First published here
It would be a grand outing. Not one of Opal Pratt’s making, of course. She didn’t like to go any further into Vicksburg than the Piggly Wiggly at the eastern edge of town. She lived out in Warren County and was certain she wasn’t meant for the city. Her young friend, Billy Jamison, had persuaded her.
“Miss Opal, I did chores up and down the road last summer and I saved my money for somethin’ special. I know I have enough for lunch and a movie at that new, fancy movie theater, Saenger’s. You have to take me; you just have to. You know Mom and Dad won’t do it. Please, please, Miss Opal.”
Billy generally walked down to her little house every day after school. Things weren’t so good at his home. He worked on her daily for two weeks, so she finally gave in to get some peace. Opal had never married, never had children. Billy was her best friend, and it warmed her heart to see him happy. She just didn’t like to go into Vicksburg, but she would.
It was Saturday, December 5, 1953, the day for their big adventure. The day rose unseasonably warm. She managed her morning chores quickly, listening to the radio for the music that made her smile and sometimes sing along. She heard the announcer say that it was already fifty-two degrees. She shook her head. That was crazy warm, but it wasn’t too odd to have such a spell close to Christmas. She still decided to wear a sweater over her cotton dress. Weather in mid-Mississippi was changeable.
Just about noon, she drove her old Chevy down her rutted lane, onto the two-lane highway and east just a stone’s throw to the Jamison driveway. Billy was standing on the porch, and she could already see that he was about to bust with excitement. His father sat in his usual chair. She parked and got out.
“Good morning, Mr. Jamison.”
He’d always been sullen. She wondered if he ever took Billy fishing or hunting or did anything fun with the boy.
“How’s Miss Mae,” Opal asked politely about Billy’s mother.
“The same. You gonna take good care of my boy today? Not let nothin’ happen?”
“Oh, we’ll be just fine. I promise.”
“C’mon, Miss Opal. We gotta go.” Billy tossed a “see ya” over his shoulder to his father.
Once out of the driveway, he let out a whoop of gleeful anticipation that startled Opal so much that she almost ran off the road.
“Now settle down, Billy. We almost wrecked. I’ll need all my attention today so you can’t be acting like a wild man.”
It wasn’t a long drive into town and Billy was quiet all the way – grinning, but silent. Opal passed the Piggly Wiggly. She’d left behind her comfort zone and her back stiffened. She cautiously reached downtown. Vicksburg wasn’t actually all that big, and she began looking for a parking place. Much to her distress, Billy kept pointing out places that looked too narrow or had cars on both sides. It was nerve-wracking until she drove up the hill on Walnut Street and found several open spots close to St. Paul’s Catholic Church. She parked, pulled on the emergency brake and, unlike anyone else in town, locked all the doors. Billy practically jumped for joy.
It was about three blocks to Woolworth’s where they’d eat at the lunch counter. She’d spent so much time driving around that they were good and hungry so they hurried. Fortunately, most of the walk was downhill. Vicksburg sat on the banks of the great Mississippi River and rose up gentle hills to the east.
Saturday was a big day for country folk to come to town. Business was flourishing in stores such as Farmer’s Tractor Supply and Mississippi Hardware Co. Sidewalks brimmed with early Christmas shoppers taking advantage of the mild temperature. Holiday decorations lined the main streets. Opal almost relaxed as they made their way through the cheerful shoppers.
They seated themselves at Woolworth’s lunch counter. It was much later than she’d thought they’d arrive, so the lunch crowd had thinned and it was easy to get seats. Billy studied the menu and dug coins out of his pocket.
“This is the second time I’ve eaten in a restaurant, but I’ve never paid for myself before,” said Billy.
Opal watched him and made no move to interfere. His forehead wrinkled like an old man’s as he concentrated.
“This is a good way to work on your arithmetic, isn’t it?” she asked him.
Ultimately, he chose a thirty-cent grilled cheese sandwich and a cherry coke for a nickel. Opal ordered the egg salad sandwich and would just drink water. The sandwich was tastier than the egg salad she made at home. Maybe it was the pickles. Billy could barely eat for staring at the other customers: well-dressed men who might have left their offices for a late lunch; old men in bib overalls; pretty ladies herding rambunctious children; teenage boys and girls looking moon-eyed at each other. A guy never saw so many different kinds of people when he lived out in the county.
“Isn’t this somethin’, Miss Opal? This is the best sandwich I ever had, and I guess the best day of my whole life.”
Now she was glad she’d agreed to bring him to town.
Out on the street after lunch, the temperature had reached seventy-two degrees. Groups of lively people enjoyed the warm weather and clustered along the curb. There was a parade of some sort. Opal and Billy found a place where they could see. They were just in time for the marching band and uniformed girls walking ahead of it waving flags. There were other marchers and a couple of flat bed trucks decked out with crepe paper and carrying clapping and singing girls. Billy jumped up and down and waved at everyone. They learned that a Jett High School football player had been seriously injured in a recent game and the parade was to rouse residents to attend a fundraiser for him that night. It began to sprinkle during the parade, but no one cared.
“We need to start walking, Billy. It’s time to get to the movie.”
The rain gained strength as they walked and walked faster. Opal fretted about not bringing rain gear. She ducked her head and grimaced. Billy just laughed. All of life is fun when you’re eight. The rain began pelting them as they approached the theater. She hurried the boy along and glanced over her shoulder as they neared the bank of glass doors. The darkening sky had assumed an eerie tint.
The expansive glass entrance was unlike anything previously seen in Vicksburg. The lobby was large, bright and floored in marble. It gleamed like a palace.
“I feel like we shouldn’t be in here,” whispered Billy. “It’s so fancy.”
