“Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” – Clarence Oddbody, Angel Second Class
Most newspaper columnists I enjoy reading seem to have at least one column that’s repeated on special occasions. Late journalist Charlie Faulk’s Christmas column Santa’s Whiskers is a classic and was published every year the Vicksburg Post was a family-owned paper.
Today seems a good time to repeat my favorite Christmas story.
It’s a story about hope and humanity; a story about a prayer, a song and a 4-year-old girl with a whole lot of courage.
She’s a legend of sorts in Vicksburg.
When folks talk of the tornado of ’53, they talk of “that little girl who sang ‘Jingle Bells.’”
I’d seen her in living black and white in an old photograph – dark eyes stared at the camera, her head wrapped in heavy bandages, Santa by her bedside in the Vicksburg Infirmary.
When doing a series of stories in 1993 for the Vicksburg Post’s commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the tornado, I finally learned the little girl’s identity.
Carole Ann Moses.
Saturday, Dec. 5, 1953. Unseasonably warm. Downtown Vicksburg was busier than usual, thanks to the city’s annual Christmas parade. Shoppers shopped. And over at the Saenger Theater, Carole Ann and 15 other children attending a birthday party watched a double feature.
At 5:35 p.m., with no warning, it came. Gone in minutes, the twister left a trail of destruction – 38 people died; 270 were injured; 1,200 were left homeless.
At the Saenger, as Alan Ladd and his leading lady stood on the bow of a ship, the theater caved in.
“The next thing I knew we were underneath our seats. Everyone was crying. I was crying, but I stopped because my head hurt,” said a 44-year-old Carole Ann in 1993.
She said she made herself settle down. Then she prayed. At her insistence, the children held hands. The little girl next to her was dead, but Carole Ann didn’t learn that until much later.
Then the amazing 4-year-old led her friends in the singing of Christmas carols so the rescuers could find them under all the debris.
Five hours later, rescuers following the strains of “Jingle Bells,” found the children, living and dead, and pulled them from the theater’s remains.
Carole Ann was taken to the Vicksburg Infirmary where, after brain surgery, she remained in a coma for two days. Doctors doubted she’d live.
Today Carole Ann Moses Robertson lives in Texas and is the mother of two sons.
“I’ve always thought more of the little girl next to me who died than I think of my living through the tragedy,” she said from Texas several years ago.
When folks recall that long-ago December day, talk always turns to the little girl who may well have saved the lives of many of her young friends that afternoon.
With a song and a prayer.
And a whole lot of courage.