By Pres Pulliam
The tornado roared into my father’s house around 3 o’clock that hot afternoon in May. The monster caught me alone in the kitchen snacking on one of my mother’s cookies. All hell broke loose — a thousand freight trains could not have made more noise — and total blackness descended. It was the most fearful moment in my short life.
Everything in the kitchen took wing and joined in the noise — a cacophony of discordant notes. I don’t remember making one sound. I was blown across the room into the wood box behind the kitchen stove. The roof was gone. Bleeding like a stuck hog from flying glass, I remember gazing up at fast-traveling clouds hastening to keep up with that monster that had brazenly invaded and cowardly destroyed my father’s house. My world was never to be the same again.
At some point, I gathered myself together. Probably the torrent of rain in my face brought me back to the new reality. I crawled toward the living room through the dining room, where the roof was resting on my mother’s walnut table, and finally out into the center hall. There I found my father and mother, my baby brother and Miss Essie, my mother’s housekeeper. No one said anything; we were all in shock. Finally, Miss Essie said, “Lord, I wish I had stayed in the church!” (She had just cleaned the Baptist church across the road from our house.)
My father looked out the opening where the door used to be and said, “If you had stayed there you would be dead now. The steeple is on the ground. There is no church. I’ve got to get up to the school and find Billy and Laura Lillard.”
Somehow we managed to get through the hall toward the opening to the rickety back porch and finally down the back steps and across the yard. My father took off running down the road and up the lane toward the school. Miss Essie and my mother, with my brother in her arms, ran to the basement to get out of the driving rain.
I ran down the road and up the lane trying to catch up with my father. I saw my father fall over an apple barrel as it rolled down the hill, get up and continue running up the hill toward the school. My sister and two of her friends witnessed the tornado from the Walters’ porch because Annabelle wouldn’t let them in the house. Laura did not see my father or me dashing up the lane because in terror she was still turned toward the wall of the house.
I saw Mary Stark, a first- grade teacher, muddied, bloodied and almost naked lying in the rain-drenched rose bushes in the Wallace’s yard. I thought or said, “Don’t die Miss Mary. I love you,” and then I passed out. It was getting too much for me. After all I had no experience with such things. As it later turned out, Miss Stark had only a broken arm.
As twilight fell, I awoke in a bed in the Wallace house. Strange people were milling around. Annabelle Wallace was standing silently over in the corner. She lived in the house with her mother. Her dark skin seemed darker than usual; maybe it was the dimness of the lamp beside the bed. She always seemed to be brooding over something. Finally I saw Clarence, her brother of lighter skin, who owned the blacksmith shop just up the lane behind his mother’s house. He had been a great friend of mine and my father.
Doctors and nurses descended on the village from all directions. Firemen were everywhere, but there was nothing on fire. I heard someone say the thing had cut a swath through the heart of the village about 300 feet wide. It took the Johnson house beside the Baptist church, the Episcopal church on the old county road and the Botts’ house up from the Baptist church, leaving the elderly, bedridden Mrs. Botts unscathed in her bedroom on one side of the house. It knocked the Upton house off its foundation and continued up the hill, totally destroying the school, blowing the children out in all directions and around the apple orchard just behind the school. For some reason I thought, no more stomach aches from eating green apples. Good-bye tree.
Fading in and out of consciousness, I recalled the old days of my young life. In my mind I wandered up the lane leading up the Red Oak Mountain. I paused at the picnic grounds where Billy and William Hawkins and I used to play. Here is where William would hide behind the walnut tree and make sounds like a tiger to scare me. Suddenly, I began to scream, “Billy, don’t let the tiger get me!” The nurse came up and whispered to the doctor, “I think he is delirious. Should I give him a shot?”
Later my Uncle Pres appeared on the scene and told the doctor, “If it’s all right to move him, I’m taking him home with me.” With the doctor’s OK the nurse wrapped me in a blanket and Uncle Pres carried me out to his Model A Ford. How that car could remain so clean in the midst of all the wreckage is a mystery, but then I remembered he always wiped it off even after going a short distance. Neat people drive neat cars.
As he drove slowly through the village toward Culpeper, Uncle Pres said that my father had been the first to reach the school. He had found Billy up the hill beyond the schoolhouse lying in a pool of water. He brought Billy down and went back to get other children and Elizabeth Browning, the other teacher. Billy had been blown about 200 yards from the schoolhouse. He had a large splinter of wood in his side, and he was rushed to the hospital in Warrenton, there being no hospital in Culpeper. Billy and William Hawkins had asked the teacher if they could leave the school when they saw the funnel coming toward the village. She had said no; they left anyway. They were caught before they could get out. William was still missing.
The highway department had cleared the road of debris. We passed by what had been my father’s house. I could dimly perceive that the roof and second floor were completely gone as well as all the windows and doors. I saw a chicken roosting in a maple tree. It was as if my best friends, the maple trees, in the side yard where I used to climb and hide, had survived. I felt better and resolved to come back someday and hug them. In the meantime I remarked, “Good-bye, trees.”
Pres Pulliam grew up in and around Woodville and, though he now lives in Warrenton, still has many Rappahannock ties.