Stories of Xenia: The Xenia tornado-Part I

11 Nov

In 1974 I was teaching at Warner Jr. Hi. I taught primarily 9th grade or what would be freshmen in some districts. I taught French, history and Civics (political science at the high school level). I joined Warner’s staff in 1973. My first year out of college I taught French at Cedarville high school which was truly an experience in dysfunction. The superintendent had hired me and I only later discovered that he and the principal had some turf issues. Turned out the principal pretty much hated me on sight. The very first thing he said to me was ” the students have never had a black teacher before so they may not be happy to see you.” Today he would have been sued off the planet. The students it turned out loved me. I still have contact with some of them 39 years later, the principal never warmed to my charm and skill.  So, I came back to home turf and went to work at Warner.

We had a good faculty with some true characters–I will do a post totally on Warner in the future, and great students. Warner was considered the lesser of the two junior high schools in town, and not for any valid reason. Primarily it was its location. The more expensive housing in Xenia at that time was concentrated in the north side of town. Warner was in the midst of what could be called our second housing development, with Laynewood, a place of modest homes for the most part in the west end of town being the first. Arrowhead, with relatively small brick homes was viewed as a step up from Laynewood in general but certainly not in the league of somewhere like Amlin Heights in the north where the houses were custom built.

Because of the unjust characterization of Warner as less than our students took pride in proving themselves in myriad ways, from having the best drill team(all the time) to having the best athletic teams ( some of the time). The pride and determination to prove oneself reminded me of my years at the black schools before integration when we always felt we had to prove something.

On April 3, 1974 I lived on Tremont Road, a small group of about eight houses on the outskirts of Xenia going towards Wilberforce. This was the house my parents had bought in the 1960’s because they wanted a more modern house and one on one level. The houses on Tremont were small, three relatively small bedrooms, one bathroom a living room, utility room and kitchen. They sat on large lots and backed up to wooded areas. It was a cul-de-sac if you wanted to be fancy, a dead end street more accurately and our house was the last on the street. My husband Wayne and I bought it from my mom when she married my stepfather in 1970. My father had died in 1966.

It was perfect for our little family, Mike was 6, Chris was 3 months old.  The day of the tornado Wayne had gone to buy a second car for us. He was buying it from a private seller and we were excited to have two sets of wheels instead of one. He usually got home from his job as a locksmith at Central State around 4:40 since we lived less than ten minutes from CSU.  This day, because he had been picking up the new car, he got home early.

He pulled into the driveway and honked the horn Mike and I went out to see the new vehicle, me carrying Chris in my arms. We were admiring the car and looking at its features when there was sudden stillness, followed by an eerie noise I could not identify. It seemed to be coming from the direction of downtown Xenia which was about two miles away. We looked up at the sky and saw what seemed to be a huge, black, boiling cloud. It did not look anything like the tornado in the Wizard of Oz, more like an enormous roiling pillar of smoke.

We decided  we had better go into the house. Not long after we got back in the house the wind began to really blow hard, we heard things crashing in the woods and our bbq grill and outdoor furniture went flying. We decided that lacking a basement we had better go into the bathroom–we had read somewhere that the plumbing in the bathroom helps form a kind of buffer and will keep you safer, and wait it out. I got into the bathtub with Chris and Mike and Wayne sat on the floor. Mike had gotten a new basketball the day before and insisted on taking it into the bathroom. So he was sitting on the bathroom floor bouncing the basketball, frequently on his own and Wayne’s legs.

The wind continued to pick up and a slow whining sound gave way to the signature sound of a locomotive that is common with tornadoes. As that sound continued to build and we heard glass breaking and thuds hitting the house caused by who knew what, I began to think “If that noise gets any louder we are going to be dead.”

Just when it seemed that the crescendo of sound and bangs and crashes was going to consume us it suddenly became deadly silent. We stayed huddled in the bathroom for about ten minutes to make sure it was truly over and then raced out to survey the rest of the house. The kitchen windows at the back of the house were blown out, there was a hole in the roof that you could see straight through from the hall and the Florida room my parents had built on the back of the house was gone to the foundation, the walls lying a few feet away with their louvered windows mostly smashed. Our carport had fallen down over our first car, so we were congratulating ourselves on having a the second car sitting in the driveway. Little did we know that driving in Xenia would not be possible for a while unless you had a Hummer, which had not been invented yet!

