The piles of wooden slats I see in the newspapers and on television take me back to April 3, 1974, when I was twelve-years-old — thirty-seven years before the violent storms that ripped through the south this past week leaving hundreds dead and thousands homeless. My family’s home in Xenia, Ohio was destroyed, and although we didn’t know it at the time, Xenia was getting the worst of the 148 tornadoes that struck that day. At winds over 300 miles per hour, the Xenia storm was an F5 killing 33 people and leaving over 10,000 homeless as it cut a path right through the center of town.
As many commentators have noted, tornadoes are uniquely dangerous. Unlike hurricanes where there is often time to prepare, tornadoes sneak up on you more quickly. That’s what happened to us. My sister and I were watching Gilligan’s Island after school and, although we were aware of the warnings, we didn’t really “get it” and we were annoyed by the meteoroligist’s interrupting one of our favorite shows. For all we knew, maybe this would be the episode where the castaways would finally be rescued! Luckily for us, my dad, who had been driving in front of the giant black cloud spinning toward us, got home, put a mattress over us in the hallway, and saved our lives. When I heard the survivors in Alabama talk about the quiet right before it hit, I went right back to the calm under the mattress in Xenia, Ohio. After those few seconds of eerie silence, we heard the brick walls crunching around us, the roof flew up and away forever, and there was nothing left.
I also remember the Red Cross. They were there for us right away. They had clothes. They had food. They had tetanus shots. When I sent my contribution to them this week, it gave me an opportunity to reflect on that day thirty-four years ago. I thought about the families who lost a loved one and the parents who have to figure out how to start over. Most of all, I thought about twelve-year-old girls who lost their favorite books. Those girls might – like I did – see the pages of their favorite stories flying away. I hope they remember that books can be replaced and that their childhood reading experiences didn’t exist in those books anyway – they exist in the reader’s heart.