May 17, 2014 7:27:31 PM
On a dark and wet Wednesday afternoon my grandson and I were headed to Richard Fleming's to go fishing. As we rode down Watson Road toward Richard's house we passed cows grazing in tornado-ravaged fields.
"Wonder what those cows did when the tornado hit," I said. "Wonder if they fly."
Neither of us had an answer, of course.
On Friday, a friend, a Louisville native, told the story of a retired banker in Louisville whose cows went missing after the April 28 tornado, and then, a week later, they miraculously reappeared. Maybe the banker could answer the question I'd asked Benjamin two days earlier.
That afternoon I set out for Louisville in search of Ronald "Cotton" Stokes. I had an address and a home phone I had tried repeatedly with no luck.
Exiting Highway 25 north of town onto North Columbus Avenue, the effects of the storm are immediately apparent, even after more than three weeks of clean up. The landscape is littered with uprooted and splintered trees, houses that look as though they have been pounded with a huge fist and fields strewn with the crumpled remains of cars and trailers. In one small house ripped open to expose lime green living room walls and a bright red kitchen, a gallon jar half filled with jalapeno slices sat on a kitchen counter unscathed.
Cotton Stokes' sprawling ranch-style brick house sits on the edge of a ravine on the north side of North Columbus. There is a swimming pool, a well-used barn and down the hill behind the house, a 10-acre lake stocked with bass and bream. Stokes' home was spared. About 300 yards away on the other side of the road, the tornado upended a large oak and stripped the tops off the greenhouses of Barbara's Place, a nursery and landscaping business.
An affable man, who for 40 years tended the banking needs of his townspeople, Cotton Stokes (His father gave him the nickname when he was a white-headed child growing up in Nanih Waiya.) took a break from yard work, leaned against one of the dozen mature oaks in his front yard and began to talk.
"I was standing in the door of my house and before I got situated, there it was."
Unable to shut the door, Stokes retreated to the interior of his house.
"I thought it was sucking all the stuff out of my house," he said. "Three minutes and it was gone."
Stokes' front yard was covered in debris.
"It looked like snow, there was so much stuff," Stokes said.
None of it, however, was his. Scattered in the litter were dozens of photographs of people he didn't know.
McCullough Road, about a quarter mile from Stokes, and the east side of North Columbus bore the brunt of the tornado when it touched down north of town.
Among Stokes' first thoughts: "My best buddy's dead."
Finding the roads impassable, he got on his four-wheeler and set out for the log home of Lowell and Mary Frances Wilson. He found the Wilsons standing next to the remains of their destroyed home, remarkably composed and, with the exception of some cuts on Mary Frances' head, unharmed.
Their garage and a cottage house built for Mary Frances' deceased mother were gone. All that remained of the Wilson's fifth-wheel RV was an axle. The storm had sandblasted the top layer of paint off Mary Frances' Nissan Optima, transforming it from gray to black.
Friday afternoon Lowell Wilson was clearing away debris with a backhoe while Mary Frances was icing down bottled water under a cabana tent nearby. The Wilsons have been sleeping and showering at the Stokes' house since the storm.
Mary Frances, a buoyant woman, wearing shorts, T-shirt and sun visor, recounted the details of a story she will be telling the rest of her life.
"We saw it coming," she said. "Lowell said it sounded like a jet engine."
"He said, 'go get in the hallway.' Then it sounded like something was hitting the roof. He had me between his legs. He kept saying, 'God help us.'"
As he felt the walls closing in on them, Lowell Wilson tightened his grip on his wife and uttered what he thought would be his final words: "I love you, and we're gone."
Happily, he was not entirely correct.
Before crushing Lowell and Mary Frances between the walls of their own home, the restless twister moved on.
The Wilsons had a cat, Frisky, who had given birth to five kittens a month earlier. Frisky and four of her brood survived. A neighbor is keeping the cats.
"She runs and jumps to me when I go see her," Mary Frances said.
Before the tornado Frisky moved her kittens from the back porch to a more secluded place near the chimney. Stokes' dog relocated from his normal resting place on the back porch to the back of a pickup truck. And a friend in town said the squirrels on his property abandoned their trees for the relative safety of the ground the morning of the storm.
Before leaving the Wilsons, Mary Frances gave me their mailing address -- the mailbox is intact and still receiving, she said -- and asked me to send her a copy of the paper.
"And if you want to include a gift card from Harvey's, that's OK, too," she said. "That's where we like to eat."
Oh yeah, the matter of Cotton's disappearing cows.
Recently Stokes had bought 10 2-year-old heifers. He was keeping them in a 55-acre field on McCullough Road he has rented from Joanne Agent for 35 years. The storm stripped away the fence, flattened the barn and the cows had vanished.
A week later, nine of the cows showed back up.
"They were walking in a line like turkeys do," Stokes said. "The bull would round them up in a ring and then they would walk around some more."
"I guess they were traumatized," he said, adding that they had each lost about 100 pounds and wouldn't eat.
Stokes said the cows were "scuffed up," that the winds probably rolled them across the pasture.
"A cow is kind of like a cat," he said. "If it had been a human they would have been dead."
Stokes took the cows to Nanih Waiya where he grazes other cows on family land. He said the cows appreciated the change of scenery.
"They started eating the minute they got there," he said.
Birney Imes III is the Editor and Publisher of The Dispatch.
1. Ask Rufus: In 1819 this was Columbus, Alabama LOCAL COLUMNS
2. Roses and thorns 9/25/16 ROSES & THORNS
4. Partial to Home: The bespoke Ms. Swift LOCAL COLUMNS
5. Kathleen Parker: What we will look for Monday night NATIONAL COLUMNS