Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene The Storm

Nashville examines tornado damage.

APRIL 27, 1998:  The tornado mowed a long, wide path--from Knob Hill in the west, to Hermitage in the east. It consisted of nothing more than wind and rain. It didn't care where it went. It didn't know what it was doing. It just did what it did.

It had no plan, no foresight, no premeditation. It did not intend to do evil. It simply came together, a force of nature, cold air colliding with warm air over the center of the city. Rampaging through the comfortable daily life of our city, the tornado lacked a conscience. But it became something awful, mean, and destructive--a twister, an irrational, unexplainable, abstraction of evil.

As if in a bad hallucination, pigeons flew backwards. Cars leapt through the air. Phone poles bent. Trampolines skittered across house tops. Agnostics prayed to God. On what might have been a normal, peaceful afternoon, anxiety and violence held sway.

The horror of the tornado, its destruction, was so massive that an escape from it was a cause for thanks. The apocalyptic scene was so tremendous as to inspire awe.

The storm produced a thousand images, a thousand tales, a thousand memories. There were also a thousand miracles and blessings. First and foremost, no one was killed.

The other great miracle was this: Thousands of us stared into the abyss. Saved from destruction, we then gave thanks and wondered at the danger we had passed. On a miserably rainy Saturday, we were glad to be alive. Touched by grace, we accepted the amazement for what it was.

Years from now, we will be telling our children and grandchildren about this horror and the surviving of it. Maybe, as we tell those stories, we will remember what it was like to see East Nashville, once again, in ruins. If we are truly lucky, we will remember the valiant spirit that plunged in, immediately, to clear the rubble away. We will know that, for all that is gone, there are treasures around us. They have been there all along. There is no wind that can reduce them to dust.


A Mighty Wind
It hit--then it was gone.

What you remember is the sound.

The common comparison is to a freight train. But there's none of the chugga-chugga energy of a full-on diesel engine, none of the steady grind of metal across metal as steel wheels spin over iron rails. Maybe if you got up close to the rails while a long line of freight cars sped by. Maybe that sound would come close.

To me, it's like the sound that comes when you press the lever on an air hose--amplified 100 times. Imagine what it would sound like inside a tire valve as it's being inflated.

But it's not just the fury of compressed air rushing by; there's also a malevolent force to it. Add to that the sound of leaves, limbs, and larger debris smacking the house; of trees crashing into streets and roofs; of windows breaking; of metal awnings creased and pulled from windows and porches; of utility lines jerked from their bindings and meter boxes ripped from exterior walls; of transformers exploding.

As it happens, there's another sound--that of your own fear. Some scream, some pray, some grit their teeth and clench their fists and curl their brows and hold on. Me, I kept whispering to my dog. "Stay, Mony, stay. Stay, girl,"I repeated softly, over and over again. I grasped her collar in one hand, with my other arm wrapped around her thick, black body. As the sound got uglier, she strained harder to pull away, I squeezed ever tighter to hold her in place, and our fear grew louder.

Those are the sounds you remember.

Then, as fast as it hit, it quit. The rain still beat its rhythm. The lightning still crackled, the thunder still boomed. For a few minutes, it seemed eerily quiet, until the sirens started. I let Mony go and breathed again, deeply. Dogs began barking maniacally. Then the doors began to open.

"Are you OK?"we all asked, shouting from our porches. Behind me, a new tenant of a duplex stared at the enormous oak that creased his roof. "I thought it was snowing,"he said, talking about what happened after the sky showed up in his living room. "Then I realized it was insulation."

Miss Mildred, 89 years old and a 60-year resident of North 16th Street, shook her head and told the history of the 30-foot cherry tree lying uprooted and broken in the street. Miss Mary, in her 90s and another six-decade veteran of the block, shuffled slowly across the street and marveled that her stately maple remained standing. Good thing she'd had it drastically trimmed back a few months ago, she told me. That action probably saved her home--or mine.

She also was the first to point at my roof. "Looks like you've lost a lot of shingles,"she said. "Better check for leaks."There were plenty, it turned out. Nothing to do for now, though, other than put out some buckets and pans.

For hours, we watched people go by. On foot, they looked dazed, staring at the ruins, asking if everyone was OK, inquiring if anyone needed anything. By car, they hurried, growing more frantic each time they came through, desperately looking for a route home that didn't end with a roadblock of downed trees.

Eventually, as night fell, the cars stopped, the headlights replaced by endless darkness. By midnight, the sirens had stopped their harsh cry. Then there was only quiet--the stillest, saddest silence I've ever heard. *

By Michael McCall



With All Due Respect
A Texas boy knows what a tornado can do.

In 1953 in Waco, Texas, my parents lived through a tornado that killed 111 people in one hellish swoop. Luckily, my mother and father were blocks away from the funnel. My grandmother, even luckier, was alone in her car when a big chunk of building fell onto it. The bricks crumpled the passenger side. My grandmother was in the driver's seat.

