Open Carefully

Sing to me of the man, muse, the man of twists and turns.

The Odyssey by Homer, trans. by Robert Fagles

 

Palm Sunday, April 5, 1936, a tornado roared through Tupelo, a town in northern Mississippi of approximately 7,350 people. There were no early warning systems. The black cloud sudden on the horizon. No one prepared. Estimated to have been an F5 on the Fujita scale, with winds between 261 and 318 miles per hour, the Tupelo tornado is listed as the fourth deadliest in U.S. history, killing—according to the official count—216 people.

“One minute, Tupelo, the country’s first TVA city, was peaceful; the next there were dead and dying on every hand,” recalls survivor George McGuire in Martin D. Ramage Jr.’s 1997 book Tupelo Mississippi, Tornado of 1936. Some trees in the city still lean as the result of its force.

But this photo is before all that: Hense, the grandfather I never knew, the father my mother can’t remember, straddling the hood of his new Model T. Square-jawed, a sexy Elvis snarl on his lips, sleeves rolled up, Hense stares off into the distance like a cowboy riding into town. Except this is Mississippi in the late 1920s. The sky—white haze. The car fresh-bought clean and polished. My Grandma Etta sits perched on its roof in sleeveless dress and flapper bob. I never saw her smile this sweetly.

But haze alters the clarity with which we view the environment, robs the landscape of contrast and hue, dulls rainbows and sunsets, obscures the night sky, the Milky Way, and hinders severe weather spotting, as Stephen F. Corfidi of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration notes in his 2013 article Haze Over the Central and Eastern United States. It can hide the low-level cloud formations associated with possible tornado weather. In Ramage’s book, survivors describe the afternoon of April 5, 1936 as unusually hot and humid, even oppressively so, and haze is common in the South on sultry days.

When Hense first laid eyes on Etta, she was dancing on the kitchen table at the boarding house where she was living. “I’m going to marry that girl,” he told his buddies. He was a mechanic, she a nurse, and at ages 23 and 19, there was not a stoplight in sight. A wedding ensued. Their first child, my Uncle Bill, was born in 1930, my mother, Sara, two years later.

 

***

 

There’s a tornado in my spine, a touch of scoliosis. The most common type—idiopathic—

meaning no definitive cause. The sideways curvature of the spine usually develops during the growth spurt right before puberty. On an x-ray, scoliosis resembles the rotating column of a tornado. It occurs in girls more than boys and tends to be hereditary. I’m not aware of any family history but it could be lurking somewhere in the past either not spoken of or undiagnosed, passed down unawares from one generation to the next.

According to the Johns Hopkins Medicine website, there are about three million new cases a year in the U.S., most like mine—mild with few symptoms. Diagnosing scoliosis isn’t rocket science. It will show up on an x-ray, MRI or CT scan. You can hold a plumb line from the seventh cervical vertebra and if the line doesn’t pass through the gluteal cleft, it’s likely due to scoliosis. Or, you can just take a look-see, which is how my doctor discovered it during a routine exam when I was well into adulthood.

I have no idea why it took so long for my scoliosis to be diagnosed. Maybe the curvature was too slight when I was young, or no one had reason to look for it. Scoliosis definitely was not on my mother’s radar when I was growing up. But she was concerned about the way I hunched my shoulders as a teen.  “Stand up straight,” she would admonish, and I’d spend my afternoon balancing a book on top of my head. “You don’t want to end up like that,” she whispered once, discretely nodding toward a humpbacked woman in the ice cream shop.

Mom was good at projecting worst-case scenarios when she spotted something potentially amiss and worrying was her way to keep them from happening. As Seth J. Gillihan, Ph.D., points out in “5 Reasons Why We Worry, and 5 Ways to Worry Less,” in the Oct. 7, 2016 issue of Psychology Today: “Each time we worry and nothing bad happens, our mind connects worry with preventing harm.” And because she passed this tendency down to me, I know the trick is to be hyper-vigilant, to be constantly on the alert for what could go wrong so you can initiate worry in time to prevent it.