As we finished assessing our damage and turned our eyes to our neighbors we were confronted with an horrific vista. The houses closest to the main highway, Rte 42, off which our street branched were flat to their foundations or basements. One of the houses, owned by Mrs. Wray, a widow, was also a daycare center and our first impulse was to run to see  if the children had survived. I went to put baby Chris down on the living room couch while I ran to the daycare and caught myself, realizing the couch was covered with tiny bits of glass from the broken windows, so I just ran with him. The daycare was in the basement and when we reached the house we found all the kids and workers were safe.

The barn which was a remnant of a farm owned by the Smith family and which had given our little neighborhood some rural charm, was gone as was the Smith family home which sat in front of it and faced Rte42.  Our neighbors closest to the road on Tremont had a basement and their house was gone completely. We did not have any casualties on Tremont besides our possessions and nerves.

There was, of course, no electricity and no phone service. Wayne set out to find some ice and some food supplies while I began to clean up the areas that had been inundated with dirty water and a plethora of other things blowing in the broken windows. Knowing what I know now, but did not know then, it was lucky I tended, still do, to love to use bleach to clean-up, some of what blew in our house could easily have been a health hazard, but some Clorox in my cleaning bucket along with the regular soap probably took care of most of it.

While Wayne was gone doing the male hunter thing, and I was mopping the kitchen floor, having installed Chris in his crib and Mike in his room with a coloring book–their rooms both being in the front of the house they were unaffected, my mother came bursting into the house hysterical. She had heard that Tremont Rd was flat, and presumed we were all dead. Someone passing by had probably seen the houses near the highway and thought that everything was leveled.

She had flattened all four of the tires on her car trying to get to us and finally a neighbor had put her in his truck and driven more carefully and gotten her safely to us, although he had to stop from time to time to move debris out of the road. She was astounded to find me cleaning.

All I wanted to do was get things back to some sense of normalcy and then strike out to see what had happened. Within hours the transistor radio brought us news of the devastation, although words cannot describe it. As I sit typing this some 36 years later I can smell the way my town smelled for months after the tornado. You do not know what luxuries you have in things like running water, heat and electricity until you have done without them for a while. It has been, as I said, 36 years and I am still grateful every time I turn on a faucet and hot water comes out!

Because we did not have electricity an because Dayton Power and Light the energy company, had turned off the natural gas supply to keep more explosions from happening and starting fires, after two days of roughing it we went to my mother’s house on Lexington Avenue which still had gas and electric. She had four bedrooms so there was plenty of room for us, but going the short distance from her house to ours was a trek. Our house was probably about 1/4 of a mile from hers as the crow flies, but that crow could fly over the woods that separated Tremont from Lexington and we could not. That meant we had to drive all the way down Lexington, turn onto Rte 42, drive a short distance and then turn into Tremont.

Because our house was no the outskirts of town, when we would drive out there we would be stopped by law enforcement officers who were guarding Xenia’s borders to keep outsiders, sight-seers and potential looters out. So, that meant proving that you were indeed a resident of the area you were trying to go to each time.  Many of the men posted at the entrances to town were on loan from other law enforcement agencies and later the National Guard, so they did not know you and they changed frequently so it was not possible for them to get to know you.

Having a baby and a small child it was impossible to remember to pack everything, so we had to make frequent trips back and forth to the house to retrieve items. By now the streets had primarily been cleared and we actually could drive around and look at the damage. It was difficult to understand how such a brief period could so profoundly alter our town.

The downtown was massively damaged, even the venerable courthouse took a beating and what buildings had not been blasted into ruin by the wind had been whipped by fires caused by gas and other explosions. The beautiful trees in the area were almost all stripped down to leafless jagged stumps sticking up into the air and the smell, a combination of things disturbed that had not been for decades, fires, gas, mold, rot, garbage and broken things, could be packaged and sold as the very smell of despair.

