published Saturday, May 3rd, 2014

Remembering the tornado Super Outbreak of 1974

Editor's note: A twister that was part of the Super Outbreak of 1974 did heavy damage and claimed two lives in Cleveland, Tenn. This is reporter Ben Benton's personal account of that day.

I was undoubtedly suffering from spring fever restlessness in Mrs. Lee's fourth-grade class waiting for the dismissal bell to ring at Oak Grove Elementary School.

It was April 3, 1974.

I didn't want to wait on school bus #32 to arrive and deliver me to my home on Spring Place Road in Cleveland, Tenn., so as soon as the bell rang, I lit out the back door on foot.

Though I paid it little mind, I remember the sky looked like it was boiling, and as I walked south on the shoulder of Durkee Road the clouds darkened and the winds picked up.

For a 9-year-old, a walk home was a little over 20 minutes and I was undeterred since it wasn't raining, despite threatening skies.

No more than 10 minutes from school, I remember hearing a roaring sound and seeing black clouds churning above the trees to my right. I didn't realize what I was hearing or seeing.

And I didn't realize the black-looking things I saw fluttering overhead in the sky beneath the clouds weren't birds but shingles and insulation and pieces of lives.

I kept walking and watched the black, swirling cloud vanish behind the trees as it bore down on Oak Grove School. The wind roared but died away as I trekked south, short-cutting the way to my house.

I don't remember any rain as I got home, the front door unlocked as doors in Cleveland always were in those days.

Assembling my usual afternoon peanut butter and jelly sandwich and glass of milk, I remember standing in front of the television before our living room picture window trying to figure out why "Gilligan's Island" wouldn't come on.

That's when I saw my father's van skid sideways into the driveway.

Curious, I met him at the back door.

He looked frantic.

He picked me up in a tight embrace and said, "You're here! I just left the school and it's destroyed. I didn't know where you were."

Fearing I was in trouble, I babbled something about not waiting for the bus and deciding to walk while he spun the dial on the phone to make a call.

"There's been a tornado," he told me.

I don't remember if the phones were out, but my father couldn't reach whoever it was he was calling, so he ordered me to the van and we sped away to check on family friends.

Less than a mile from our home, the destruction in the tornado's wake was shocking. I remember arriving at the site of an old mobile home where an older lady whom we knew lived.

My dad was speechless as he looked upon what I thought was a giant pile of trash. He got out for a few minutes and walked around, telling me to stay put. I overheard him tell my mother later that we had stopped at the lady's mobile home and it was gone and that he couldn't find her.

We drove from there to the then-newly developed Dockery Subdivision, where we wove through downed trees and debris to another family's home at the end of a dead-end street.

Their home was just outside the storm path. It was whole and the family and their children -- my friends -- were all OK.

We were ordered to stay in the basement of their home because the black clouds still boiled.

We stayed for a while, then wound our way back out of the subdivision and headed home.

I remember little else after that except the resulting two-week vacation we students got while repairs were made to our school, which wasn't completely destroyed after all. When we returned to class to finish out our school year, I remember stories from the other kids about huddling in the hallway when the tornado hit, flying glass, and one girl's school desk found on the playground with her books still inside it.

I learned later that another local school, Blue Springs Elementary, sustained some damage, too.

I think most of the students at my school were probably in the cafeteria waiting for their buses on the north end of the building when the tornado hit the south end.

I remember being glad I wasn't there.

I remember being thankful that our house wasn't reduced to the rubble the tornadoes left that April in my hometown.

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569.

about Ben Benton...

Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...

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