Luck, good or bad, comes with every tornado.

Before last Thursday, I had been in one, at the edge of one, and had witnessed one. I've been lucky now four times.

Growing up in Texas, or Oklahoma or Ohio, you learn to respect--and fear--the capricious power inside a low, black cloud. You regularly witness what tornadoes can do, and, sooner or later, they do it to your neighbors. My folks had many friends in Jarrell, Texas, where a tornado last spring left nothing but the concrete slabs where houses and 28 people had been.

In the tornado belt, you also learn how to read the sky. On Thursday afternoon, when Channel 2's rooftop camera revealed a sky black as midnight, I knew what it meant. Lisa Hunt, the rector of the wrecked St. Ann's Church, is from Ohio. She told interviewers she, too, knew what was coming, and began repeating the 23rd Psalm.

In our West Nashville basement, hunkered under a strong work table and wrapped in old, thick quilts, my daughters and I and our 12-year-old neighbor heard the first cloud whip overhead on its way through Sylvan Park toward downtown. We watched reports on TV until the electricity failed.

For the three girls, the experience became an exciting adventure. On Friday, though, I made a point of driving them down Charlotte and around Centennial Park--not to gawk, but to give them the same healthy fear of a power that pulled walls apart, snapped utility poles like matchsticks, bent steel billboard towers like paper clips, and hurled two-by-fours through a roof like pins through a cushion.

On Saturday, helping remove a huge tree from an East Nashville roof, I saw many more fearsome displays of the tornado's power. And yet there seemed to be a strangely buoyant feeling, unspoken but palpable, among the strangers and volunteers who were working in the rain: Look at what this storm did, and all of us are still here!

Had the tornadoes been of the magnitude of Birmingham or Jarrell, or had the warning system been less effective, or had the Hard Rock collapsed instead of a vacant building across the street, the outcome and the mood might have been horribly different. But there were no mass funerals last weekend. There was only a massive mess.

In spite of the ruined buildings and flattened cars and blown-out windows and fallen trees, our luck this time was miraculously good. It brought to mind a favorite expression of one of my former bosses: "Boys, we've cheated death once again."

By Randy Horick


Fatal Attraction
Why were all those people at the windows?

Ever since I was a kid, I've been fascinated by tornadoes. It probably has something to do with the fact I went through school tornado drills every spring. That yearly routine instilled a terror in me, the foreboding that every bank of dark clouds held the threat of whirling disaster. But there's a secret longing that accompanies such terror, a desire to confront it up close. Hurricanes, typhoons, and earthquakes are awe-inspiring in their way, but twisters are something else entirely--maybe because they have a distinct physical presence, a form that suggests the wrath of God come down to wreak vengeance.

It's easy to understand why they pop up in my dreams every so often. They represent the frightening reality that we're tiny, powerless beings subject not just to the forces of nature but to the very forces of history and time.

So when I woke up Thursday morning to the news that a twister had been spotted near Hickory Hollow, I felt determined to see a tornado that day. When I walked outside at lunch and saw the seemingly uneventful skies, I felt emboldened.

Three hours later, word spread rapidly through the office that a tornado was headed our way--sending me and a few colleagues immediately to the window and out the back door, where we looked up to see the strange cloud formations. We ducked back inside, but it took a stampede of coworkers and several harried reprimands to get me away from the window. Rather than heading for safety, though, I headed to the front of the building.

Somehow, I missed the mass of swirling air as it swept past Union Station, blowing out the clock in the building's tower. I stood outside anticipating something more, practically hoping a funnel would materialize above me. As I talked to a couple of coworkers who came outside for a smoke, I related my disappointment at missing all the excitement. "I've been through 10 or 12 of these,"one told me, "and there is nothing thrilling about them."

I gathered that she didn't have much patience for my enthusiasm, but I didn't really understand what she meant until much later that night. As I heard the countless stories of destruction, the endless first-person accounts, I realized that, in my eagerness to face down a tornado, I could easily have been shredded by a shattering windowpane.

It was easy for me to be brave. I work in a huge, red-brick warehouse building. The truth of the matter is, if I'd been stuck in the 20th-floor stairwell of a Church Street building, I probably woulda pissed my pants.

Monday morning, I got a call from a friend who'd spent the entire weekend doing cleanup on his East Nashville house. By then, I'd fully acknowledged just how wrongheaded I was to crave a tornado experience while other people had suffered such huge losses.

But my friend reminded me that close brushes with death and disaster should ultimately ignite our lust for life. There he was, surrounded by so much debris and so many uprooted trees, and he realized how lucky he was: He only lost his garage and a tree or two. But, knowing him, he'd have rebounded from even worse conditions. I probably couldn't say that about myself.

"Yeah, I was just so happy this weekend,"he told me. "I just kept looking around, and I felt happy."

