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My Family’s Hometown Was Destroyed by a Tornado But For Many It Had Already Been Lost

6 minute read
Cole was born and grew up in rural Kentucky. A recent graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he now lives in New York. His first novel, Groundskeeping, will be published by Knopf in March.

I’m reminded of Mayfield, Kentucky every day by a poster that hangs in my living room. I found it in my grandfather’s garage after he died and I had it framed. It depicts a young boy in overalls, his feet bare and dirty, a shaggy dog at his side, both of them looking up in wonder as an airplane passes over a patchwork of farms below. It’s an advertisement for the Kentucky Clay Mining Company in Mayfield, now defunct, but the painting is called “Heir of All the Ages” after a Tennyson poem. I the heir of all the ages, in the foremost files of time…

When I saw, on December 11th, that a tornado had all but destroyed the town of Mayfield, I thought first of my aunt and my cousins who live there, all of whom were okay, thankfully. I grew up a half-hour drive from the town center. My mother was born there, and my grandparents lived and farmed in Graves County. My aunt was a third-grade teacher there for thirty years, and my uncle worked for four decades at Mayfield’s General Tire plant. As I answered the many texts from family members that morning, and scrolled through photos and clips of the aftermath, I began to see that the town was not merely damaged. Like Joplin, Missouri in 2011 and Paradise, California in 2018, it had simply been erased. It was there one night— with its antique stores and barbecue joints, its flaking brick walls with faded advertisements from the 1800s—and in the morning, it was gone.

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The story of Mayfield is the story of many small towns in this country, told again and again in campaign stump speeches and Bruce Springsteen songs, to the point that it sounds now more like myth. Its roots are agrarian, the rich bottomlands of Graves County providing ideal conditions for the burley leaf tobacco my grandfather grew there. But the arrival of General Tire in 1960—like the arrival of the uranium plant in Paducah, a few miles away—brought new jobs and prospects. Suddenly, men and women who’d toiled in humid fields, pulling the suckers from tobacco—who’d grown up reading by the light of kerosene lamps – could trade in their tobacco pegs for hard hats. They could live an easier life, a life with air conditioning and city water and store-bought food. These were good jobs—union jobs with protections and benefits, and I have to imagine that those people, like the boy in my poster, agog at the miracle of flight, must have felt that they were entering a new era—an era of growth and shared abundance, an era of wild sights, the likes of which no one could imagine.

General Tire shut down in 2007. My uncle, who worked there most of his life, died of cancer a few years later, most likely caused by exposure to asbestos at the plant. The 58-acre site where it once stood later came to serve as the city’s landfill. As a writer, I try to avoid obvious symbols. But it’s hard not to see Mayfield as a microcosm. In the aftermath of the tornado, a piece of drone footage went viral. The clip began with a mural—Mayfield, Kentucky: More Than a Memory—then panned over the rubble of the town, which looked less like the site of a tornado than that of a bomb’s detonation. Like the “revitalized” downtown areas of Paducah and Murray and countless other communities in Kentucky, Mayfield had become a purveyor of nostalgia. The stores that had once sold clothing and hardware now sold antiques—milkglass dishes and farming implements, posters like the one on my wall. It had become, in other words, a living symbol for a past that was fast fading.

This transition—from farming, to industry, to a retrospective era of nostalgia—has been captured movingly by Kentucky writers like Wendell Berry and Bobbie Ann Mason. Mason, whose stories from the 80s are as good as any by Raymond Carver, was born and grew up near Mayfield, and her work was a touchstone for me. It’s nothing new to notice, in other words, that these towns are disappearing, and that whole ways of life are disappearing with them. But I guess I thought the structures— the courthouses and pharmacies and antebellum churches—would remain for a while as palimpsests. We would have a long time, I figured, to watch their slow vanishing act.

Midwest Tornadoes
An American flag hangs from a damaged tree Sunday, Dec. 12, 2021, in Mayfield, Ky. Tornadoes and severe weather caused catastrophic damage across several states Friday, killing multiple people.AP Photo-Mark Humphrey

Like a lot of kids my age, growing up in Kentucky in the 90s, I saw no good reason to stay. And I didn’t. Vestiges of the mid-century manufacturing boom remained, but the pay for those jobs had not kept pace with the cost of living. This was true for the workers at the candle factory in Mayfield whose roof collapsed. It was called Mayfield Consumer Products. Positions started at $8 an hour, in a county where per capita income is about $25,000, and almost 18% percent of the population are below the poverty line.

I’m wary of narratives that might be too neat or reductive, or that use the tragedy to advance an argument, however valid that argument might be. It’s true, of course, to say that a once-in-a-century tornado traveling 200 miles in December is yet another harbinger of climate change, that it will foreshadow the destruction of a thousand other Mayfields in the next fifty years. And it would be right to point out the travesty of a third-shift worker, in a plant called “Consumer Products,” working a job that pays $8 an hour, dying two weeks before Christmas in the middle of a pandemic. But what I can’t stop thinking about is that mural and that for so many people in small towns, the world that they once knew has already slipped away. Maybe they think that populist politicians will save it for them, or maybe they know better than to put their faith in hucksters. But they know that that world was real. Up until Friday night, they could reach out and touch what was left of it in Mayfield.

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