The machine rumbles and sputters as the last bit of clean oil escapes through the hose into the deep fryer at the Catfish House. After placing the handle securely onto the filter machine, I roll it out of the way and walk toward the back door to look outside before checking the dining room. A bizarre warm breeze touches my face while pushing against the metal door. "It doesn't feel like January," I think to myself as I head toward the front of the house to send the remaining servers home for the evening. We all advise one another to stay safe as I lock up the doors and head home myself.
If there is one thing you can depend on in Tennessee, it's that you can't depend on a weather forecast. Everyone is saying things could get sketchy tonight, but if I had a dime each time those rumors bounced around, well, I'd have a lot of dimes. We can have snow on the ground one day, and within twenty-four hours, it's sunny and eighty degrees. If the weatherman calls for snow, not one flake falls to the ground, but we get six inches if the forecast is clear. Go figure. I'm not nervous about the storms, and normally I sleep like a baby during a good rain, so bring it on. The rest will do me good before a busy Friday at the restaurant.
The wind picks up as my head hits the pillow, and several flashes of light beam across the sky through my bedroom window before I plunge into a deep sleep. My last thoughts were that I'd seen this a hundred times, and there would be nothing to worry about tonight. Snug and cozy underneath my covers, I'm unaware of Mother Natures' plan for my small community. Her intentions will change the face of our downtown forever and steal over a hundred years of history while I dream.
Eerie echos of sirens blared beneath the howling winds swirling down streets, around brick buildings, and through the ridges of Clarksville. Trees began to bend while cracking wood sounds encompassed hillsides leading to the river bottoms. Muddy water from the mighty Cumberland rises and falls as it crashes against its banks, leaving behind debris only to seize it once again to sacrifice to the current. Stoplights swing violently over Riverside's empty streets, signaling that more is in store for the early morning. Trash waltzes around barren parking lots up and down Madison Street shooting into the atmosphere before descending, never touching the earth. A hush interrupts the spectacle; bushes are static, and the river rests for only a wink while the whistling wind relaxes. He is here in the stillness.
Serenity soon reveals the ghostly whisper of an approaching locomotive descending from space in all directions. The last train to Clarksville extends as wide as nine football fields and hastens toward its mark at two hundred miles per hour. The earlier performance was a delicate ballet compared to the approaching terror preordained to take hundreds of passengers on their final pilgrimage. Roofs soar into the sky as if an invisible angry giant had nothing better to do before sunrise. Brick buildings crumbled as easily as a temperamental five-year-old could knock over a pile of Lincoln Logs. Objects rip across the ground, piercing, mangling, and disintegrating dreams and achievements. The roar of the phantom engine vibrates darkness itself, leaving behind mounds of rubbish in place of gorgeous architecture.
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Loose rubble falls from broken church walls closing the curtain on the final act of havoc in the twilight. The spirit steam engine dissipates but not without proof of its descent onto five blocks. Like many others in our small city, I'd soon wake up to the news of chaos and devastation. I'd hear how an F-3 struck downtown, and the aftermath looked like photos straight out of World War Two bombings. "We were lucky that tornado hit at 4:15 in the morning," would be the popular notion. People would say, "Had that thing struck later in the day, hundreds could have died." That stillness before the annihilation was something more significant than Mother Nature. Not a single soul boarded the train on January 22nd, 1999, and it had nothing to do with chance. Miracles emerge from silence, and God does his best work before we even see the storm.