I guess that's when I realized my tornado lust wasn't just some wanton impulse. I had to try to see it. I had to know that I could face the forces of destruction and also see beyond them. Of course, I still don't know that for sure.

But I do know this much: The next time a tornado comes ripping through Nashville--and we can only hope it won't happen for a long, long time--I will know better. Yeah, I'll probably want to run up to the window and look outside.

But at least I'll be standing farther away.

By Jonathan Marx


Unanswered Questions
So why did the double-wide make it?

At 11 a.m. this past Friday, as Charlie Fenton hatcheted away at the fallen hackberries on his Rosebank Avenue lawn, he paused to muse, "Here's an agnostic who says God is good."The tornado reaffirmed the faith of many Nashvillians grateful to be alive on the morning after, but it has severely damaged mine. The way I look at it, God may be good, but His taste in architecture is not so hot.

How can an architecture critic not be skeptical when an aluminum double-wide on Woodland Street suffers a mere broken window and, right next door, the Gothic beauties of St. Ann's Episcopal Church are reduced to a pile of fractured brick and shattered stained glass? When the corrugated tire shed on Main Street is barely dented and the classical lines of the Weakley plantation house are draped in blue plastic? When the globe at Planet Hollywood still spins while half of an 1850s Italianate farmhouse on Eastland Avenue is gone with the wind?

If God has proven to be a feckless lover of architecture, the same is not true of mere mortals. All weekend, Nashvillians walked the streets of Edgefield and East End and Lockeland Springs, sighing over the damage to Queen Anne cottage after Queen Anne cottage, but sighing with relief as they discovered that a favorite bit of brick and mortar was standing unscathed. On Russell Street I overheard a young man say to his companion, "Well, we may have lost our porch, but at least the house with the ballroom is OK. I would've felt really terrible if it were badly hurt."

As I cleared debris from my own front yard on Saturday, an elderly woman approached and looked at my Eastlake Victorian. "I'm glad to see that the old girl made it,"she said, one old girl to another. "I drive by your corner all the time, even though it's out of my way. I just like the way the tin shingles and all the gingerbread look."

Other strangers stopped by to thank the Lord not that I was still standing, but that my house was. I have no problem with their priorities, but I think their thanks are misplaced. Folk wisdom has it that God is in the details. This time He has a lot of explaining to do.

On Sunday evening, the lights came on in the sanctuary of the East End United Methodist Church. The glowing red of the Good Shepherd's cloak in the large arch of stained glass drew me out of my cold and shadowy house. Other neighbors left their candles and came out onto their front porches, rubbing their arms in the reflected warmth.

We had grown accustomed to darkness after sunset, a darkness broken only by headlights and the revolving blues of the police cruisers. The police patrols alerted us that someone was taking precautions, but they also warned us that we were living in a state of emergency.

The lights in East End Methodist were more reassuring. I had felt an almost physical pain at the sight of St. Ann's on the ground, its pews reduced to firewood. Now fragments of stained glass windows lay neatly stacked, patiently waiting for rescue. A brass plaque memorializing parishioners who died in World War II stood carefully propped against a swing set in the churchyard.
When I stared at the gaping wound in the side of the Tulip Street Methodist Church, I recalled the wedding I had attended there and how I had admired the carving on the golden oak pews. Now the pews were covered with brick dust, the carving obscured.

I looked clear through the sanctuary of Russell Street Church of Christ, a novel vista made possible by two large, fractured rose windows. I wondered if insurance would cover the all-too-obvious costs of restoration.

Now I looked into the simple white and dark-oak interior of East End Methodist and felt like a medieval pilgrim come to rest after a dark and stormy journey. Churches will do that, even to the apostate. That's because they symbolize the shuffling off of mortal coils for some higher calling, be it faith in God or plain old human community. The artisans who built the abbeys and cathedrals in those long-ago Dark Ages knew that they would probably not live to see their churches completed. Yet they still carved and carried and hammered. The same feeling motivates those who are stacking bricks and terra cotta fragments in Edgefield.

Mike Waldrop, the minister who lit the lights at East End Methodist, understands the power a church can have even among the non-believing. "We don't really need to light the church after services,"his wife, Betsy, explained, almost apologetically. "But the neighborhood is so dark now. We just think it will look good to see something bright."

By Christine Kreyling


Maybe the tornado liked Chevrolets.

At 401 N. 15th St., a telephone poll, uprooted by the storm, bowled over a garage. Left completely unscathed by the collapsing objects was a bright blue 1979 Chevrolet Caprice Classic, belonging to one Myrtle Fuller.

Some things just cannot be explained. Like the trampoline that ended up in a front yard on Rosebank Avenue. Or the windshield that was ripped out of a car and ended up draped over a piece of electrical wire, looking like a wet blanket hung out to dry. --Bruce Dobie


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