Southern Places

That morning was grey, and daylight was just creeping over the Dean Drive east ridge. I had tip-toed downstairs to make coffee. My son, Tom, had undergone deviated septum surgery the day before, and was staying here for a while to recuperate. He was asleep upstairs. I turned on the radio, keeping the sound level soft.

As I set up the coffee pot I heard the word ” ‘tornado”  come from the cabinet top. Like where, I wondered; Atlanta? Alabama? Pouring water in the percolator I strained to hear more. The birds suddenly stopped their early morning cheeping and chattering in the trees outside. Flipping the switch on the coffee pot, I turned to retrieve the bacon.

The house went dark as if a large blanket had been dropped over the roof. For a second I froze in the stifling silence, inside and out. The house seemed to grow even darker. Stumbling to the kitchen window I beheld a horror of a lifetime.

The surreal sight revealed a wall of deep charcoal clouds and rain on the right. And on the left, appeared a sickly stretch of opalescent white with slashes of twirling black tendrils stretching out from the black wall. It was huge. One-half mile wide, we later found.

“Tornado,” I yelled, running to the bottom of the stairs. I heard the thump of Tom’s feet hitting the floor. “TORNADO!” I screamed. “Get up! The basement! Hurry!” I lurched down the steps that lead to the basement with the dogs ahead of me.

Tom yelled, “How do you know it’s a tornado?”

“Because it is! COME ON THIS MINUTE!”

“I want to watch!” yelled Tom as he clambered down the steps to a big, multi-paned glass window that faces the street. My only reply as I pulled open the basement door was a guttural, terrorized-animal-pleading bellow. The force of the tornado slammed Tom onto the basement landing with a horrendous bang.

Then the sound. Ear-breaking; huge and not like a train at all. More like the windpipe of Satan himself. Our heads seemed to implode. It hurt. We cried out to God to be saved; we prayed in loud voices, and I felt this surely was the end for both of us.

Tripping over tools near the basement door to the outside I grabbed the doorknob and pulled in a futile last effort to break the vacuum so the house would not implode.

Then we both became aware of two sounds in the same instant; vague tinkling of glass and the reverberating boom of cannons which actually were great old pine trees exploding from their trunks. Later we were told this monstrous weather event struck fifteen feet higher than ground level on Dean Drive. Had this not had happened we may not have been here to tell the story. Wildwood’s Dean Drive in suburban Atlanta is in the small, round valley below Northcliff. (Dean Overlook was then forest.)

Incidental, perhaps, is that my husband, the late Tom Dickey, Sr., a Civil War historian, collected projectiles from all over War areas involved in the battles. His collection weighed over 12.5 tons – mostly loaded bombs. Black gun powder wrapped in iron, and deadly.  These armaments lined the walls of the study and basement in an orderly fashion. Had the storm touched down there would have been the last Battle of the Civil War, and it would have been aerial.

Silence came back over the house. We could hear the rain, and nothing else. Tom, Jr. was deeply shaken as he hurried back up the basement steps to his dad’s relic room. When he opened the door all he could say was, “O, m’God, O’my God!”

“Tommy, do we still have a roof?” I felt my way to the bottom of the basement steps searching for the dogs. Tom couldn’t answer me. Barefooted, he walked into a world he had never seen; the house carpeted with shattered glass. Outside, stumps of trees and tangled foliage; shattered homes.

When I stumbled into the relic room the first dim glimpse brought the sight of a magnolia limb projected through the window. There was a single blossom. It was huge and dripping rain, and had come from my neighbor’s home across the street. Tom had gone ahead of me to the upper levels to retrieve his shoes.

Our living area brought another hair-raising sight. All of the furniture was piled against the wall on the north side of the room. And yet an oil portrait of my daughter still stood on a light easel to the left of the room – right where I had left it to dry. It was unharmed.

There were small waterfalls gurgling throughout the house. The window frames at the large front window were empty. I looked at the sheer curtains to discover even slashes from top to bottom caused by the explosion of glass through them. Tom would have been sliced like a carrot had he stayed in front of that window. I looked up. We still had a roof, such as it was.

Tom found the still-warm coffee and gulped it down before rushing outside to see the devastation. Fallen pine trees completely blocked Dean Drive from the top of the circle all the way around. The trunks, on their sides, were as thick as I am tall. Tom had to shinny over them where he disappeared on his quest to check storm damage.

Neighbors cautiously came out of their homes to assess what they needed to do next. We all agreed that the storm hit at exactly 7:39 a.m. One mother came to the door to ask for milk for her kids, which I gave her. She, and at least three other families reported trees had fallen directly over a child’s bed in their homes. No one was injured.

Across the street, I noticed a small stick had been imbedded horizontally in a car door. Suddenly I felt sick and cold, and went back inside the wreckage of my home to seek my dogs to feed them. One, I discovered, had fallen from the basement steps and was injured. Gathering her up, I sought my bed. Pulling up the covers, in spite of glass shards all over and under the sheets, I placed her on my chest and held her until Tommy returned with other stories of the great Wildwood Tornado of 1975. He took the dog and left for the vets, gambling he could get a ride from Howell Mill. “Are we insured?” I called after him.

“We’ll see,” He called back. We were.

Late in the afternoon, when the tree trunks were cut and hauled away, the AJC Newspaper was delivered. Everyone shouted, “Hooray!” The weather forecast for the day called for the chance of rain.

Trucks, power saws, neighbors clambering over roofs with blue plastic coverings, insurance people, and a broom were the players of the day – now a blur. Tom returned the dog home. She had bruises, but was okay. Tom decided to bunk with his grandmother that night. His eyes filled with tears of frustration. The surgeon had previously given him strict orders to neither lean over, nor lift anything heavy which could cause hemorrhage.

Perhaps what remains very clear in my memory of that day was the night. Many people had left for hotels or family refuge, but some of us stuck to home. Houses were vandalized that night in spite of the presence of helicopters overhead and police patrol.

Sitting on the front porch, eating cold pork and beans from the can, I gazed at a full moon, and listened to two neighbors playing guitars and singing together in the clear night. Everywhere candles and lanterns glowed, and I thanked God for sparing us. I reveled in the courage of neighbors who take on the task of rebuilding, and who, still to this day are helpful in protecting one another. I made one decision then to abide by: Never leave Dean Drive until they cart me away and it’s time to take up residence in Historic Oakland Cemetery.

As I write this I listen to the happy screams of children on Dean Drive as they sled on iced snow from the top of Dean Drive to the bottom curve with their weary parents. This is January, and we wonder what March will bring in the year 2011.

Related: Angry Skies: The Athens tornado of 1973

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Patsy Dickey

Patsy Dickey

Patsy Dickey is author of the novel "BellCat & PigBoy." She was born in Dade County Florida, and was reared in the mid-western traditions of Anderson, Indiana. Always given to Gothic dreams, she traveled back to her Southern roots on the engine of marriage to a native Atlantan; there she fell in love with Southern reality. From that rhapsody, and experiencing the South as an adult after World War II, she found Washington Street, the ancestral place of BellCat & PigBoy.