Highway turnoffs can be confusing

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By W.B. Evans

Most of us have had an experience or two that we really can’t figure out. 

I was reminded that I as watched and read about the tornado in neighboring York County on Nov. 16 that took three lives.

All it takes is something like that to bring forgotten memories to mind.  

Married servicemen often find it tough to secure housing for their families when reporting to a new duty station. 

I was no different.

Contacts with the new base’s housing office had been certainly discouraging to say the least. 

With a few days leave time built up, I figured to check the area out ahead of our not-so distant move to the Gulf Coast.

With my friendly ESSO road map I charted my journey from Lancaster to Biloxi, Miss.

It looked like a pretty straight line from Montgomery to Mobile, Ala., with little or no congestion along the entire route. 

As soon as I made it out of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s stomping grounds, the route was pure country. Also missing were signs to give motorists an inkling of what town or landmark lay ahead.

With one eye on the gas gauge and the other scanning the AM dial on the radio I began to feel pretty uneasy. 

Once in a while, a pulpwood truck would pull out from some side road. 

Bless Pete, at least there was some form of life on this lonely stretch of highway.

I knew where I was, but didn’t know where I was. Even the radio announcer failed to give me some hint of where he was broadcasting from. 

I removed my sunglasses as the sky gradually darkened with stretches of black clouds. 

The fella on the radio said several tornadoes were now being reported, which added to my anxiety. 

Ahead in the distance I saw a small orange glow, which meant the possibility of a gas station or country store. 

I decided to stop and top off the gas tank with some Good Gulf. I figured if the weather I was on the verge of driving through was about to get worse, somebody there could possibly fill me in on what to expect and hopefully tell me where I was.  

Now, where and how I was raised, I was accustomed to folks getting along with each other, regardless of color.

However, times of racial tension were looming throughout this part of America. After all, Montgomery was called by some as the “Cradle of the Confederacy.” This was years before the freedom marches and cafeteria sit-ins of the early 1960s. To be honest, travelers of all races had concerns about stopping anywhere.

As soon as ease off the road and into the drive, a fella pushed the screen door open and motioned for me to come inside. From the look on his face, I didn’t have very long. The sky was dark and menacing, so I didn’t waste any time. 

As I hurriedly walked through the front door, I was I was alarmed by the number of black folks gathered there. 

I was quickly put at ease when I heard the sound of a bottle opening and somebody handed me an cold Coca Cola. I picked up a pack of peanut butter crackers and found myself right at home.

The man who met me at the door ran the place. He shook my hand, explaining that he was a preacher. 

“Everybody gathers here when a bad storm heads this way,” the preacher said. I guess folks felt a feeling of security in numbers. After all, a preacher’s place of business would surely provide shelter form the storm.

The preacher told me I was welcome to stay. 

The sky was getting darker and I decided not to stay around. 

I filled up the gas tank and got on down the road to Mobile. 

The radio announcer said a tornado had touched down someplace, but the details were sketchy. I had no idea where I was. My only thoughts were of trying to outrun the dark clouds overhead.

And that’s just what I did. As fathers south I traveled south, the clearer the skies got. 

On no time at all, I had forgotten about what I had just driven through. My anxious thoughts turned back to finding living accommodations for my family. Any serviceman will recall some of the housing offered GI’s. 

One time, I was actually shown a former chicken house, but I figured the chickens could keep it. 

After searching the Biloxi/Gulfport area for a couple of days, I found a duplex offered by a man whose son was in the military, too, and we struck a deal. With that concern behind me, I headed out toward Mobile, Montgomery and home. 

I decided to make a pit stop at that same little Gulf gas station to see if any one there remembered me from a few days earlier.

Up ahead, the driveway on the left was there, but something just wasn’t right. There was no station, no gas pump, no nothing. 

I could help but wonder. Did a tornado wipe that place off the face of the earth? Perhaps it was something else, that no one could explain. 

As I climbed back into the car, I convinced myself that somehow I missed the turn-off, but did I? 

You know, I’m just as befuddled now by the whole thing as I was then. 

Some things, you just can’t explain.