree like a sock wraps around a clothes line. It was completely obliterated.
It was about that time that "it" happened. Seeing Kevin's house collapse, and seeing our trailer being tossed around like it was a child's toy were both scary, but "it" scared the living daylights outta me.
"It" was later determined to be an aluminum door from someone's backyard storage shed. Somehow, that aluminum door crashed through the picture window in our living room on the north side of the house. Incredibly, winds from the north-heading twisting tornado tossed that door into our north-facing window!
Anyways, at the time, I had no idea what had made the noise, but when that door very loudly crashed through the window, I high-tailed it out of the dining room, through the kitchen, down the hall, back to Mom and Dad's room and under the bed. Probably the fastest I've ever run. So much for being brave like Grandpa.
It's a darn good thing that Grandpa was there that day, because he may have saved our house from imploding. Grandpa told us later that after that aluminum door had crashed through the living room window, the back sliding glass door started quivering about six nches, in and out, due to pressure differential created by the tornado storm. Standing right there and knowing what was going on, he simply slid the door open, relieving the pressure within the house. It's impossible to know for sure, but I like to believe that Grandpa saved our house from total destruction by being there that day.
In addition to the Shadday's house behind us, the house to the east of their house, the two houses next door (east of us, the Morgan's and Klein's houses), and the two houses across the street and northeast of us (the Johann's was one of the houses) were all destroyed. Collapsed. Total losses. There were also other houses in the neighborhood that were severely damaged, but these local homes were my and my Grandpa's immediate concern. Our house sustained mostly cosmetic damage, so we were lucky, or blessed, or fortunate that Grandpa was there.
After I got my wits back together, I got back with Grandpa. He and I went out into the neighborhood, to see if anyone had any issues that they needed help with. Grandpa, I'm sure, was prepared for a triage mission, but thank God, we didn't find anyone with injuries around our immediate neighborhood.
About the only thing that Grandpa and I found that we could help with was at the Shadday's next-door neighbor's house (I don't remember the guy's name who lived there). The house was collapsed, and the gas line to the house was severed. Grandpa found a round wooden spoke from somebody's broken dining room chair and hammered it into the broken pipe. That prevented any further gas leakage, and any potential fire hazard.
It was good for me to see how grandpa saw the problem, quickly analyzed the situation, and resolved the issue with the materials available at the time. I got to witness how a real man operates in a crisis situation. No panic al all. Just cool and calm.
We checked on the Shaddays, and did find that there was one wall left standing at their house. It was the living room wall, and by that wall was where they had placed their couch. Between the couch and that wall was where Mrs. Shadday and her two kids who were home at the time, Karen and Kyle, had hidden during the tornado. One wall left standing, and that's where they were.. Coincidence? Or the hand of God leading them to safety?
A couple streets away in another part of the neighborhood, Cindy O'Connell and her mother had hidden in the coat closet near their living room. Ended up that the only walls left standing in their house were the walls of that coat closet. Again, a coincidence? Or the hand of God involved here as well?
At our house, I believe there was a sign of God's oversight as well. In the bedroom where Mom, Grandma and I hid under the bed, Mom kept her small collection of Hummel figurines on a shelf of her dresser. During the storm, there was a 2X12 that had crashed through the wall in the room, which allowed the winds to blow stuff around in the room. The Hummels, in particular, were noticed to have been blown off their spots on the shelf. The 'little boy' and 'little girl' Hummels were all found quickly, on the floor and near to the dresser. Each one had sustained at least a little bit of damage. But there was one Hummel that Mom treasured most. It was a limited edition of the Madonna Mary, holding the Baby Jesus on her lap. The figurine was very delicate: Mary had a delicate halo, she was holding a tiny delicate flower, and there was a little delicate bird standing on an open book on Mary's lap. We looked all around by the dresser, but that Hummel could not be found. Finally, on the other side of the room, under a pillow and a blanket up against the wall, we found the Madonna Mary Hummel, in perfect condition! None of those delicate features of the figurine was broken, even though it had been thrown across the room at least 20 feet, onto a hard wood floor, and up against the wall. How did that happen? A sign from God, maybe? It wasn't a life-saving sign, but could the hand of God have been involved here as well?
Yeah, I think so. I do think God got involved and protected some people, and left signs of his presence elsewhere. Why he selected some to protect and not everyone? I do not have the answer to that. In the after-life, that's a question for which I hope to learn the answers.
The tornado was a life-changing event in my life, for sure. I tell someone about it every year in April 3rd - whether it's a store clerk, or somebody at work, or someone I met at church. somebody gets the story I just told above. The tornado itself immediately demanded respect that I had never given to 'weather' or 'nature' before. The humanity I witnessed afterward was incredible. People really went out of their way to help their fellow man, and I'll never forget that part of it. It was a beautiful thing. And I learned even more about how great of a man my grandfather was. Totally selfless, calmly in control, and doing what needed to be done to take care of his family. It's my life's ambition to be like my Grandpa.
In the big picture of how the tornado of '74 affected the people of Madison, I know that my story is fairly minor. There were lots of people who lost loved ones, or who were injured themselves in the storm. Life is the important thing, and my story contains nothing that physically affected anyone's lives. Broken buildings or other things pale in comparison. But still, like for a lot of people in Madison, April 3, 1974 was very impactful on my life.
The hard part for me - - - to believe that it happened 40 years ago! I remember it like it happened yesterday.
Tom Lemm is a 1975 graduate of Shawe Memorial High School