RICHMOND -- Forty years ago, West Stockbridge and Richmond went through a nightmare day in August. A tornado came over the hill near the New York State line, heading sort of east, and then made a slight turn and ripped a swath through the two towns.
Four people were killed and, remarkably, only a small number injured. The loss of property was devastating in the two small towns, including the truck stop on Route 102, still a moonscape kind of place after four decades. And no one in one of these events can ever measure the trauma of the moment and the imprint for life.
As the wind tore down Dean Hill Road in Richmond, it sliced the second floor off Mr. Johnson's house, a modern structure he had designed and created himself. Minutes before, he had gone downstairs or he, too, would likely have been claimed by the wind.
That whirling violence twisted hundreds of trees, snapping many of them off several feet above the ground. Dean Hill Road was criss-crossed with a snaggle of trunks and limbs that blocked the road and challenged big machines and volunteers with chain saws. One experienced tree man commented that he had a bad moment when he realized he was walking along on branches that were as much as 10 feet above the ground, chain saw running.
Memorable is not a big enough word for an experience like this, despite its minor scale in terms of more recent events in Joplin, Mo., and Norman, Okla. For these two towns, the storm's size was quite enough, with the fury building as the cone whipped down the slope of Dean Hill and hit West Stockbridge hard.
You'd think forgetting would be the thing to do when you've been hit by this kind of experience. But humans prefer to remember, and the stories of events like the 1973 tornado go on and on, sometimes embracing hyperbole as the years pass. A Volkswagen was picked up and deposited in a tree, cottage cheese containers from a broken tractor-trailer truck ended up in northwestern Connecticut, those who lived in the storm's path still turn up chunks of wood and plastic in their yards.
But even as people have clear memories of the day's awful happenings, they also remember the instant response of so many people in both towns, all pitching in to clean up the mess, make sure people had places to sleep and things to eat and setting up road blocks to turn away sightseers who wanted to look at the aftermath and would just get in the way.
The lingering thoughts about the enormity of the event inspired the West Stockbridge Historical Society to organize a tornado reunion, held in the auditorium of the West Stockbridge Town Hall on the 40th anniversary of the August 28th storm. The night of remembering attracted an audience of some 60 people, most of them from the two towns.
With society president Bob Salerno keeping track of a host of people who wanted to talk, Joe Roy of the Floor Store put on his video hat and recorded the whole thing so future generations can ooh and aah and shiver as they listen to the tales told. Jill Pixley, who organized the evening, had made sure firefighters, town officers, police and people at the core of the storm were invited.
While it was impossible to avoid the grimness of the tornado's sweep, it was amazing how many times people in the audience could laugh at the stories told. When enough time goes by, it somehow becomes possible to remember the funny parts. A tornado reunion may seem like a strange thing to put on the calendar, but the revival of that dark afternoon, like any good eulogy, united sorrow and laughter.
Ruth Bass was a Richmond selectwoman at the time of the tornado. Her website is www.ruthbass.com.