 

***

 

Research conducted in the 1880s identified the weather conditions favorable for tornado development, Timothy A. Coleman, Kevin R. Knupp, James Spann, J.B. Elliott, and Brian E. Peters write in “The History (and Future) of Tornado Warning Dissemination in the United States” published in the May 2011 Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. And based on those findings, a mechanism that could be used as a town-size warning system was created during that same decade. It consisted of putting up, on the southwest side of a locality, telegraph wires that would break in high winds, triggering alarm bells and firing a cannon to warn people to secure their property and take shelter.

But nothing was done with this recommendation. According to Coleman et al., “There was a general feeling that publicly issued tornado forecasts would induce panic and cause more harm than good,” so official forecasts and warnings about tornadoes ended in 1887. Subsequently, even the use of the word “tornado” was banned from official releases by the United States Weather Bureau (USWB). And it was 1938, two years after the Tupelo tornado, before the ban was removed in cases of tornado warnings (but not for forecasts).

This meant the people of Tupelo had only crude mechanisms to forecast a severe storm like flowers closing up, flies gathering indoors, or taking a look-see at the horizon. But that Palm Sunday in Tupelo, it was dark when the tornado hit, which combined with the surrounding hilly terrain, hindered the ability to spot the funnel on its way. In Ramage’s book, multiple accounts by survivors describe being at home, hearing a strange sound, going to a window or door to check it out and then having only seconds (if any time at all) to seek shelter under a bed or table before their house is blown down around them.

News accounts reported that the storm hit around 9:00 p.m. and plowed a path through Tupelo 15 miles long. It leveled 48 city blocks, and destroyed over 1,000 homes, 36 shops, four schools, and 10 churches. Total property damage was estimated to be $3 million. Some said it sounded like several freight trains barreling through and lasted about three minutes. Hundreds of men, women and children were killed or injured, and no warning mechanisms were in place because the government was worried people would panic.

 

***

 

This makes me angry. The Tupelo tornado completely altered the trajectory of my family, killing my grandfather and leaving its mark on my grandmother, mom, and even me and my children. How different would things have been if a simple warning system had been in place? We will never know. The government kept the knowledge it had under wraps for decades. Neither my grandmother nor mom ever viewed the tornado as anything but a random, unpreventable tragedy. And it wasn’t until I was researching the tornado recently that I discovered the truth.

Government authorities were as responsible for the level of devastation from the Tupelo tornado as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is for the levee breaches after Hurricane Katrina and Flint, Michigan officials are for the failure to protect the local water supply by applying corrosive inhibitors.

In 1948, according to Coleman et al., the U.S. Air Force used forecasting knowledge to correctly predict that weather conditions were ripe for a tornado at Tinker AFB in Oklahoma, allowing the base to secure property and get personnel safely to shelter before the twister hit. Word of the successful warning leaked to the public who demanded to know why such a system wasn’t available to the civilian population. As a result, the USWB removed the ban on tornado forecasts in July 1950, and radio and TV became the primary way to disseminate information. Around 1970, former outdoor air raid sirens began to be used for tornado warnings. Now I get local tornado forecasts and warnings on my cell phone telling me when I need to seek shelter.

 

***

 

But the damage is done.

When I was 16, brand-new driver’s license in hand, my mom forgot to say “be careful” as I headed out the door. Misjudging the speed of an oncoming car while making a left-hand turn at a busy intersection—BOOM! Both cars totaled, but no one hurt. My father retrieved me from the back of a police car. My mother blamed herself because she had let me go without uttering the words “be careful.”

We’re not born superstitious, we’re taught that stuff and hang on to it, trying to control this crazy world around us. Compulsive behaviors are coping strategies. They make us feel better, even though we know they’re completely irrational. Once, fearing seven years of bad luck, I buried the pieces of the hand mirror I’d shattered beneath the red cedar, face-up under the full moon.

“Be careful,” I remind my husband and kids whenever they leave the house. “Be careful,” they say to me whenever I do the same. The irony is Hense had just arrived home when the tornado hit. The neighbor across the street saw the house lights come on minutes before. I’m guessing he had just returned from evening services at the Baptist church. He was home alone. Grandma had taken my mom and uncle to Aberdeen, a little over 30 miles southeast, to visit family for the weekend.