Everywhere you looked there was something to mourn. James’ where I had worked was destroyed, the Xenia Hotel and Buck’s Drug Store were gone, Hazel’s Hat shop, owned by the grandmother of my friend Debby was gone, Cherry’s the furniture store where we bought our first living room furniture had survived the tornado but burned down in a fires shortly afterwards. Smiths’ bakery that made the best chocolate chip cookies in the world was wiped out.

But, the worst, by far the worst, was the fact that communication being what it was in those days, no cell phones or internet, we did not know who was dead or hurt and who was okay. As a teacher I had to listen to the radio which read lists of individuals or families who were missing. Some of my students and their families were among those. Not knowing if the young man or woman who sat in my class was dead or alive, hearing their names read out as “missing” was a nightmare I hope no one ever has to experience.

When the tornado happened we had been planning a Spring Break trip to the Washington, DC area to visit Wayne’s sister and her family in Alexandria, Virginia. Her husband worked at the Pentagon at the time and we wanted to show Mike the nation’s capital. After discussion we decided to not only take the trip, but to accelerate the departure of me and the boys so that we could get away from the awful scene in Xenia, at least for while. Wayne would stay behind for a few days to oversee the patching of the roof and the replacement of the windows and general clean-up of our property.

So, Mike, Chris and I hopped on a plane five days after the tornado and took off for clean, orderly, fully functioning Alexandria.


Posted by on November 11, 2010 in Uncategorized


5 responses to “Stories of Xenia: The Xenia tornado-Part I

  1. Candace Sturni

    November 14, 2010 at 3:39 am

    I am not from Greene County and Alan King posted another piece from your blog on Facebook and I read about Rink’s which we had in Definace, OH, about 14 miles from the farm that I grew up on in Henry County. But then I looked and saw your blog offered this story on your tornado experience part one. I enjoy your writing so very much.
    I’m going to continue to read more this evening. Just wanted you to know that I am fascinated with your memories.
    Best Wishes,
    Candace Sturni

    BTW, My hubby and and his dad came from Fairborn and helped with the reconstruction of several homes here in town that Mike has pointed out to me.
    Months later, he joined the Marines and didn’t come back until six years later and he attended Wright State. So I’ve heard many stories over the 23 years that I have lived here. Your perspective is another side to the stories I have heard and read.

  2. Carol Calvert

    November 14, 2010 at 3:39 am

    I need to intervene with your assessment of the Warner vs. Central characterization…
    I attended Central Jr. High 69-71… My family lived in south Xenia…. I think of it a bit differently. I am white. My classmates were black and white… my friends were black and white… I loved Central Jr. High School. I honestly think if you looked at the racial make-up of the two schools Central would represent more of the minority for what it is worth. We were fiercely proud of our school, yet at the same time envious of the newer school…. Warner. I also do not remember the Jr. High School’s having a drill team….. only in high school. One of my best friends…also a minority was on this team!

    • minerva5

      November 14, 2010 at 11:45 am

      Hi Carol!
      I did not mean to imply that Central was not diverse or was any different racially than Warner in the 1970’s. I went to Central and so did all of my children, however, Warner students did have a different take on Central than those who went there for obvious reasons! Warner and Central both had drill teams in the mid-seventies. I was the adviser for Warner’s for a few years. 🙂

  3. Mya Vernon Collier

    November 14, 2010 at 6:48 pm

    Ms Cookie…

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!! Although I was only in the 4th grade when the tornado struck Xenia, your memories brought me back. What struck me in particular, was when the names of the missing were read over the radio… I remember that… and it literally brought me to tears. The tornado was definitely a life-changer and as you, I am grateful for faucets that run hot water, And the older I get, I am grateful for the community we grew up in…. I LOVE your writing… it connects me with me!! Thank you

  4. S.E. Ward

    November 16, 2010 at 12:37 am

    It’s funny how things can look so different from different perspectives. I went to Central when the tornado hit. So many of my classmates envied the “new” Warner because of the air conditioning, the lack of 3 floors to climb, and just the general modernness of it. While I thought it was cool to go to an old school, a lot of us felt like we had the lesser building.


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