When I was a child, I had nightmarish visions of the fire-and-brimstone Hell that I’d heard described by scary preachers determined to save souls. When I learned about the New Madrid geological fault, which was near where I lived, in Mayfield, Kentucky, I added earthquakes to the mix. I imagined this fiery chasm in the field just across the highway, where the sun set. In that field now lies the rubble of the candle factory that was smashed when the maelstrom of tornados spiralled through western Kentucky two weeks before Christmas.
The Mason family farm, where I grew up, is sixteen hundred feet, as the crow flies, from Mayfield Consumer Products, the candle factory where dozens of workers were trapped and nine people died. The storm’s death toll in Kentucky as a whole has reached at least seventy-six. I am stunned. When such grief and heartbreak happens so close to home, it is personal. Even though I don’t live there now, I’m rooted there. It is the place I know best.
The candle factory wasn’t there when I was growing up. But when I was about fourteen, in the mid-fifties, a motel sprang up on the corner where our road met the highway. It was such an exotic place that it replaced my fear of burning brimstone—whatever that was—with dreams of travel and adventure. A girl named Marlene, who was a couple of years older than me, lived at the motel with her parents, and her daddy built her a little frozen-custard stand next to it. To live in a motel and have your own custard stand would be idyllic, I thought.
Eventually, the motel became a shelter for homeless men, and today it is the House of Prayer. The parking lot of the House of Prayer was where the media vans gathered in case there was a dramatic rescue at the candle factory. Cadaver dogs were on duty.
When a long-ago professor of mine learned that the name of my home town was Mayfield, he laughed. “That’s absurd,” he said. “It’s too poetic. A May field. Tra-la-la.” He was an English professor and everything had metaphorical meaning for him, I guess. It’s ironic that Mayfield will now forever be a symbol of catastrophe.
The tornado travelled more than two hundred miles. It hit Mayfield at about 9:30 P.M. on December 10th. Electricity and water were knocked out, vehicles strewn around the landscape. First-light drone footage of the wreckage showed chaotic scenes of twisted metal and trash and shattered lumber. I couldn’t even identify the remnants of the buildings in downtown Mayfield. A friend who had served as a diplomat in Afghanistan told me that the scenes looked even worse than a war zone.
I live far away now, in the center of the state, and I have not yet gone to Mayfield to see the aftermath for myself. The authorities discouraged disaster tourism. “They don’t want lookie-loos,” my sister LaNelle said. She lives in Paducah, twenty-six miles north of Mayfield, but she told me that she was going to meet our brother Don at the farm. He lives a couple of miles away and had reported some damage to the already deteriorating buildings on the property.
When I imagine the tornado’s path, I can’t help picturing the area as it was when I lived there. The twister started in Arkansas, to the southwest, travelled to the candle factory, and then ripped along U.S. Highway 45, the same route we always took into town. The feed mill where my father and my grandfather did all the farm business was less than a mile along the way. The railroad track, which once ran from New Orleans to Chicago, lies parallel to the highway. In 1896, a set of quintuplets was born near the feed mill. The quints were such a phenomenon that every train stopped there so that passengers could see them. I once wrote a novel inspired by the tragedy of those babies. They were part of my world, my landscape, my history.
Next, the tornado crossed what we always called the “overhead bridge,” which passed between what used to be the Black neighborhood and Dunbar—the former Black school.
The tornado then slammed into the courthouse, toppling the clock tower and leaving a cylindrical hole in the building and piles of bricks. Those bricks were the walls of the courtroom, which had glorious wooden fixtures. When I researched my family history for a memoir, I paged through the old county-clerk books and found accounts of births, marriages, and deaths, with surprise tidbits that fired my imagination.
The county jail, next to the courthouse and partially underground, was hit, too. Some of the prisoners had been on work release back at the candle factory.
You know this kind of town—picturesque, with classic Victorian architecture and a central square. You know it from movies and old radio shows or sitcoms, or from the Thornton Wilder play “Our Town.” The town is neat and symmetrical. The streets are on a grid, with the courthouse at the center and the high school straight down a tree-lined boulevard.
At one time, the “court square,” as it is called, was home to all the basic little stores that the community relied on. The wallpaper-and-paint store sold books and school supplies. The jewelry store had a clock on the sidewalk permanently set to the hour when Abraham Lincoln died. There was the Rhodes-Burford furniture store, Lookofsky’s sporting goods, the Vanity Shop. In the tornado footage, the Hall Hotel is the “tall” building (four or five stories) still standing in a sea of rubble. For years, my uncle was Santa Claus in the little red house that appeared every December in the courthouse yard.
Farmers came to town on Saturdays to swap stuff and to socialize. My grandmother always dressed up when she went to town, in a hat and a presentable dress, not a work dress. Going to town meant ice cream at the soda fountain, greasy hamburgers, Coca-Colas. The two theatres, the Legion and the Princess, were near the square. People always said that they were “going to the show.” As long as I lived there, I never heard anyone call it “the movies.”
The tornado made me recall my days as a soda jerk at the Rexall’s, across from the courthouse. The drugstore was the happening place in the fifties. I worked school nights, five to eight-thirty, for fifty cents an hour, fixing grilled-cheese, chicken-salad, tuna-fish, and pimento-cheese sandwiches. I made milkshakes, banana splits, and sundaes. I didn’t have a custard stand of my own, but the social life at the drugstore—boys, flirting—was almost a compensation. The most interesting customers, though, were the eccentrics and the drugstore cowboys who hung out and shot the breeze. I remember Colonel Millsap, a well-known local figure who always dressed in a military uniform of one sort or another. In the afternoons, his job was to pick up the national-news headlines, which the local radio station printed on a yellow telegram-style sheet of paper, and deliver them to local businesses. At each business, he would stop to describe the dangerous missions he had been on that day. He had just flown in from Berlin. Or Paris.