My cousin, Glen Anderson, and I were playing in my front yard that spring afternoon of March 5, 1943. We had a new metal dump truck that we were using to move dirt all over the sand pile in a world of our own making. The country was on a war footing and occasionally an airplane would fly over our small town. Hearing a roaring noise we looked toward the sky for a military airplane flying overhead. Instead of an airplane, we saw an ugly dark cloud in the northwest sky hanging low over the horizon. Glen decided it was time for him to go home, so he ran up the highway toward his home about a quarter mile away.
I ran around to the back yard of my home and found my grandmother, my fourteen year old sister, and my fifteen year old brother staring at a tornado funnel cloud approaching us rapidly. My grandmother, Mary, was wringing her hands while chanting, “Oh, Lord! What should I do with these kids?” My older brother, Richard, suggested that we run and lie down in a ditch, which looking back was not bad advice.
Actually, we had no time to go anywhere as the funnel cloud was headed straight toward our house. We all ran into the house and out the front door. Standing on the front porch we saw that the tornado had made a right hand turn and was traveling directly through our small town. I saw debris flying everywhere from the cloud about half a mile away. Then it began to hail, or actually chunks of ice fell from the sky, not like regular hail.
My grandfather, Big Daddy to us grand kids, was terribly afraid of dark and dangerous looking clouds. He could tell if the clouds contained high winds, heavy rain, hail, or a tornado with just a quick study of them. Several years before I was born he and my father had constructed a “storm cellar” about half way between our houses. They dug a hole in the earth approximately ten feet square. They walled it in with planks, put in a metal pipe for ventilation, built steps down to the bottom, and a large wooden cellar door to seal it off.
I recall several occasions when Big Daddy came to our house during the night and warned our family to “head for the storm cellar till this storm blows over.” Dad would throw me over his shoulder, gather up the rest of us and take an oil lamp into the cellar and close the door. The storm cellar had been stocked with drinking water, lamp oil, matches, a flashlight, one cot, and a couple of cane-bottom chairs. Not quite the Holiday Inn, but adequate protection from the elements.
If there ever was a time that we should have been in that storm cellar, it was now. We just did not have enough advanced warning to make it there. So, we were depending upon fate, or angels, to see us safely though the storm.
My mother, Alice, was working as a beautician in her “Powder Puff Beauty Shop” in the downtown area of San Augustine when the tornado hit. My father was in his office in the county court house when he noticed the angry, dark funnel cloud bearing down upon the town. Panicked, he decided to drive the three blocks to the beauty shop and get my mother. As he drove his old Chevrolet up in front of the beauty shop he saw tree limbs, sheet metal, lumber, and plate glass blowing past him. Suddenly, his car lifted up off the pavement several inches, then sat back down.
He lay down in the driver’s seat until things settled down a bit, then ran into the shop to check on my mother. She was fine but well shaken. She had to physically restrain a customer who panicked and tried to run out the back door at the height of the storm. Immediately after pulling her back inside, a large plate of glass crashed into the concrete steps and shattered. Lightning had struck something at the shop, and a red ball of fire came out of an electrical outlet and danced across the floor. Other than these incidents, the ladies were not injured, now was her shop damaged.
Worried about their house and family, mother and dad got into his car and headed toward home to check on the status of “Murphy Hill”. Heavy damage was evident all around them, as houses, barns, businesses, and trees had all suffered. Fear welled up in their hearts as they raced the two miles out Highway 147 to our home. They noticed that the German concentration camp had no damage which relieved their fear somewhat. As it turned out, we were all fine as the tornado had turned away from us and turned more easterly through the downtown area.
Only one fatality was caused by the storm. A young boy, Ezra Bryant, was killed when struck by flying timber. Only five other minor injuries were reported. Although there was a lot of damage we were lucky considering only one fatality and a few minor injuries.
Later on that evening I recall hearing fire trucks and ambulances from neighboring towns arriving to assist our small volunteer fire department in rescue operations. Doctors and nurses from Center, Nacogdoches, and Lufkin came to render aid. Military authorities and members of the Texas Defense Guard from Nacogdoches, San Augustine, Angelina, and Sabine Counties all responded within hours.
All of this made a deep impression on my seven-year old mind. I drew pictures of the tornado funnel cloud over and over for several years.
Back to the storm cellar. It was used several times up until I entered high school. My dad purchased a new Bendix television set from Tom Saunders, and we always watched the weather reports. Big Daddy lost his storm forecasting job to the weather men. Over time the storm cellar caved in and my dad filled it with dirt. Today I cannot pinpoint its exact location, only the general vicinity. But the memories are still there.