“Hail, the Spirit of Massey”
Each year, members of the Massey community come together to reunite and talk about old times. It started with alumni from the old school Massey School on 55 (coincidentally) and spread to churches and other places in the area. They bring their photos, memorabilia and stories to the reunion. This year, coordinators like Frances Rowe are asking people to bring whatever they have left from the 1950’s tornadoes to a common place to step back and remember the events that carved lasting memories into survivor’s heads and hearts.
There are few times as a journalist that I quiet my third-person, unbiased voice and write in a way that I feel is personal. There are just some stories that I feel a certain heat or coldness set deep into my heart when I sit down and think about what I’m going to say. I feel it necessary to pretend I’m a person instead of a journalist for just a little while when I tell y’all this story. I’m not from Morgan County and my parents weren’t even alive in the 1950’s, so it may seem I have no idea what I’m talking about, but this is more about the human experience than location or age.
This story hits my heart like a cold beverage would a sensitive tooth, as I’m sure the subject does for those in Alabama who lived through a horrible afternoon and night on April 27, 2011. Those moments are frozen in time as my own experience, but North Alabama has been left in shambles by the destructive and awing power of tornadoes for many, many years. Massey, Ala., and Morgan County are no novices when it comes to the terrible fury that twists its way from the heavens to Earth leaving a wound on everything in its way. Massey, probably more than any city, town or community, has felt the deep cuts and gashes, both physically and mentally, left by tornadoes in the 1950’s.
Don Morris has lived in Massey off Cedar Plains Road for most of his life. He and his wife still live on the land where he played as a boy. He still has the same view of the fields and hills where the 1955 tornado wrecked several houses and snuffed out five lives. The original house is gone, but the storm shelter that was erected in the latter part of 1955 is still a mound with a door in the yard. The shelter is not unlike others down the road.
Don and his father woke the morning of April 24, 1955, grabbed their milk buckets and headed out to the barn to tend to their cows. It was almost like any other morning on their farm as they got up, got dressed and headed out to take care of things.
That Sunday, though, was different. Don said his mom begged his father not to go out in the weather.
“Don’t go, that’s a bad cloud,” she pleaded.
“You could hear the thunder, but daddy wasn’t afraid of storms,” said Don. If you live in Alabama for a while, you learn the weeks when winter transitions to “spring” (the brief two weeks when summer doesn’t trigger intense dog days) and when summer fades into football season (fall). It’s just is what it is, and some people from around here don’t even think about it.
“We got nearer to the barn and all at once Daddy said ‘We’re going to wait,’” Don said as he laid out the day’s events like he was seeing them unfold in front of him. He looked into the kitchen as if a movie projector were rolling on the far wall.
“The cloud was back to the northwest, and it was yellow and green – just nasty looking with lightning,” Don said. He said he stood watching the cloud and saw ropes come out of it and hit the ground. He hollered for his dad and they watched as the two tornadoes became one unit. That was around the time it smashed through the home of Mr. and Mrs. Will L. Smith, killing the elderly couple. According to a Hartselle Enquirer article dated April 28, 1954 (misprint in the actual paper), the Smith’s daughter who lived about half a mile away “as a crow flies,” saw chunks of debris from her parents’ house get sucked up into the storm. Their bodies were found near one another in between their home and the storm shelter that was 70 feet away from five-room house.
After sucking up and spitting out the Smith’s home and then the Jarret’s home a mile away, the twister made its way into Massey. The storm came closer to the Morris home, and the family debated their next move.
“Mama came out of the house crying, and Daddy said ‘The only thing we can do is go lay down in that ditch right there.’”
Other families in the Falkville area took cover trying to avoid injury or death the storm was threatening. Families ran and drove from their homes to neighbors’ storm shelters, some successful and others were caught in the tornado’s chase.
The storm materialized and started packing a punch a few miles to the southwest of Massey around Basham on the Morgan County-Lawrence County line. From its inception point, it sliced through about 10 miles of Morgan to “a point just north of the Falkville-Massey Pike.” Its path, while about 19 miles shorter, was almost identical to the 1952 tornado. The F-4 tornado went on to kill three more people in that short distance.
Perhaps the most tragic and haunting deaths were those of the Nail children by Cedar Plains Christian Church. The church, witnesses said, exploded with wood and roofing flying everywhere after it was tackled with the tornado’s brute force and destroyed.
“We jumped in the vehicle and drove on around,” Don continued with his story. “We got nearly to the church, and I looked out in the field and saw a horse standing there with a two-by-four through him. We got out and there was debris everywhere. Everything was gone.”
Don looked at me with an horror stricken sadness he’s carried with him since that day as he told me about the 10-year-old girl and her 3-year-old brother that were found near their rental home and the worship building. The girl, Ida Marie Nails, was a classmate of Don’s at Massey School.
He told me about walking through the mess around the church as his dad went to help a family out of their storm shelter. After seeing the horse standing rigid and in shock as a two-by-four ran it through, Don saw something “an 11-year-old boys shouldn’t have to see.”
