I’d never heard adults in the full-scale throes of terror — a keening that rose and fell on impossible notes. And it was a sound that, as a child, I never wanted to hear again.
I know exactly where I was on April 15, 1956, shortly before 3 p.m., just prior to the time when one of the deadliest tornadoes recorded in the Birmingham area struck with devastating force.
I was eight years old. My sister Gaynell (just a year and a few months younger) and I were at the dairy where Dad worked. It was a Sunday, and both sets of grandparents and an older cousin had come to visit. Papa McDaniel (my Dad’s dad), who was in his early sixties, had gone with the men to the dairy. It’s not hard to milk cows and talk at the same time. My Uncle Dennis Duncan, not much more than a teenager about 18 years of age, my mother’s younger brother, also worked there with Dad. He was a good-looking, strong, strapping blonde farm boy and my sister and I idolized him. We also irritated the devil out of him half the time vying for his attention.
Gaynell and I had headed for the barn after dinner and left the adults to whatever adults did. There was an old wood shed attached to the concrete dairy barn with a silo towering over it. The shed was used for bales of hay and other interesting stuff. Old saddles and tack from a different era hung from the wooden rafters. It was the perfect place to play.
Around 2:45 we tired of the shed and walked the dirt road to the main two-lane Trussville-Clay highway that separated the dairy and the homes of the owners from the old wood frame house provided for employee families. It was set on a hill nestled among huge pines. If you click on the links below, we lived in Jefferson County near Trussville.
Papa McDaniel was still at the dairy with the men and only Granny McDaniel, our Aunt Flora, and cousin Mary Lily, remained of our Sunday company. Aunt Flora was a widow, and Mary Lily was born with Spina Bifita, leaving her to walk with a lurch. She was the same age as my Uncle Dennis. Her father had died when she was only two years old and she and Aunt Flora lived with Granny and Papa.
Not long after Gaynell and I got home and Granny and Papa Duncan had left, the wind picked up and an eerie, bilious darkness settled in. Mama was a nervous, high-strung woman and it didn’t help that Granny McDaniel and Mary Lily had flung themselves on the back bedroom bed moaning in fear. That scared me more than the weather. And when the weather escalated, so did the sounds. I’d never heard adults in the full-scale throes of terror — a keening that rose and fell on impossible notes. And it was a sound that, as a child, I never wanted to hear again. I didn’t know then what they knew. April is killer weather time in Alabama, and they knew the signs. And the signs were here.
When the main body of wind hit, the house shook and the windows rattled. Chairs flew off the porch. Dirt and pine needles obscured the air like a vindictive cloud and a cracking like the rifles of war were heard even above the wind. It was the sound of trees coming down all around us. I know. I was at the window watching and had to be pulled away several times. Sister Katie was just a little blonde toddler then and must have been terrified by the screaming of the women as they huddled helplessly against such destructive and terrifying forces. I know Gaynell was. In her entire life she has never gotten over it.
All I can remember feeling was a macabre sense of invigorating fear that left me wanting to watch it all as it happened. I kept crawling to that window time and time again. So it was me who saw the ghost leaping and clearing the downed trees, high hurdles that never once slowed it down even though the wind had barely diminished. It was my Dad, but a Dad I barely recognized. I had never seen a human being so white and bloodless and still be alive. He was cut, mostly his hands, but I don’t know that he even noticed. To find the house intact and all of us alive had to have left him with warring and extreme emotions, a mix of unmitigated relief, fear, and shock. Dad later told us he couldn’t see the house when he topped the hill and he knew we were gone.
Back at the dairy, about 20 minutes after Gaynell and I left, the men were working and talking, unaware of the monster bearing down on them until cracking sounds overhead stopped them all in their tracks. Just as Dad looked up, he saw the concrete ceiling caving in and threw up his hands to ward it off, which is why his hands were so badly cut. His dad, Papa McDaniel, was near to him and he turned and screamed for Papa to run. Hearing footsteps clapping behind him, he was satisfied his dad was with him.
Somehow they found shelter under some tin that had blown down nearby. As Dad turned to the man beside him, the man was already running out of the tentative shelter. And it wasn’t his dad. It was his young brother-in-law Dennis Duncan. Papa McDaniel had not made it out and was lying unconscious under a cover of concrete. Obstacles were still flying through the air and concrete still falling as Dennis pulled his sister’s father-in-law out from under the debris and to safety. By the time the storm cleared, that entire concrete dairy that, to me, was indestructible, was nothing but a pile of rubble. If Dennis Duncan had been a hero to us girls before, he was ever after a superman. And we never heard him even talk about it, much less brag about it. To him it was something that had to be done and he did it.
In one of several bizarre turn of events that day, the only structure left standing of that well-built dairy was the old wood shed Gaynell and I had been playing in only minutes before. Also, the force of that wind was so strong, it changed the face of the landscape up on our hill and for miles around. I later overheard the adults telling each other it could have been worse, for we only got the tail-end of the storm, not the brunt. And all the trees, which were many, that came down that day all around our house, –some snapped in half, some totally uprooted — fell in directions that left our totally inadequate shelter right in the middle of them unharmed.
Papa McDaniel, who was taken by ambulance to the hospital, was one of the 200 injuries recorded that day. I think he had a concussion and a severe cut around his eye. Thank God none of us were among the 25 who died. But Papa McDaniel did die two years later at the age of sixty-five. I never knew if his injuries that day contributed to his relatively early demise, but it’s something that has crossed my mind. And in another bizarre turn of events, Papa McDaniel had just finished digging out and shoring up a storm shelter at his home in Crawford’s Cove. Which did him no good at our house where there was none.
Dennis Duncan died in 2011, one month before my mom, his sister, died. His daughter Kathy allowed me the courtesy of speaking at his funeral, to tell everyone of her father’s heroism that day — the day the world seemed to be flying apart.
Today, April 27, marks two years since the largest tornado outbreak ever recorded hit in the United States, leaving in its wake a horror of death and destruction, especially here in the area in which I live in St. Clair County, Alabama, and in the Greater Birmingham area. We went to shelters, were safe, and returned to a home that was unscathed. Others just a few miles down the road were not so fortunate.
Here are links that tell about both the 1956 tornado, considered an F4 even though tornadoes were not rated until years later, and the ones that hit in 2011 with a monstrous total of 358 confirmed in 21 states. I have no personal pictures of the aftermath of the 1956 tornado, but the link to McDonald’s Chapel 1956 does have pictures.