March 31, 1973. Athens, Georgia. We had no Weather Channel. We had no Internet, no cell phones or mobile devices to warn us. We had radio, which doesn’t work too well when the power lines go down. We did, however, have one sure-fire way to see what the weather was up to. Look out the window.
That afternoon, March 31, I looked out the window of the mobile home Dad bought for me to live in and saw white, hard rain driving sideways past my window. The huge oak behind the trailer bent over beyond belief. And then, trembling, the mobile home rose ever so slightly before settling off-kilter onto its concrete block foundation.
And then silence. Until a wave of unceasing sirens began to wail.
A tornado had passed overhead, its funnel yet to touch down.
About a mile past me, it touched down and sucked up a young woman in her car, tossing her car over power lines. She died from the fall. This tornado went into its cloud descending later to rip the roof off the Swamp Guinea Fish Lodge in Madison County between Hull and Colbert.
It was the first tornado to strike Athens in close to 40 years. “Whew,” I thought. “Things ought to be safe here for a while now.” Lightning never strikes twice in the same place.
Two months later … May 28, 1973. Athens, Georgia. I’m wrapping up an exam at Aderhold Hall. It’s 5 o’clock. As I make my way to the first floor, the huge steel doors fling open, sucked open by wind. Beyond roils an angry sky, purple and black, with raging winds. And just like that, it blows by towards my side of town.
I drove fast as I could to my little mobile home. Traffic was a mess. The stoplights were not working. As I made my way down to the North Avenue bridge, a policeman stopped me.
“Son,” he said, “I can’t let you cross the river. Everything on both sides is gone.”
“I live there,” I said, a knot forming in my stomach.
“Not anymore you don’t,” he said.
I backtracked and found another way in. The policeman was right. My mobile home was gone. It had been sucked up, exploded, and thrown back to earth about 35 yards down the hill on which it had sat. A huge cedar tree had been shot through my bedroom. Imagine a massive arrow shot into a shoebox. That’s what it looked like.
I got out and walked over to the tangled mess of wood, wires, insulation, and personal effects that used to be my home. A stranger walked up.
“Looters were going through your stuff. I ran them off.” Is this a great country or what. Nothing much was worth looting anyway. What does a 24-year-old graduate student have?
The house down the hill from me had a tin roof. It was unscathed except for a toilet that fell from the sky through the porch’s tin roof. The toilet sat there upright as pretty as you please, a gift from the sky.
I made my way back to the bus station where I worked and called Dad. He came up to Athens with his acetylene torch and the family friend, Roosevelt Elam. For the next two days the three of us cut the trailer frame apart and carted off truckloads of my former home to the Athens landfill.
I learned later this tornado was a category 3 with wind speeds between 158 and 203 miles per hour. It killed one person and did close to $10 million damage to Athens-Clarke County.
That tornado did more than destroy my little home and a swath of Athens. It redirected my life. For the test of 1973 I lived here and there in Athens, having no real place to call my own. When I learned a teacher’s position was open for me at a college in Columbia, South Carolina, I took it. The winds of fate changed my destiny.
And the winds of fate have touched Lincolnton, Georgia, too.
Recently, Kevin Beggs, Jimmy Deason, and I discussed the killer tornado that leveled a strip of Lincolnton. Jimmy recalls that tragic day.
Let’s turn back the hands of time to December 1, 1942, a Tuesday.
“I got up that morning to go to school,” Jimmy said. “The porch was sweating on the bricks over at mama and daddy’s house. It was warm that morning for December.”
Jimmy’s mom cooked on kerosene and she spilled some kerosene. That evening, she sent Jimmy out for a mop behind the garage. “I looked to the west and saw all these dark clouds. I thought I wouldn’t make it back to the house. Going back to the house I heard what sounded like a freight train coming and then I heard trees popping everywhere.”
This tornado came in from Wilkes County and made its presence known roughly where Hardees is today. It went down the Augusta Highway wreaking havoc on both sides of the road, rendering it impassable, even blowing a car into a tree.
“It came on,” said Jimmy, “blowing a tree into a home up near the red light where Wee Wisdom is today.” The tornado blew a limb into a home there hitting a little five-year-old girl named Patricia. “They got her to the Washington hospital, but she died,” said Jimmy.
A lot of stately homes similar to the Hollingshead home were lost that day. “1940’s-style” homes replaced them. Three people died in a home Mr. John Holingshead owned.
Jimmy recalls this tornado did what tornadoes are legendary for: it drove nails into his granddaddy’s home. “Just like you took a hammer and put them in,” said Jimmy.
Jimmy related that the late “Tee” Anderson had been working in a pasture when the tornado came his way. It picked him up into the air, dropping him on the banks of Dry Fork Creek. When Tee told folks about the tornado he had plenty of proof. He was caked in dirt, even his ears were packed full with dirt.
Jimmy said he knew the tornado killed five people at least. It went right down the Augusta Highway. “I’ll tell you where it played out,” said Jimmy, “in Clarks Hill, South Carolina.”
Jimmy said when it played out it dropped (war) ration books in Clarks Hill, South Carolina. “Since the books had people’s addresses on them, the folks in Clarks Hill mailed them back over here to the people in Lincoln County.”
That tornado traumatized county residents for a long, long time. As a result of the storm, Murray Deason built a concrete, bunker-like storm pit on the shoulder of the Augusta Highway not far from my home. His store and home are long gone but the shelter is still there covered by kudzu. I never pass it that I don’t remember the scary night a severe storm swept through the county. Mom and Dad loaded us into the car and down to Murray Deason’s we went. I want to say it was in the wee hours of morning but it could have been early evening for all I know.
The Athens tornadoes didn’t traumatize me but they sure taught me to learn all I could about twisted funnels of doom and destruction.
One evening in Columbia a squall line rushed in and mammalian clouds hung ominous and dark. Breast-like and hanging from the sky, they portend bad news, being precursors to tornado formation. We were spared. Newberry County wasn’t. People died.
And now it’s that time of year when the great ocean of air we live in becomes a war zone yet again. As the seasonal transition takes place, spring storms blast through. More damaging are the squall lines where cold and warm fronts clash. If you live in the South, you know it’s a time to watch the sky. I certainly do.
There was a time when the only warning we had was watching the sky, and that left precious little time to seek safety. It’s tempting to say that today’s weather forecasters and TV stations overdo the alert thing. That beep, beep, beep and the slow-creeping crawl showing you counties under alert is annoying, but I can tell you from experience, it’s more than annoying when you lose your home and its contents. It’s devastating. And let’s not even think about the loss of life.
When the skies turn angry, when the winds of fate howl and rage, you or someone you love can be here today but gone tomorrow. Literally blown away.
Related: The Wildwood Blow of 1975