“… I found my classmate,” he said as the day’s events unfolded. I just sat there and imagined the 11-year-old me combing through a field and coming up on one of my school friend’s dead bodies. Flashbacks hit me from 2011, but I was around 22 years old that year; twice Don’s age as he stumbled on his friend at 11. He’s right when he says no one at that age should have to see that kind of horror. Don said he started screaming and crying when he saw the girl’s body on the ground after it had been blown from her home by the tornado.
“Daddy said, ‘Boy, go home and get the gun and kill that horse,’” Don told me. He was looking so hard past me at the wall that I could almost feel the scene stretching out behind me the way it was for him. I asked him about Ida’s brother, and Don said his dad was cognoscente enough to send him to the house for the gun so that he didn’t have the opportunity to find Ronnie Lee Nails laying yards away from his sister.
The tornado continued literally ripping and roaring its way through Morgan County. The paper from that week says the property damage totaled about $200,000 back then. In a community like Massey with maybe 300 or so people in its borders now (most likely less in 1955), five lives and that much property damage is more than enough pain to last a lifetime.
The thing is, this is ones man’s story and one newspaper’s articles from one of the 50’s tornadoes. It’s a small glimpse of the kind of hurt and destruction those tornadoes wrought in the area. It may hurt, but at the same time, it may help. During the storm, families ran for safety and shelter with other families. Organizations from the surrounding area and the community all on its own came together to rebuild and stand firm after not one but three tornadoes made their mark on Morgan County’s “Tornado Alley” in the 50’s.
Massey Reunion coordinators want to see your pictures and hear your stories at the reunion on Oct. 1. Honestly, so do I. It took me until this past April 27, five years after my life changed, to find the words to paste to my experience. I’ll never forget details from that day or the weeks following. I was in Auburn, but my friends were in Tuscaloosa, my immediate family in Madison and some of my extended family on Lake Martin. I remember the quiet and the feeling of helplessness most of all. It’s still hard for me to think or talk about today. The goose bumps raised on Don’s arms as he talks about that day around 60 years after he witnessed the ’55 tornadoes don’t really bode well…unless I think about what happened around the entire Southeast when Tuscaloosa got gut punched then beaten down by Mother Nature’s fury. It’s the relationships and good will that I need to tie my memories to instead of the other details that had a tight grip on my dreams for years. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to untether myself from the dark anchor of memories that is April 27, 2011, but talking about that day and hearing people tell me their stories lets me know I’m never alone as I try to deal with those memories.
One of the articles in the April 28 paper is called “Hail, the spirit of Massey.” The title brings tears to my eyes because I can feel ties to Massey and that generation through my tornado experience – we can all know we aren’t alone. I feel it would be an injustice of me not to share the words written about 30 years before my time. You and I may not live in Massey, but if you take a second, I’m sure you can find that place in you that feels a kinship to this Morgan County community. It’s been a while, but it’s part of who Massey is; not just the pain, but the connection, the sense of community and the strength we find in our most human spirits when tragedy strikes and that courage is needed.
HAIL, THE SPIRIT OF MASSEY
“There is no doubt about it, times of trouble invariably bring out the best that is in man. Perhaps that is one reason why Morgan Countians have long deferred to the people of Massey, Lebanon, Andrews Chapel and thereabouts as a group of the finest, most admirable, they have ever known. Certainly, these people have known more than their share of trial and ordeal.
For the second time in three years – the third time within the present generation – this peaceful, home-loving, progressive countryside has been visited with sudden death and destruction of a tornado. For the second time this writer has trailed in the wake of that devastation; each time we are struck with the remarkable spirit of forbearance and resilience which these people have displayed.
What is this remarkable spirit of the people of Massey? Well, it is a combination of attitudes so deeply ingrained into their minds as to become a code of living. It is a code of living which would be well for all America to take notice of.
First, these people have little time to spend in hysterical hand-wringing. Their “dry-eye” outlook certainly does not evidence that they feel misfortune the less; it means that they have learned that priceless ability to roll with the punch.
Second, their sympathy and eagerness to help one another. The lesson taught by the Man of Nazareth, that each man is his brother’s keeper, never had better exemplification. Let all of us take note: When there is any cause – be it Red Cross fund raising, blood giving, or something like community improvement, farm bureau enrollment. Just name any community undertaking, and Massey community always sets a model of performance.
Third, their generosity, each to his neighbor. It is this spirit which leads these people to help him who is most sorely in need, even though it mean temporary neglect of something as important as crop planting.
These people have had help – from nearby rural communities and towns, from the Red Cross, and from others. Much of the help is inspired directly by wonderful spirit of uncomplaining self-help which is part of the Spirit of Massey.
So, while we may sympathize with these fine people, let us also recognize that they have a deeply ingrained spirit of forbearance and implacable resilience which is a priceless gem that is bought at a high price.
Let the prophets of moral and physical decay of our American heritage take witness to the Spirit of Massey. These people of the moral fiber and physical sinew that does not defy the elements, but bends with the, and then comes back again. Hail to the Spirit of Massey!”