 

***

 

The storm came in from the southwest with winds so strong they embedded pine needles in the trunks of trees. Clothes were blown off people, feathers off chickens. Horns were broken off cows. An entire family of thirteen, the Burroughs family who lived just west of the city, was killed. Grandma told me they died impaled by the pickets from the fence surrounding their home, although I have found no documentation proving this is true.

But she never told me about a greater horror. A May 21, 2013 Time Magazine article by Tim Newcomb on the 10 deadliest tornadoes in U.S. history says the official fatality count for the 1936 Tupelo tornado is not correct and never was because they only counted the white people killed. The tornado devastated the neighborhood where most black families lived, but none of their dead were counted.

Whistle at night and you’ll summon evil spirits.

My grandfather was counted. The Burroughs were counted. But the suffering of a large part of the community officially was ignored because of their skin color, as if they didn’t exist. Again, not unlike what happened with Katrina and Flint.

 

***

 

According to Ramage’s book, after the storm passed, some survivors reported an eerie silence in the areas most devastated, with no cries or moans coming from the piles of debris. Many bodies were found in the east part of town in Gum Pond. Some were never recovered. The town didn’t have enough coffins. Bodies were stored in the Armory, City Hall and a bakery until more could be shipped in. The roof had been blown off the hospital and the Lyric Theater housed many of the injured. Medical workers used the popcorn machine to sterilize instruments. Amputations were performed on the stage.

When Grandma arrived on the train the day after the tornado with my mom and uncle in tow, she turned down the first offer for a lift home because the car’s seats were streaked with blood from carrying the dead and injured. “I can’t put my children in there!” she told the driver.

I don’t know if she’d heard about the tornado before she arrived. The one time she talked to me about what happened, she didn’t say, and I didn’t ask. It’s possible she hadn’t. I don’t think she would have brought her kids with her if she had understood the level of destruction, and most of the people in the state didn’t have telephones at the time. But I do know, at that moment, she had no idea whether her husband was alive or dead.

When they finally reached their street, Hense was nowhere to be seen. The neighborhood was rubble and all that was left of their home were two brick columns from the foundation and three dinner forks scattered in the dirt. One of those forks, the tines nicked and slightly bent, is framed and hanging on my office wall. “Where’s my toy truck,” Grandma said my six-year-old uncle kept asking.

To find something you’ve lost, take off your left shoe and toss it in the air. When it lands, look in the direction the toe is pointed to find what you’re looking for. Hense’s body, or what was left of it, was found several blocks from home. My mother had just turned four.

 

***

 

Mom, it was just a pothole, I’d whine as a girl whenever my mother turned the car around yet again, and retraced her route to make sure the bump she’d felt wasn’t something she’d killed unawares—like a cat, dog, person. She drove slowly over the area in question, hunched over the steering wheel, and scanned the road. I think she always knew it was just a pothole but felt if she didn’t go back and check, she’d find out later she had hit something. Retracing her route was insurance against that, and it reduced her anxiety, alleviated her feelings of dread, impending disaster.

Though mom was old enough in 1936 to have developed a long-term memory of people, events and experiences in her life, she told me she had no recollection of her father or the aftermath of the storm. Dr. Darlene McLaughlin explains in the Dec. 9, 2016 issue of ScienceDaily that if the brain registers an overwhelming trauma it can block off that memory through a process called dissociation. This can happen as part of post-traumatic stress disorder, and McLaughlin recommends getting expert help to move forward. Today, The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, created by Congress in 2000, has resources designed specifically to help children who experience or witness the devastation of a tornado, to keep them from carrying a sense of fear and helplessness into adulthood. That’s All Right, Mama. (A notable survivor of the tornado was one-year-old Elvis Presley.) But that type of help was not available for kids in 1936.

 

***

 

Scoliosis never resolves on its own. Mine, though it’s mild enough not to require surgery or a brace, makes one leg appear longer than the other due to pelvic obliquity. This means my hips list slightly starboard. The muscles on the left side of my back also are much more developed than those on my right from the work they do to hold me up. But, like a blocked memory, I’m not conscious of any of that as I move through my day. I’ll think I’m standing straight until others tell me that I’m crooked. PTSD can work much the same way.

