Forty years ago we were a young family. Mike was 6, Chris was three months old and Nicole had not been thought o yet. We were looking forward to a lot on April 3, 1974. We were going to visit Wayne’s sister Gloria in Alexandria, Virginia during Spring Break, which was the next week. Her husband was working at the Pentagon and we were going to do the DC tourist thing. Take Mike to see the sights and spend some time with family members. Besides that to look forward to ( it may have been the first time Mike was going to fly and definitely the first time for Chris) we were getting a second car that day, Wayne was picking it up after work.
The day was uneventful, typical Ohio spring, warm to hot one day, cold and snowy the next. Shortly after 4:00 Wayne pulled in with the new car and Mike and I, with Chris in arms, ran out to see it and inspect it. It was not really new, but used, but a nice car and new to us. We were standing outside looking at the car when the weather got odd. A strange stillness seemed to be in the air, and then an odd kind of high whistling. Our house was at the end of the cul-de-sac or dead end depending on your view, and surrounded on three sides by trees. We looked towards town, I am not sure why and saw an enormous black cloud that seemed to be roiling. It did not look anything like the tornado in the Wizard of Oz, it was just a huge, huge black cloud that appeared to be full of things tumbling and turning.
Mike, of course, had a basketball in his hands and was bouncing it in the driveway and heading towards the goal Wayne and Bud Walker , our neighbor, had put up at the end of the street so that Mike and Randy Walker could play basketball. i called him back and said ” We better go in the house.” By the time we got in the house the noise became incredible. Tornadoes really do sound like freight trains, at least that one did, but it also had a high whistling whine which seems to accelerate the closer it got. We did not have a basement so we went into the bathroom since I had heard that that was one of the safest places because of the large amount of plumbing that would help stabilize the walls.
I got in the bathtub with Chris, Wayne sat on the closed toilet and Mike sat on the floor still bouncing the basketball. I remember thinking that if that noise got any louder we were in serious trouble. Soon we heard the snapping of branches as the tornado hit the woods, then breaking glass, groaning of wood, the Florida room that my parents had added to the back of the house when they bought it in the 1960s was torn away with a humongous sound of breaking things. Things began to hit the house, the roof, windows were broken out, the train was upon us.
Then as suddenly as it had come it was gone. The eerie silence following that tornado is still with me today. We went out into the rest of the house. There were broken windows in the living room and kitchen, there was a hole in roof where something had hit it and there was water everywhere since the windows were broken. We went outside to a scene that was incredible. Looking towards Rte 42 we realized that the house and barn that had blocked our view of the road were now gone. The closer to the highway and the fewer trees around the houses the worst the damage. The Dudgeon’s house on the corner was down to the basement, no house left. The Smith house facing 42 was no more, the red barn was leaning almost to the ground. The Wray’s house on 42 was also down to the basement. We took off running to the Wray’s because they ran a daycare and we envisioned toddlers in the rubble, but they had gotten them all to the basement.
Going back home I decided to do some cleanup. I started to put Chris down on the couch, Wayne was inspecing the cars, including our main car that the carport had collapsed on. Fortunately I looked first, the couch was covered with broken glass, twigs, leaves, etc. None of our bedrooms had been damaged so I put him in his crib and was mopping up the kitchen when my mother burst in the door crying. Of course the phones did not work, she had been trying to find out if we were okay and people have told her that Tremont Road was flat, the houses all gone. Which was true if they only looked at the top of the street. She had flattened all four of her tires trying to get to us. I’m sure she was happy we were okay but a little nonplussed to find me mopping the floor.
I am not sure what we thought the aftermath would be, but in a couple of days when the roads were clear enough so that we could take the new car ( thank goodness it was not damaged and was not under the carport yet) and go to town the devastation was amazing. We did not have water, or heat, but my Mom’s house on Lexington Avenue had both so we shut up the house as best we could and went over there. All kinds of aid was coming in, you could pick up fresh water at several places, the national guard was in town. religious groups form all over came and repaired and rebuilt houses, it was a giant outpouring of help both from Xenia citizens and others, but the broken trees, the downtown that was virtually in ruins, the smell–those who have been through a devastating tornado will never forget the smell, and the worst, not knowing who was alive and who was dead.
I was teaching at Warner Jr. High in those days. Warner sits in the Arrowhead housing development, one of the hardest hit areas of town. Listening to the radio announcers reading lists of people who were missing was excruciating since some of the names read belonged to my students. Fortunately, none of my students were among the dead, although some of them were injured, but I did not know that for quite a while. Electronic media was in its infancy as far as communications and we had no way of gathering information from people who had simply left town because their houses were no more.
We decided to accelerate our trip to DC and get out of town for a few days. Those were different times, it only took one call to the airlines to change our reservations from Monday to Saturday, We left Wayne to deal with at least boarding up the house and Chris, Mike and I flew off to DC where there was no rubble, no smell, they had hot water and you could go home without the National Guard stopping you to see if you legitimately lived there.
When we came home to the house the lights were back on, the water was hot hot again, we had heat. But, there was no way you could forget the storm, from the buildings being gone, to the piles of rubble everywhere, there were lots of reminders.
The woods that surrounded most of our house had been damaged, but had stood up to the storm well overall. They looked as if they had been toilet papered. Aluminum siding ripped from houses all over town was deposited in the trees, draped over the branches of nearly every tree. The trees were also festooned with clothing, all of it with the sleeves ripped off. It looked like some avant garde arboreal fashion statement. On the ground we found papers, deeds, birth certificates, bills, letters, all sucked out of houses and deposited at the first barrier that could pluck them from the maelstrom.
There was, of course, no school. XHS was gone, Central Jr. Hi was gone and several elementary schools were either destroyed or damaged. We finished the year teaching in the evenings at Fairborn high school about 8 miles from Xenia. My main memory of that time was that the Fairborn students decided to indulge in the current fad of streaking and we could count on looking out of our classroom windows in the disk and seeing a few of them running naked across the lawn.
The town has never really recovered from the tornado. Our spirits are good, but the demographics changed. People who had money and owned nice homes that were destroyed often decided to take their insurance and federal disaster money and move to Beavercreek or Kettering or somewhere where the houses were all standing already rather than build. Some homeowners fixed up or rebuilt but the town definitely lost some of our higher professional residents to greener pastures. The downtown, which used to have a J. C. Penny store, a Kresges, a Montgomery Wards, all the small town staples, along with local businesses, at least five women’s clothing stores, from Lord’s at the bottom of the spectrum on up to Singer’s which carried designer clothes. There may be one clothing store for women left but I think it specializes in formal and wedding wear. We had four furniture stores, Adairs, Daums, Blacks and Cherry’s.A few days after the tornado Cherry’s furniture store, where we had bought our living room furniture, our first new furniture, blew up. We never had to pay a dime, although we inquired about it afteward. We were told the insurance would pay for anything outstanding since the records had been lost in the blast. Now I we do not have a place in town where you can buy new furniture. Of course, locally owned businesses in small towns were soon to be gobbled up by Malls and Walmarts anyway, perhaps the tornado just hastened our fate.
The decision to turn the middle of town into a strip mall was ill advised. About all small towns have to offer these days is their charm. We are trying to bring charming back and I am somewhat encouraged that there does seem to be a new spirit of “can do” among some of the folks in town, including some fairly young people, but I am afraid it will never be the vibrant, successful, bustling small town it once was. Many small towns are endangered species, but we can hope that between bicycling and our historic district we can at least keep up the fight.
After all as the signs said that were posed days after the tornado, XENIA LIVES!