By Danza Johnson/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – When the skies turn gray and the roar of thunder echoes through the night air, chills run up and down Nathaniel Stone’s spine.
Stone isn’t afraid of many things, but after an unforgettable spring evening in 1936, bad weather is at the top of that short list. Stone, 81, David Baker, 89, and Jack Reed Sr., 86, all lived to tell the story of the massive F5 tornado that ripped through Tupelo 75 years ago.
All three men did just that on Wednesday. About two dozen people listened while the three men went for an intense walk down memory lane at the Lee County Library.
Stone was only 6 years old when the storm tore down what was then Cherry Street near downtown. Despite his young age at the time, the events of that night are just as fresh in Stone’s mind as what he had for breakfast yesterday morning.
“There were hail balls the size of golf balls falling down the chimney,” said Stone. “Then the rain came. It was raining hard. I can remember walking barefoot on the cold ground on top of all the ice. There was fire everywhere. But the thing that sticks out in my mind the most was what happened to my mother.”
Stone’s mother was nearly killed when a piece of wood pierced the back of her skull. The wood and splinters were picked from her head, which was bleeding uncontrollably, according to Stone. He remembered neighbors and his grandmother wrapping his mother’s head in sheets to stop the bleeding.
“I’ll never forget that,” said Stone, as he remembered sitting on the front porch watching the whole thing. “I thought she was going to die. She almost did.”
Even though his family lived in a different part of town from the Stones, then 15-year-old Baker was dealing with a similar scene on Robins Street.
Baker remembers going to bed early because he was heading to Tennessee with family on Monday morning to show horses. But that didn’t happen.
“I was upstairs asleep when I heard the loudest noise I’d ever heard,” Baker said. “It was like pressure in your head. I jumped over the railing and ran downstairs to where my parents were and they were also in shock and didn’t know what was happening. And within seconds, the awful noise stopped. And no sound followed. It was the quietest I’ve ever heard. That was scary.”
The silence was broken by the cries of a neighbor for help, Baker said.
“There was so much destruction,” he said. “People were dead, homes were destroyed and families displaced. We were on three different lists in the paper as being dead because there was no way of knowing who was still alive. Debris and things were found miles away.”
Reed, who was 12 years old, said he was amazed by the power and destruction of the storm. He said one of his most vivid memories of that day were the actions taken by his father.
“Dad ran down to the store to open up,” said Reed. “He gave people clothes and other things out of the store and told them to just pay him when and if they could. I remember how everyone banded together. The town was a wreck and it took everyone to bring it back up.”
The storm that slammed into Tupelo that day was one of the most powerful and bizarre events in Mississippi weather history, according to David Keeny. Keeny is a meteorology professor at Mississippi State University.
“The system started somewhere near Grenada Lake with a tornado being reported at 8 p.m.,” he explained. “Then at 9 p.m., it hit Tupelo. Tornadoes usually last about five minutes but this one lasted for about two hours, which is rare. They also are usually about 100 yards wide but this one was 300 yards, just a huge storm.”
Reed, Stone and Baker all said the storm taught them and Tupelo valuable lessons. Stone said that day helped to make people in the area more storm-conscious, especially his mother.
“When a storm came in, we didn’t play, we didn’t talk and we didn’t move,” said Stone. “My mother was terrified of storms.”
Reed said he believes the Tupelo we see today was born out of that storm.
“Everyone pulled together to help one another,” he said. “Stores dropped prices and things like that. I think the Tupelo spirit was enhanced, if not birthed from that tornado.”
Contact Danza Johnson at (662) 678-1583 or firstname.lastname@example.org.