Piecing together a patchwork of memories

By David Talley | Published Wednesday, October 12, 2016
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Under Construction

UNDER CONSTRUCTION – An 8-year-old David Talley stands in what used to be his bedroom after a storm destroyed his home in Lipsey Addition. Submitted photo

Fifteen years ago today my house in Lipsey Addition was destroyed by the F2 tornado that damaged several homes and buildings in Decatur and Paradise.

As an 8-year-old, I don’t remember many details about my brush with death. Part of this is probably due to the passage of time and my parents’ efforts to shield me from the disaster, but I think kids have a way of instinctively shutting some experiences out as a way of coping. Instead of a full film roll of memories, what I’m left with are snapshots of the night – a 20-second clip here or there of the destruction of the house I grew up in.

David Talley

David Talley

It’s a Friday in early October, so there’s a light chill in the air but not enough to need a jacket. After school, I spend my afternoon outside on the rope swing hanging from a large tree in the front yard. This was standard practice – the swing saw heavy use during the warm months and brought many of my neighborhood friends to my front yard on nice days.

At the risk of sounding incredibly old, I miss the days when a kid could be entertained for hours by a piece of rope.

It’s dusk and I’ve retreated inside to play with Legos in the front room. My dad, a pilot, was away on a trip, so I got to spread my trays out without worrying about having my projects stepped on. The evening news is on and my mother is in the back room working on our Gateway desktop computer.

We’re hunkered in the hall closet with the door open. A news report indicated severe weather is headed our way, so we do as we’re told and take shelter. My mother has pushed a vacuum cleaner, board games and folding chairs out of the closet to make room for our hideaway. She made several trips to retrieve shoes, a flashlight and other items we’d need in the unlikely event our house is destroyed by a tornado.

As I watch her dig through cabinets and return with an armful of supplies, I think about how I’ll probably be asked to clean up my Legos before bed that night.

A line of dirt is working its way underneath the closet door as the sound of angry wind and breaking glass grows louder outside. I later learned uneven pressure from the storm’s winds slammed the door shut just as my mother returned to the closet from retrieving emergency supplies, but at the time, I thought she shut it. The ground is shaking.

In the years since the storm, I’ve been asked if the tornado sounded like a train. To me, it didn’t. It was just wind and the noise of things falling apart. In the dark of the closet, my mother and I probably visualized what was going on outside very differently.

With limited life experience, I pictured cartoon scenes – Wile E. Coyote comes up with a new way to ensnare Roadrunner, building some elaborate creation to either lure or trap his prey. As is the plot of every episode, that creation comes crashing down in hilarious fashion.

As it dawns on me, in this scenario, I am Wile E. Coyote. I ask my mother to get on top of me. Outside the closet, wooden fenceposts have been yanked from the ground and thrown through our living room window. One impales our VCR and others whomp against the closet door.

After the storm subsides, we sit up inside our shelter. As we put on our shoes and prepare to face what waits outside, I ask if the storm will return, wondering if we now have to run from it.

I can’t tie my shoes very well, so my mother is first to emerge. She looks up at where our roof should be, and sees patches of night sky.

A Decatur Police officer is standing in our living room, checking on residents. He’s focused on a list of addresses in his notebook and accidentally steps on a Lego Naboo Starfighter from Star Wars Episode 1 still on the living room floor. My grandfather would later help pick the pieces of broken glass from my Lego trays.

We’re at our neighbor’s home across the street. They’ve welcomed us, and I’m given food and a bed. While I would actually fall asleep quickly, my mother stayed up all night, watching our home through the living room window and darting across the street to routinely check on anyone walking though our yard.

I woke up the next morning to my neighbor’s cat jumping onto the bed. I put on the previous day’s clothes and headed outside.

The tree with my rope swing was gone, laying on its side in our yard with limbs splayed in every direction. Every pinecone in the neighborhood was on the ground, and the hustle of emergency workers had already begun. The number of pedestrians on the street and in every yard made it look like a block party. And, as kids, my friends and I treated it like one. We had pinecone wars in between the branches of fallen trees, propped pieces of twisted metal up to make crude slides and visited the American Red Cross trailer stationed nearby for snacks and refreshments.

In the days following the storm, the Wise County Messenger published a series of stories about those affected by the destruction. Then-editor Skip Nichols interviewed my mother and several neighbors, even mentioning me in an article, and telling a different side of the narrative than my own experiences. As my memories of the storm have faded with time, I’ve looked back at them often as a refresher on what actually happened.

Now, working at the Messenger as a reporter, I’ve had to cover a number of disasters, including tornadoes that struck homes in Runaway Bay and neighborhoods southeast of Decatur. I’ve found even that in covering those events, it’s hard to draw on my own tornado story as a means to relate to other victims. What might be one of the top stories most people share about their own lives is just a muddled collection of loosely-strung memories for me. In the years since, I’ve tried to write my own chapters.

David Talley is a Messenger reporter.

Before and After 1

BEFORE AND AFTER – These photos show the day after the storm (above) and 15 years later (below). Submitted photo

Before and After 2

Messenger photo by Joe Duty

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