The Storm Pit
“Mom worries about dumb stuff,” Corey told the counselor. “During tornado season, she writes our names on our legs with magic marker.”
(from Mary Hood’s short story, “After Moore”)
Any southerner who cannot tell you a good weather story should not be trusted. This is not hyperbole.
Well, ok, maybe it is hyperbole. But I’m not suggesting that all southerners have had a near-death experience in some violent storm. It’s the storytelling that concerns me. I think it’s almost impossible to grow up in the South and be oblivious to how the weather shapes people’s psyche and provides a theatrical backdrop to life and culture. Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind may have been concerned with the death of antebellum plantation society, but the title seems just as apt when applied to southern weather.
Most of us country kids grew up listening, riveted, as our older relatives told tales about notorious storms that killed eight milk cows, two red-bone coonhounds, and somebody’s one-eyed pet chicken named…One-Eye…in the blink of…well, you get the idea. The stories were mostly true, with a few embellishments for dramatic effect.
My Mamaw and Papaw Posey routinely related the story of the baby Etta (they called her “Etter”) Doyle, one of their contemporaries, allegedly swept up in the vortex of a tornado and plopped down several miles away from her home, where she was later discovered unharmed and playing in a mud puddle. “She weren’t even scuffed up much,” Papaw used to say, “but she did start to howling considerable when they picked her up. I suspect she liked the mud.” As best as I can figure, this incident probably occurred during the infamous Dixie Outbreak of tornadoes from April 23-25, 1908. If Wikipedia is to be believed, at least 29 tornadoes struck 13 states in the South and Midwest during those storms and killed about 324 people.
“Etter” was certainly fortunate to have survived, but to my young mind, such legends made Dorothy Gale’s smooth touchdown on top of the witch entirely plausible. Maybe the combination of the stories my grandparents told coupled with the yearly viewing of The Wizard of Oz shielded me from the reality of actual tornado devastation. When Papaw would say, “It’s comin’ up a cloud,” I’d whisper breathlessly to my little cousin Monica, “I hope we’re going to the storm pit!”
The cinder block weather bunker known as the storm pit has been a family landmark for about sixty years. Planted deep in the red clay foreground of the Appalachian foothills in Alabama, the structure is a subtle reminder that even on sunny days, April weather can turn volatile and unpredictable.
For all of us cousins growing up on the Posey Compound (if the Kennedys can have a compound, why can’t the yeomanry?), April tornado season was exciting high drama, especially April 3-4, 1974, when the famed “super outbreak” of 148 tornadoes killed 319 people in 13 southern and midwestern states.
I was a nine-year-old third grader. Monica, more like my little sister than a cousin, was only three and not even in school yet. Still, she and Papaw were sitting under the oak trees when I got off the school bus the afternoon of April 3, excited to tell me that the entire county was under a tornado watch. But even before they said anything, I knew a storm was brewing. The leaves above their heads looked as if they were boiling in the wicked witch’s cauldron, their white underbellies flailing upwards toward the darkening sky. (One of the oddest things to see during April tornado season is a giant oak, twisted and gouged out of the ground, with all its green leaves still intact.)
Even at that age, I had memorized the appropriate meteorological terminology. According to pretty Pat Gray on Channel 6 news in Birmingham, a watch meant “conditions were favorable” for a tornado. A warning meant a tornado had actually been sighted. Pat was my first female role model and would not be supplanted in my esteem until Farrah, Kate, and Jaclyn debuted on Charlie’s Angels a year or so later. She was a “weather girl,” not an actual meteorologist, and would never have spoken about “tornadic activity” and “super cells.” Such language, as Mammy in Gone with the Wind would have said, “just ain’t fittin’” for a lady. My first real ambition in life was to grow up and read severe weather bulletins on live television with the elegant urgency of Pat Gray.
The atmospheric tension (see, I missed my true meteorological calling) was thick during the early evening of April 3. My parents and I had barely finished supper before Papaw Ralph hollered down to our house (he didn’t have a phone) to say there were tornado warnings out everywhere, and we should come back up to his house to get in the storm pit. As the family patriarch, he took charge and instructed Mamaw to grab the dark raincoats while he lit the kerosene lanterns. Sometimes, he was a little overly zealous, though. My aunt Patricia once said, “It seemed like every time the wind blew, your papaw was banging on the end of our trailer with his walking cane, telling us to go to the storm pit.” He knew nothing of Fujita scale tornado designations (he would have said “Foo-jeeter” anyway), but he claimed once to have seen a two-by-four impale an oak tree. Whether this was true or simply more storytelling art is a matter for debate. A few years later, when he went fishing on the creek and fell and broke his hip, he swore that he fought off four large water moccasins with his walking cane while he lay on the ground waiting for the rescue squad to haul his heroic, snake-fighting carcass out.
In all, there were fifteen family members and neighbors in the small enclosure that night, including Mr. Will Hindle, a university professor and somewhat famous independent filmmaker who had a little cabin/studio down in the woods across from Mamaw and Papaw’s house. During the 1970s, Will’s place was a popular venue for college students who wanted to learn about filmmaking and talk about Vietnam, Watergate, and the other political topics of the day. Even though Mr. Hindle was a Stanford graduate and far more educated than the rustics who gave him shelter from the violent storms that night, he was a kind man and would readily admit he learned much from my grandparents over the years. When Papaw died in 1987, Will wrote a heartfelt condolence letter and wept over the loss. He died himself only three months later. Say what you want about the cultural and generational clashes of the 1960s and 1970s, but the students and professors from the universities weren’t afraid to interact with country people. Maybe all that folk music endeared them to rural life. I have a hard time imagining someone like Noam Chomsky conversing with my grandparents about the best ointment to cure a chigger rash. Will Hindle was at ease discussing such topics.
I don’t remember too many details of the adults’ conversations that night, but I do recall an atmosphere of nonstop laughter, tall tales, and whispered prayers when the voice from the battery-operated transistor radio would tell of another local community in the path of a funnel cloud. Ironically, in that storm pit, surrounded by my kinfolk, I felt safer and more protected than I’ve felt since, despite nature’s blitzkrieg outside. Perhaps that’s why it was so easy for Monica and me to curl up on the elevated mattress in the back and fall into a deep sleep as the exhausted but stoic adults kept vigil throughout the night and early morning hours of April 4.
We all made it through the Super Outbreak of 1974 without a scratch. The weather must have calmed down for a while, because I don’t recall any more trips to the storm pit that year. Maybe the weather decided to give everybody a break because a storm of another kind—Nixon’s resignation—would devastate the nation just four months later.
For a long time afterwards, I remember feeling nostalgic about our night’s excitement in the weather bunker. Monica and I tried to re-create the atmosphere when we played school, writing lessons on the cinderblock walls with yellow chalk. Unfortunately, we had to stop going inside when old Bullet, her daddy’s black and tan coon dog, got trapped in there for a couple of days. Luckily, he survived, but the residual stench dissuaded us from our faux scholarly pursuits.
Eventually, I moved away from the farm and pursued a life elsewhere, but I was pleased to learn that the storm pit is still usable. The family members remaining on the farm put it to use when Super Outbreak II rolled through the area in late April 2011. I was a thousand miles away when those storms struck, but I almost feel I missed out on something special by not being with them in the bunker. At the very least, I hope the new generation of cousins growing up on the family farm created some happy memories as the April winds howled outside.
You can follow Dana Zimbleman’s blog at The Academic Redneck