This is a true story. On October 4th of 1960, my brother had a pirate party for his sixth birthday. My brilliant, creative and artistic mother had created a virtual pirate ship on the side porch, complete with a mural replicating the bow of the ship, sheets hung for sails, caps and eye patches for all those “bloody mates,” and “cannons” perched on upended crates– ready for attack. Look carefully at the picture and you will see me “manning” the cannon on the right. As I said in an earlier blog, I was delighted when they let me play along. You can see that everyone had entered wholeheartedly into the spirit of the occasion.
Somewhat later, after lots of pirate play and the treasure hunt under the apple tree, I was standing in the kitchen watching with great anticipation as my mother spread icing on the birthday cake. Suddenly, out of nowhere, there was a huge “BOOM” that shook the earth with such force the back door literally blew wide open. I have such a vivid memory of this it’s almost like a movie scene in my mind. We ran outside to see an ominous dark cloud rising in the sky. The boys could not have been more delighted. To them it was all a part of the action, a real life battle!
Not so much with my Mother and Father. It was the era of the Cold War, when they were telling school children to crouch under their desks in the event of nuclear attack. Along with everyone else in America we had the bomb shelter in the basement, waiting for such a moment. The walls were lined with shelves full of Spam, canned peaches and green beans. Since no one in those days seemed to know just how long you’d have to stay in the shelter, or what the world would be like on the outside after the “event,” you can imagine what must have been going through my parents’ minds. My father says that it wasn’t his life that flashed before his eyes, but visions of being stuck in an 8 x 10 foot corner of the basement with a dozen six year old pirates….indefinitely.
The uncertainty didn’t last long, however. Within minutes of the explosion, the phone started ringing as word got around that Tennessee Eastman Company, the large chemical plant that was the economic life blood of our community, had experienced an explosion. My father was a physician and was called to the emergency room, along with every other doctor in town, to treat the injured that were pouring in. My mother was left alone with all the pirates, myself and my baby brother. But soon after, other parents began arriving to collect their children and retreat to their own bomb shelters, if that proved to be necessary. At that time people still weren’t completely sure what had happened. As it turned out, some two hundred people were injured, but thirteen lost their lives.
Back home, this is one of those, “What were you doing when….” stories. Although it wasn’t on nearly the global scale, people still talk about it, much as they do about Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy assassination or 9/11. I’d love to hear from any of you readers who were in east Tennessee in 1960, and how you remember this event that is such a part of our regional history. I know for sure there are several mid fifty-ish men out there who must remember one heck of a pirate party on that day.