 

***

 

Grandma didn’t buy a headstone for Hense because she needed what little money she had to take care of her kids. The dress she wore to bury Hense was the only one she had left and red as flame. Her mother-in-law called it completely inappropriate.

“It was a horrible thing to have happen to you at 26,” she said as she chain-smoked her way through a nursing career, a second marriage, and two more kids with HUNDREDS DEAD in yellowed newsprint in a drawer.

The Red Cross, National Guard, Boy Scouts and volunteers from Memphis helped Tupelo recover and rebuild, patch up the wounded and bury those lost. The report of the then chair of the local Red Cross chapter, as shown in Ramage’s collection, says young women with children who had lost their husbands were given funds to prepare for a “suitable profession” that would help them support their families. I believe this was where my grandmother got the money to go back to school and get her certificate in public health nursing.  She was never much for keeping house, her kitchen cabinets stuffed hodgepodge with dishes to the point you had to be ready to dodge whatever might fall out if you went to get a glass or plate. When I knew her, work seemed to be the center of her life.

 

***

 

I’m getting drenched. There’s no overhang, the umbrella is stuck in full flower and it’s too windy to leave it open outside. Under no circumstances can I take it inside like this, invite bad luck. So, I’m trapped out here wrestling it closed. Silly, but I can’t help myself. On the Internet, you can find reminiscences of people whose grandparents, parents, great aunts, uncles or cousins survived the 1936 Tupelo tornado and remained terrified of storms for the rest of their lives.

My mother wasn’t afraid of storms. She wasn’t there when the tornado hit. But she did see and experience the destruction it caused, and she lost her dad. From what I understand, she and her mom and brother rarely if ever talked about it, never examined how it affected them. But disaster forever lurked just over my mother’s shoulder, like a coiled cat itching to pounce. She was deer, rabbit, horse—nose always to the wind, ready to run. Step on a crack and you’ll break your mama’s back.

Andrew Curry, in a July 18, 2019 article in Science, says scientists have shown that pups of stressed mother mice exhibit both molecular and behavioral changes and that these changes persist for up to five generations, suggesting a parent’s emotional trauma can affect their children’s biology.

“So, if one crashes you won’t be left an orphan,” my mother explained when I was ten and asked why dad and she weren’t flying on the same plane to Chicago. All day I imagined hearing one of them was gone, tossing dirt onto a coffin lowered into the ground, seeing my schoolmates whispering behind their hands: There’s the girl who lost her mother/father. I watched Walter Cronkite that night to learn my fate, but no downed planes were reported. Today, I usually fly best with a stiff drink in hand.

 

***

 

Hense wasn’t much for communing with the dead. Whenever he took his family to visit his mother (who by all accounts was a sour woman) she’d make them visit the family graves. “I’ll race ya!” he’d call to his kids, and take off at a sprint across the cemetery, turning the maze of granite markers into a playground for tag and hide and seek. Or so Grandma told me. She never talked to my mom about Hense except to say Hense and my mom had been close before he died. Maybe it was too painful.

I never, ever bring an old broom into a new home. It could carry troubles. But I imagine Hense laughing, bent over with his hands on his knees, catching his breath after his kids have run him ragged in the cemetery, calling “Olly olly oxen free!” Taunting death. Maybe that’s what doomed him. As far back as I can remember, my mother avoided cemeteries.

The word scoliosis is derived from the Greek skoliosis which means twisting or torsion. If I could straighten the curve in my spine, I might be a half-inch taller. But curves can worsen as you grow older due to disc and joint degeneration. I don’t expect my condition to ever get better. Nor do I expect to stop worrying or become less superstitious. I’ve been shaped by twists and turns.

Even today the federal government doesn’t asterisk the 216 in its reporting to footnote that the number of dead was deliberately misrepresented and why. Instead, in its listing of the 25 deadliest U.S. tornadoes, the NOAA prefaces the report by saying: “Death counts for events in the 1800s and early 1900s should be treated as estimates, since recordkeeping of tornado deaths was erratic back then.”

As Faulkner said, the past is not even past. Open carefully. A teacup is likely to come tumbling, unmoored from its saucer.

 

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