“Well, they do want us in here so let’s get our tickets.”
Opal was wet, cranky and anxious to get all the way inside to start drying off. Billy dug out ten cents from his pocket and proudly paid for his ticket. With her own ticket purchased, Opal had Billy ask the whereabouts of the men’s and women’s bathrooms. She sent Billy in with orders to get towels and dry his arms and head. That was the most she could hope for. She did the same in the ladies’ room and considered that the sweater had done her no good.
Back in the lobby, Opal watched Billy study the refreshment stand and lovingly fondle his last nickel.
“Put it back in your pocket,” she said and bought him a candy bar.
They pushed open the doors into the theater. The lights were dim, but Opal could see the massive room and the towering movie screen. The theater was already filling with crowds of children for their Saturday evening movie treat. The noise level was high with children’s happy voices and laughter. Opal made the same seating decision that she did every Sunday at church. She took Billy’s hand and ushered him into the very back row and the two seats closest to the aisle.
“I want to sit closer,” Billy whined.
“This will be fine. We don’t need to be any closer.”
Shortly, the lights faded to a mere glow and the movie screen lighted. The children let up cheers and clapped their hands. There was a newsreel, then coming attractions, then the feature began: Alan Ladd in Botany Bay. Billy slowly pinched off small pieces of his Three Musketeers to make it last through the show.
It wasn’t long before the lights flickered and the movie stuttered. Boys and girls booed and stomped their feet. They cheered when the power returned, but it didn’t last. The lights and movie shut down completely, drowning the large room in the darkest dark Opal had ever seen. She put her arm around Billy and pulled him to her. Groans from disappointed children turned to gasps and finally stone silence as the audience heard the most horrible sound in creation. It was, all at once, a monster locomotive, mountains of thunder, and a volcanic eruption of epic proportions. It was 5:35 p.m. The tornado had arrived.
Opal didn’t know what was going to happen, but, as the roar increased and the sounds of creaking and shaking from the front of the room heightened, she shoved Billy from his chair and pushed him beneath it. She was too big to do the same, but she got on her knees as much in front of Billy as space allowed. The part of her that needed this to be just a nightmare noted that the floor was sticky from spilled soda and squished candy. Much too dirty to be so new, she thought.
“Someone needs to scrub these floors,” she thought.
Then a low light shot into the room as the wall crumbled and the enormous screen fell forward crushing row after row of children and their families. Opal and Billy were out of its reach.
There was screaming and sobbing and kids crying out for their mothers. The sounds broke her heart, but Opal felt Billy shaking. He was the one she had to take care of. It only seemed like an eternity before the maniacal locomotive moved away. Opal waited. She still heard pieces of the building falling. The screams increased, as did the calls for help. Those who were able began running for the exits. Some fell in the melee. A few were gathered up to their feet, but others were trampled and children behind them tripped, sometimes causing the pile of bodies to increase. Opal spotted a break in the mob, grabbed Billy and jumped into the aisle with him. Children ran too fast through the lobby, tripping and falling into the piles of glass from the refreshment stand cases, mirrors and glass doors. Kids were bleeding and hysterical as they poured onto the sidewalk. Opal held Billy close and carefully made their way outside. It took away her breath.
She couldn’t see an intact building anywhere. Structures on the next street over were on fire. The Tractor Supply had exploded. Little of the hardware store remained. Wails of pain and pleas for help snaked out of the rubble. Further down toward the river, fists of smoke punched angrily at the sky. Cotton bales on the docks must also be burning. More glass, twisted cars, bricks, debris formerly inside buildings, and dazed, wounded victims clogged streets and sidewalks. This must be hell, she thought. The sound of Billy’s sobs broke her trance.
“Hold onto me,” she said. “Try not to look at anything but your feet. You don’t need to see this. We’re going to the car and hope it’s there. We’ll get home. I promise.”
The wind still gusted and a softer rain fell. Opal didn’t care anymore about being wet. It was already dark and the streetlights were out. The rain showers came and went unpredictably. She carefully and tediously picked their way up the hill. How could this happen? How could this possibly happen? Everyone knew, had always known, that Vicksburg was immune to serious weather. Tornadoes, they’d been told, couldn’t strike due to the city’s position on the river and against the hills. This time, however, crossing the river intensified the storm and painted a bulls-eye on Vicksburg.
She finally saw St. Paul’s and that it was still standing – at least mostly. Thank God, her car and a few others on the block were untouched except for a few dents from flying debris. She unlocked the passenger door, helped Billy inside and quickly re-locked it as if the storm might open the door and yank Billy into its vortex.
In the dark, the car’s headlights helped her dodge obstructed streets. She heard sirens in all directions. Help was coming for those she couldn’t help. Billy was her responsibility. Opal picked her way toward the highway that would take them home and to safety if the storm hadn’t swept in that direction. She reached over occasionally and patted Billy who cried off and on. The temperature was dropping fast and their wet clothes chilled them to the bone and beyond. She was exhausted, but squinted into the black velvet night to find their way out of this holocaust. She didn’t yet know that five children lay dead in Saenger’s Theater or that thirty-eight were dead throughout the city and two hundred-seventy were injured. It was one of the worst tornadoes the nation had seen. All she knew was that they must get home.
Opal at last pulled onto the highway and whispered a prayer of thanksgiving. They were alive and unharmed and on their way to a place untouched by Satan’s wrath. Unconsciously, her foot pressed harder on the gas pedal. She looked at the rearview mirror as much as she watched the gleaming, patent leather strip of road ahead. She hadn’t taken a deep breath in hours.
“Miss Opal, we’re all right now. It’s not chasing us.”