Mayfield, Kentucky, before and after the tornado


As a child, I had nightmarish visions of the fiery and brimstone hell that I had heard described by fearful preachers bent on saving souls. When I heard about the New Madrid geological fault, which was located near my home in Mayfield, Ky., I added earthquakes to the mix. I imagined this chasm of fire in the field just across the highway, where the sun was setting. In this field now lies the rubble of the candle factory that was destroyed when the maelstrom of tornadoes swept 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 death toll from the storm in Kentucky as a whole has reached at least seventy-six. I am stunned. When such heartache and heartbreak happens so close to home, it’s personal. Even though I don’t live there now, I am rooted in it. This is the place I know best.

The candle factory didn’t exist when I was young. But when I was about fourteen, in the mid-fifties, a motel popped up at the corner of our road and highway junction. It was such an exotic place that it replaced my fear of burning sulfur, whatever it was, with dreams of travel and adventure. A girl named Marlene, who was a few years older than me, lived at the motel with her parents, and her father built her a little ice cream stand next door. Living in a motel and having 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 media vans gathered in case there was a dramatic rescue at the candle factory. Corpse dogs were on guard.

When one of my longtime teachers learned that the name of my hometown was Mayfield, he laughed. “It’s absurd,” he said. “It’s too poetic. one may domain. Tra-la-la. He was an English teacher and it all had metaphorical significance to him, I guess. It is ironic that Mayfield is now forever a symbol of disaster.

The tornado traveled over two hundred miles. He hit Mayfield around 9:30 a.m. PM December 10. Electricity and water were cut, vehicles strewn across the landscape. First-light drone footage of the wreckage showed chaotic scenes of twisted metal, trash and broken wood. I couldn’t even identify the remains of buildings in downtown Mayfield. A friend who had served as a diplomat in Afghanistan told me the scenes looked even worse than a war zone.

I live far away now, in the middle of the state, and haven’t been to Mayfield to see the consequences for myself yet. Authorities have discouraged disaster tourism. “They don’t want lookie-loos,” said my sister LaNelle. She lives in Paducah, twenty-six miles north of Mayfield, but she told me she was going to meet our brother Don on the farm. He lives a few miles away and had reported damage to already deteriorated buildings on the property.

When I imagine the trajectory of the tornado, I can’t help but imagine the region as it was when I lived there. The tornado started in Arkansas in the southwest, traveled to the candle factory, and then cruised through US Highway 45, the same route we always took into town. The flour mill where my father and grandfather did all the farming business was less than a mile along the way. The rail line, which once connected New Orleans to Chicago, runs parallel to the freeway. In 1896, a set of quintuplets was born near the mill. The quints were such a phenomenon that every train stopped there for passengers to see. I once wrote a novel inspired by the tragedy of these babies. They were part of my world, of my landscape, of my history.

Then the tornado passed through what we’ve always referred to as the “Airlift,” which ran between what was once the Black Quarter and Dunbar, the old Black School.

The tornado then slammed into the courthouse, knocking down the clock tower and leaving a cylindrical hole in the building and piles of bricks. These bricks were the walls of the courtroom, which had beautiful wooden furniture. When I researched my family history for a dissertation, I flipped through the county clerk’s old books and found accounts of births, marriages, and deaths, along with surprise treats that ignited my imagination.

The county jail, next to the courthouse and partially underground, was also hit. Some of the prisoners were on leave from work at the candle factory.

You know this kind of quaint town, with classic Victorian architecture and a central plaza. You know it from movies and old radio shows or sitcoms, or Thornton Wilder’s play “Our Town”. The city is clean and symmetrical. The streets are on a grid, with the courthouse in the center and the school at the end of a tree-lined boulevard.

At one time, the “court square” as it is called, housed all of the small basic stores on which the community depended. The wallpaper and paint store sold books and school supplies. The jewelry store had a sidewalk clock that was permanently set to mark the time of Abraham Lincoln’s death. There was the Rhodes-Burford furniture store, Lookofsky sporting goods, the Vanity Shop. In the tornado footage, the Hall Hotel is the “big” 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 courtyard.

Farmers came to town on Saturdays to swap stuff and socialize. My grandmother always dressed when she went to town, with a presentable hat and dress, not a work dress. Going to town meant soda fountain ice cream, fatty burgers, Coke. The two theaters, the Legion and the Princess, were near the square. People always said they were “going to the show”. As long as I lived there, I never heard anyone call it “the movies”.

The tornado reminded me of my days as jerk soda at the Rexall’s across from the courthouse. The pharmacy was the place that was going on in the fifties. I worked school evenings from five to eight-thirty, for fifty cents an hour, making sandwiches with grilled cheese, chicken salad, tuna, and chili. I made milkshakes, banana splits, and sundaes. I didn’t have a custard stand of my own, but the social life at the drugstore – the boys, the flirtation – was almost compensation. The most interesting customers, however, were the oddballs and pharmacy cowboys hanging around and pulling the breeze. I remember Colonel Millsap, a well-known local figure who always wore a military uniform of some sort. In the afternoons, his job was to collect 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 company, he stopped to describe the dangerous missions he had accomplished that day. He had just arrived from Berlin. Or Paris.

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